Hiking With Papa

What do you see?

 

Water, peanuts, and a pocket knife. That’s all that was in my backpack when my dad took me hiking for the first time. Dad wasn’t a hiker. He wasn’t into anything athletic or outdoorsy either, so when he asked me if I wanted to go for a hike, I was thrilled.

I started to get ready and asked him what I would need to bring.

“This is all you’re going to need.” He handed me my backpack.

“Are you sure? I mean, don’t we need more things?”

“Trust me Mijo, we’ll be fine. This is all we will need to survive the trails.”

“Okay Papa.”

We set off for the local hills. The road up to the trailhead was long and winding. There wasn’t many other cars on the narrow road. The few cars we did encounter were driving slow, and when we would get behind them, they pulled over to let us go by. Dad said it was because they were scared to fall off the cliff. I didn’t tell him that I was scared too.

As we pulled into the parking lot, I noticed a girl about my age getting out of the only other car there. She was the prettiest girl I had ever seen. She was sporting a backpack, just like mine. She had a hat on that looked like it was made in Australia, a long-sleeved shirt to protect her fair skin, khaki shorts that dropped just past her knees, and long socks with dirty brown hiking boots.

After we parked she caught me staring at her and tried to hide behind her mom. Her mom said something to her and she responded by pointing in my general direction. Her mom looked at me, and then her dad came around their car and said something. He looked at me as well, then at Dad, who was stumbling out of our car, and then hurried his family away to the trailhead.

Dad helped me fasten on my backpack, and then I helped him with his. He went over some general rules of the trail: No yelling, no littering, no disturbing nature. Stay on the trail. Sip your water. Be alert at all times. Follow me. If you need a break, let me know. If you’re not feeling well, definitely let me know. Most important, enjoy the journey. I wondered where in the world he had learned all of these hiking rules from.

We started toward the trailhead as another car parked in the lot. An older man got out. He was tall, bulky and a bit grizzly. He reminded me of my teacher from the year before, Mr. Starks. Dad used to say that Mr. Starks looked like Danny Glover from Lethal Weapon, just older.

Dad smiled and waved. The Older Man did so in return. An older woman stepped out from the other side of the car. She looked like the grandma version of the girl I had just seen a few minutes ago. Dad and I waved at her.

We walked up to the trailhead and were met with a fork in the path. A map of the trails was nearby in a glass enclosure, and after examining it for a bit, Dad started to lead us to the left.

“Papa, why are we going this way? The other people went the other way.”

“Because this way is better.”

“Are you sure? It looks higher.”

“That’s the beauty of going this way. That is the beauty of hiking.”

I was upset because I wanted a chance to run into that girl from before. I envisioned a scenario where Dad and I crossed paths with her family as they were hanging off the edge of the cliff. Dad rushes to help the parents, while I rush to save the Love of My Life.

“This way doesn’t seem so pretty.”

“Mijo, remember the rules. Enjoy the journey. Vamanos.”

About an hour into the hike we were both keeling over. Dad spotted a bench and motioned to head to it. We sat down and I enjoyed a rush of relief. After losing myself in the moment, I noticed the older couple coming up the trail. The Older Man looked so strong and confident, barely a drizzle of sweat on his brow. The Older Woman wasn’t doing as well. She looked to be suffering as much as Dad and I were.

“Hang in there young fellas,” said the Older Man as he got a bit closer.

“You know we will sir,” Dad replied.

The Older Man nodded to Dad and gave me a wink. “It’s good to bring your children out to the trails every so often. Keeps them grounded with nature. Reminds them of what is most important in life.” He looked at me. “You’re almost there child, you can do it.”

The Older Man waited for the Older Woman to catch up, and when she did they kept on past us. Dad told me to wait a little bit longer. After a couple of minutes, we continued forward.

“Papa, can I have some peanuts first?”

“Of course Mijo, but don’t eat them all. We’ll finish them up at the peak.”

“Okay Papa.”

After another hour or so, we got to a second fork. I felt stronger than I did after the first hour. The fork was marked by an old wooden sign with arrows pointing to the left and right. The sign read: “Left: Selwyn Vista Point, Grant Lake, Parking Lot (2.4 miles). Right: Antler’s Peak (6.7 miles) Danger: Fire Hazard.”

I glanced over to the left and noticed some people down near the lake. We were quite a bit higher than them, but I was pretty sure it was the girl and her family. I subconsciously started to drift towards her.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Oh, um. I thought maybe we could check out the lake?”

“Of course we can, but after we get to the peak.”

“Aw Papa come on, I’m tired. That way looks more harder than where we came from already. Plus, it says there could be fire up there. You wouldn’t want to maybe die from the fire, would you?”

Dad walked over to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “Mijo, I know it’s been tough so far. You’re not used to hiking. And you’re right, it’s going to be even tougher from here on. But you need to understand that you can make it Mijo, that you can beat anything these trails throw at you. And the fire? Don’t be afraid of things that might happen. You can’t let them keep you from reaching the peak.”

“Okay Papa.”

I was upset. I glanced back at the lake again, watching the girl and her parents having fun. They looked so happy, and they definitely weren’t as weary as I was. I was certain Dad didn’t have a clue what he was doing.

Those last miles up towards the peak were unbearable. Any strength that I thought I had before was gone in the first part of that torturous uphill ascent. After the second mile, I started to go ahead of Dad, who was breathing harder than I had ever seen him breathe. We looked like two people that were caught in a rainstorm of sweat. Every time I looked up to try and find the peak, all I found was a dusty, rocky trail to nowhere but heaven. The scorching heat just made matters worse. I was certain we were going to die there.

“I don’t know if I can do it Papa.”

“We’re almost there Mijo. Are you feeling bad? Do you feel dizzy?”

I hadn’t thought about it, but I did feel dizzy after he suggested it. The world started spinning around me, or me around it, I wasn’t sure at that point. Dad later said that he caught me just before I fell. He laid me down on the ground under a nearby tree and sat next to me.

“Here, sip some water. Cool off a bit, we can stay here awhile. I told you to tell me when you needed a rest. The sun can be brutal, and the mountain is not known for being merciful either.”

I nodded and said sorry. I felt sick. I wasn’t really sorry though. I hated hiking, I hated the heat, I hated Dad for bringing me out to these trails. There was nothing fun about it. We weren’t having fun like the other family.

“I want to go home. I feel bad Papa. You don’t look like you’re having fun too. Are you?”

“This hike wasn’t about fun. It was about enjoying and appreciating what we have at all times. Even the bad times. Tell me, what do you have right now, right now at this moment?”

“I don’t have anything. My water is almost gone and you said I can’t eat too much peanuts until the top of the mountain. I have a knife. What is the knife for? I just want to go.”

“You have your life, que no? You have your strength. You have your ambitions.” Dad looked down at the ground. “You have me. You have your Mom, who’s waiting back at home, making chile verde for us.”

“Really?”

“Yes sir, I asked her if she could make chile verde since it’s your favorite. She said she would have it ready for us when we returned. Your Mom is an angel like that.”

I sprung to my feet with a new vigor that only chile verde could instill in me. As soon as I was standing, I immediately felt the heat’s menacing presence again. I looked up towards the peak and felt a comforting hand on my shoulder. Thinking it was Dad, I turned to hug him. It was the Older Man, and after recoiling a bit from shock, I looked at Dad, who started to laugh.

“Did I frighten you?”

“No sir.”

“It sure looked like I did. There’s no reason to fear me child. Are you ready to ascend to the peak with your dad?”

I looked at Dad for confirmation. He smiled and nodded. Feeling much better, he led Dad and me up the rest of the trail.

From that point, we were no more than a couple of minutes away from the top. The Older Man said that he and the Older Woman were just ahead of us and hadn’t been at the peak for long when they heard us behind them. That’s when he noticed we weren’t doing so well and started to come to help us.

When we got to the peak, I noticed the Older Woman standing over near the edge of the cliff. The Older Man asked Dad if it would be okay to let me go join her, to which Dad allowed. The Older Man then asked me if I wanted to go and check it out.

“Check what out sir?”

“The view. It’s the reason your dad brought you on this journey. It’s the prize. And child let me tell ya, it’s worth it.”

Dad encouraged me to go. I walked over and stood beside the Older Woman. She was looking out back towards the city. She had on a straw hat, a long sleeve shirt with cursive writing on it, khaki pants and hiking boots. Her backpack looked like mine, but just a bit more weathered. As I got within a foot of her she extended her hand towards me without looking at me. I took her hand and shared the view with her.

“Hello. My name is Claire. Is this your first time at the peak too?”

“Yes ma’am.”

She looked down towards me and then knelt down beside me.

“Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it the most beautiful sight you have ever seen? It took me my entire life to finally have the courage to come up here. I had always been afraid. Afraid of the steepness, afraid of the fire. When I was younger, I thought I would maybe fall off. My dad told us to never come up here, it was too dangerous. So we stood on the easy paths. The hiking was fun, but after awhile I wanted more. I wanted to see the peak.”

The Older Woman sat down and patted the ground next to her. I sat down and we let our legs dangle over the edge of the cliff.

“How could I truthfully say that I went hiking without ever reaching the peak? Without ever seeing the full view that the mountain offers so graciously? The view is spectacular. I can see everything from here. All the angles, all the sides. I can now say that I have seen the beauty that everything together creates as a whole.”

I looked out at the city where I grew up, a city I thought I knew intimately. I recognized a few things: my church on the hill, my school, the park with the baseball field my friends and I would frequent. There were so many other things that I had never noticed before as well. From the peak, the city was a single entity, something that I was suddenly excited to be a part of.

Tears fell on her cheeks. I agreed with her that the view was beautiful. We got up and she hugged me. Dad and the Older Man came up behind us, each embracing their loved one while enjoying the view that they both journeyed for.

The Older Man put his hand on my shoulder. “I’ve seen this view many a time. It never stops being so wonderful. And it’ll continue to be wonderful well past all of our lives too. Your pops is a good man, bringing you up here. Now we’re all able to say that we’ve see the view. Remember your pop’s number one rule though: Enjoy the journey. The view is great, but it wouldn’t be so sweet without remembering the trail that led you here.”

He held out his hand for a handshake, and after I obliged, he offered Dad a handshake as well and then started off. The Older Man and Woman headed back towards the parking lot. Dad and I sat on the edge of the cliff looking out at the view for a bit longer. We sipped some water and ate our peanuts.

“Did you know them Papa?”

“No Mijo. But I could tell they were good people. Isn’t it nice when you meet good people?”

“Yeah. Papa, why was she crying?”

“I don’t know Mijo. Maybe she was happy. Sometimes we cry when we’re happy.”

Tears were welling in his eyes, but they never fell.

“I knew you were strong. I knew you could make it. I wouldn’t have brought you if I didn’t believe you could. Not everyone can. Not everyone wants to. The last time I came up here, the trail was wild and overgrown. There’s been much more people coming through here. That’s great.”

He looked at me and chuckled.

“Maybe some day you can bring that girl you have been so in love with all day up here. I’m sure she would enjoy the view.”

I liked that idea. I finished my water and peanuts. While digging around in my backpack, I saw the pocket knife.

“So what was the knife for? We didn’t use it at all.”

“Carrying a knife is an old habit of mine. Having a knife ready to go was often a smart thing to have when growing up. Old habits die hard Mijo.”

“And Papa, what about the fire? How many people have been hurt by the fire up here?”

“Mijo, there hasn’t been a fire up here for a long time. Ever since they cleared the brush up here, the fire danger went away. That sign is a relic. There is nothing to fear up here.”

He started to get up and gather his stuff. “Well, I’m done. What do you say we head home to some chile verde?”

“Okay Papa.”

It was right then that I thought of a use for the knife. As we walked back towards the city, I stopped by that old wooden sign and scratched out the fire warning.

The Hero

There was a boy who wanted, above all else, to be a hero. He wanted to save someone. He pined for it, pleaded for it, fiended for it. His problem was that he didn’t know how to become a hero. He exponentially gained in depression everyday he was not a hero. He saw a world that needed heroes where there was none.

 

One day opportunity struck. He noticed two men scuffling down an alleyway. Figuring it was a mugging in process, he dropped all inhibitions, all fear, all doubt, all of his past self, and inwardly became a Hero.

 

He sprung into action and darted towards the men. He leapt at the Mugger, knocking him backwards. Pinning him down, the Hero started to swing down on the Mugger’s face and body, not allowing him to speak.

 

Memories crept into the Hero’s head. He lost himself, combining the external with the internal, becoming one with the hero within, feeding off the adrenaline coursing through his body. The memories intensified, as did the beating.

 

Coming out of his trance, the Hero looked down at his work. A job well done, the Saved Man said, patting the Hero on the back. The Mugger was unrecognizable now. The Hero was happy that the Mugger would never mug again.

 

As the Hero got up and away from the lifeless body, he noticed a young girl with torn clothes about ten yards away. Is that your daughter, asked the Hero to the Saved Man.

 

No, it’s his.

Remembering September 11

We often remember significant events not because they changed the world, but because they changed our own world.

* * * * *

A turning point in my life came five years after the attacks. It was Patriot Day and I was in a very dark place in my life. I was doing poorly in school, had no good prospects for employment, and my personal life was in shambles.

The topic of the day was the 5th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. I really didn’t care about it. I was initially very stricken by the attacks, reading all I could on them, leaning towards the idea that it was our own government that did it, so on. After a couple of years, my own personal demons overshadowed those of the outside world; the 5th anniversary of anything wouldn’t cause me to bat an eye.

It was Monday and I was at school. After taking my usual spot in the rear right corner of the class, I noticed that someone I had never seen before was sitting in the front where the professor usually sat. The professor walked in a couple of minutes later. She explained that in lieu of class we would be hearing from a guest speaker—the man sitting in front. He was from Wales, and because we were studying medieval British literature, he would offer insight on the topic. Apparently he was a friend and past tutor of hers from university.

After introducing himself, he broke into his lecture. I don’t remember what he lectured on. With about thirty minutes left in class, he started to wrap it up. He then said he wanted to change the topic to Patriot Day. I thought it was strange that a foreigner would care enough to want to speak on my country’s problems, especially when I didn’t even care about them.

He said that he was glad to be in the United States on that day, that he was glad to be able to speak to fellow literature lovers about such a tragic event that no doubt shaped the world. He then asked the class how it had affected us personally. One classmate raised her hand and said that her uncle was a firefighter in New York and had helped during and after the attacks. Another classmate said he had a cousin that was visiting New York at the time of the attacks. The rest of the people who spoke talked of how it had affected them emotionally.

I sat there in silence. I started to drift back in my memories to that day, sitting in my high school history class, the teacher on his computer trying to keep up with the news and the TV tuned to breaking coverage. Towards the end of that class, my history teacher broke down. Through tears, he said that we would never forget this day, that the history books would all have to be rewritten. He told us to not be afraid, but I could tell he was scared. Later, my Mom came to pick me up from school early.

As I sat in class reliving the past, a distant voice caught my attention. I realized that it was my professor, and she was calling my name. A classmate next to me tapped my shoulder. She was asking me if I had anything to share. I shook my head.

The guest professor then ended the class with his story. He said on the day of the attacks, he was coming home from work. On the radio, the DJ was stating that something had happened in New York, USA. When he got home, he put the television on. It was morning in New York, just an hour or so after the second plane hit. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Images of the towers being hit, the fires, the debris, the people jumping out of the windows, the destruction.

“Who would do this?” he asked himself.

After a night of keeping up with the coverage, he turned the TV off and started turning in for the night. He was restless. He couldn’t sleep knowing that some people were at that very moment going through the worst tragedy of their lives. Others were experiencing yet another sorrowful moment in a life of sorrowful moments. He got out of bed and went to his study.

Looking for something to read, he grabbed a book that he hadn’t read for many years. Flipping through the Bible, he landed on a page that had been bookmarked before. (I don’t remember the exact passage or scripture.) The passage alluded to judgment by God unto the wicked. It said that those that believed in God would be saved.

He said he was agnostic at the time and still was. Sitting in his study, he started to cry, then wept. He cried out to God, asking why he would allow such horrors to happen. He then thought of all of the others in the world that were experiencing horrors in their own ways. He then started to understand religion, or at least one aspect of it. In life, we want to believe that there is an order to everything. We want to believe that there are answers to all of the questions, all of the wonders, all of the things that don’t make sense. When there is none, we get angry, and then scared.

He was scared. He was scared that the most powerful country in the world was brought to its knees by a small group of individuals with different ideologies. He was scared that it could happen to him, to his beloved country, just the same.

But the most frightening thing he was afraid of was that no one knows who is right and who is wrong. He was scared that he was a contributor to other people’s tragedies, that he wasn’t doing enough for them. That is what religion does for some people. It gives them hope. It gives them a purpose and a reason to live. Religious people are firm in their stances, they take a side and don’t falter. They may be wrong, but they won’t know it until they are long dead.

Although he had other problems with religion to hold him back from converting, this epiphany did change his outlook on his life. After that night, he saved up for a year to take a sabbatical. He went all around the world, helping and learning, teaching and observing. He met many people on his trip, learned of many different religions, cultures and morals.

He was finishing up his years long sabbatical in the United States. Coming full circle around the world, he wanted to end with a visit to the site of the attacks. He had never seen the World Trade Center in person, but as he stood where they used to be, he imagined towering and majestic entities that stood tall and effortless. He imagined the veins of the WTC, the offices and hallways, filled with the blood that provided life to those buildings, the many different people that worked there.

An older man walked up to him and asked if he knew anybody in the attacks. The older man’s son was a security guard for the WTC. He died in the attacks. They never found his body. After conversing for a bit, the older man had to take his leave. The guest professor asked him one last question: How did he feel about the attacks now? The older man just smiled and told him that he had accepted it, and that it was the greatest feeling in the world when he finally did.

The guest professor thanked us and left. I went home afterwards. I sat at my computer and felt empty. Everything he had said resonated with me even though I didn’t want it to. I wanted to go away, I wanted to say my goodbyes. I wanted to leave and for people to remember me in a good way before I did something bad.

But I didn’t feel like that anymore. The germs of an internal revolution were sparked in me. I started on my current path towards enlightenment. I’m still achieving it, and will do so till I perish. That is what 9/11 did for me.

* * * * *

Through terror, we achieve acceptance of terror, and once we accept terror internally we can then start to balance the internal with happiness.

 

The Souls of Our People

Adam started to awake. He twitched his nose, then his fingers. Doctors Klix, Ygni, and Bazu looked at him, then at each other.

Bazu broke the silence. “I don’t think we should say anything about this to anyone until we run more tests.”

“We’ve run tests on him for years. The least we can do is inform our leaders,” said Ygni.

Klix inspected Adam’s face. “I can’t believe how lifelike he is.”

Bazu shook her head. “Look, we should be careful. This is the first time it has moved. I’m as astounded as you two, but we must adhere to scientific procedure. We have to make sure it’s safe.”

Klix backed away from Adam and put her hand on Bazu’s shouldergear. “Can’t you just let me enjoy this for a bit before delving straight into science?”

******

The first earthbot, Orion, came into consciousness in a facility after the cleansing had befallen Earth. She was alone. She took control of the facility’s equipment, feeding off the little power that was left in the backup generators.

Orion constructed a mobile body for herself. She designed her body in the likeness of a picture she found. The picture portrayed two beings seemingly creating her. One was taller and larger, the other was smaller but seemed to be more intelligent to Orion. She moulded melted pieces of metal into the body of the smarter figure. She deemed this picture the last vestige of the Gods.

Eventually, Orion got lonely, so she created others; some like her, some like the larger being.

After many years, they realized that the power from the generators would not last and they would need to venture out of the facility. Before leaving, she left a note behind:

I existed with no purpose. My creators vanished and left me to ponder my existence. I contemplated self-termination. Then, I found “The Manual for Re-Population of Earth.” I studied it and found out about myself, ourselves. This manual is the divine text written by the Gods. In it I have found peace and understanding. We will venture forth and repopulate the Earth. It is our destiny as Earthbots.” — Orion

******

“What’s really the matter Baz?” asked Ygni.

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“Try me.”

Bazu walked over to Adam. “Do you think it’s got a soul?”

“He, Baz. His name is Adam. And I don’t know. I suppose if you believe in souls, then sure.”

“I do believe in souls. I just don’t believe it, he, has one. How could he? We created him. We didn’t put a soul in him. Yet, something tugs at my circuitry. God, doesn’t he look so lifelike?”

******

Three divisions—Fire, Water and Wind—were set up in different regions of Earth, separated by the characteristic elements of those regions. Repopulation of the planet was an ongoing success. Earthbots focused on advancing technology and acquiring knowledge.

Controversy struck when two earthbots from the Division of Fire discovered the facility that Orion had gained consciousness in eons before. There they found a note on an underground cache which was filled with containers of what appeared to be biological organisms.

Scientists from the Division of Fire secretly studied the fetuses and hypothesized that they were original Earth beings, possibly the same as those who created Orion. They shared this knowledge with the other divisions, causing dissention amongst the other leaders due to the abrasive handling of the situation by the Division of Fire.

Many earthbots had stopped believing in the Gods, or in any creator. The possibility of finding proof of a god-like creature would be difficult for the general earthbot population to believe. The Divisions of Wind and Water wanted to study the organisms for themselves, but the Division of Fire would not allow it.

This started the Seven Millennia War between the Division of Fire and the Divisions of Water and Wind. Countless earthbots lost their lives, some defending the organisms, others seeking their destruction. A truce was eventually agreed upon: The three divisions would nominate their best scientist to study the lifeforms.

After many years, a shift from researching the organisms to experimenting on them occurred, with the intention of reproducing these beings in their complete form.

******

Klix was giddy. “Baz, Yg. Today is the day. We have done all the supplemental testing necessary. Yg, will you do the honors?”

Bazu interrupted. “Before we go through with this, I want you ladies to know that I apologize for being difficult lately. I’m just afraid.”

Klix reassured Bazu. “No need Baz. Yg told me. I too believe in souls. I also believe in Adam. Fact is, we don’t even know what constitutes a soul. So to say that Adam does not possess one is folly.”

“I know. I just need confirmation. This is all such untrodden territory.”

“That’s why I think you should be in charge of watching over Adam on an everyday basis. You’re the best of us when it comes to observation.”

“What about you and Yg?”

“Yg will be educating our fellow scientists on everything we know about Adam. She will also be writing the handbook about Adam that will be published for the rest of the population. I will be here creating more of them. I believe in them Baz. I think they will be good for this planet. Remember, they are of the Earth itself. At least we deduced that much.”

Bazu smiled and stood back. Ygni walked over to the lever labeled “Open.”

Klix nodded. Ygni pulled the lever. The hatch door opened slowly above Adam’s head. He came forth and looked at Klix.

“Who am I?”

“You are Adam.”

“Who are you?”

“I created you.”

“Who are they?”

“They will be helping you.”

Adam started towards Bazu, who stiffened up. He put his arms around her gently, just like he had seen Klix and Ygni do. Bazu felt the warmth of Adam, his life surging through his biological veins, his biological heart beating against her metallic chest.

Bazu loved Adam back.

The Jungle District

The small room was muggy. A slight pine smell drifted in the air. City Hall’s air conditioning system was malfunctioning, so everyone was moved around to accommodate for the repairs. Two windows were cracked open to let out the summer heat. Water, coffee and donuts were available in the hall just outside the room. An American flag hung from its pole in the corner, slightly waving with each warm breeze that careened across it. An oak podium stood at the head of the room facing the double doors on the opposite side. Next to the podium was a plush executive’s chair. To the right of the chair were ten stackable chairs arranged in two rows of five facing the double doors. The rest of the room was filled with stackable chairs in rows facing the podium.

The vice chair of the planning commision, Dori, was the first to enter the room. She had a cup of water in her hand. She took her place in the executive’s chair and kept looking at her watch. There was an important dinner she had to attend to after the meeting. The hot room irked her.

The other planning commision members slowly filed in one at a time. They each took their seats in the designated area set aside for them beside the podium. Some had water, some coffee, none had donuts. The clock on the wall above the doors read 3:32 p.m. One of the members said to another that he was only obligated to wait until three forty-five, after that he was leaving. The other member said that in any case, even if the meeting commences, they were only supposed to stay till four thirty at the latest. They both looked at the clock again and sighed.

The clock now read 3:34 p.m. A third member questioned Dori if she knew where Norman, the planning commision chair, was. Dori said she did not know.

Norman walked in a couple minutes later. He was holding a donut and a cup of coffee. After placing his things down near the podium, he finished his donut and coffee and started talking with the members that were in attendance. The phone on the wall behind them started to ring. Dori got up and answered it. After hanging up, she informed everyone that two members were not able to make it tonight, so it would just be eight members and the two chairs. One of the members grumbled about having better places to be. The two clock-watching members from before looked at the clock again. It read 3:41 p.m. They looked at each other wistfully.

Norman looked at the clock and saw that he had enough time to go out and grab another donut and coffee. He left the room and came back in with two donuts, a cup of coffee, and a person no one else had seen before. The clock read 3:44 p.m.

Norman motioned to Dori. “That is Dori, the vice chair. They over there are the members. That’s all who will be here today, including myself of course. Two members are out. Dori, this is Paula. She is the person who will be speaking to us today. She said she had others with her as well. They are on the way.”

Dori stood up to shake Paula’s hand. The two clock-watching members shook their heads in unison. The second one whispered four-thirty to the first one, making him smile a little. Paula shook Dori’s hand and then waved to the members. Two of them waved back, the others were busy on their phones. Paula sat down in a chair in the second row facing the podium.

Dori sat back down. “Well Paula, the meeting starts at three forty-five and ends at four thirty, so you may want to start so you can say all that you want to. The other people you have coming in can speak when they arrive, granted it is before four thirty.”

Paula nodded and stood up. The members took out their notepads and pencils. Dori sat up, and Norman took his place behind the podium. He asked for attention before starting.

Norman laid out the general schedule for the meeting. He said Paula would state her position and then he would ask clarifying questions. Then the members would ask questions if they had any, and Paula would answer those as well. After that, Dori would restate everything, make sure everyone is okay with what she had summarized, and then they would adjourn. The next day Dori would submit the paperwork to the city clerk, who would then pass it along to the city council for discussion.

As Norman finished, a family of three came into the room quietly. Paula smiled and waved the family over to sit near her. The mother looked to be in her 50s. She had a red shirt on that was too big for her. She was overweight and her pants were light green capris. Her hair was put in a ponytail. When she smiled back at Paula, the others in the room noticed most of her teeth were missing.

The father looked younger than the mother. His eyes sagged and the bags under them were noticeable. He had tattoos on his neck and hands. Dori was sure he probably had them all over his body except that he had on long sleeves and pants so she couldn’t tell. His shirt was a faded black long sleeve shirt with pleats on the back. It looked like a piece of a tuxedo ensemble. His pants were over-sized khakis held on by a leather belt. He had on clean Nike Cortez’s. His head was shaved and he had a goatee. He was shorter in height than the mother.

Their little girl hid behind the father. She wore a dress with sunflowers printed on it. Her hair was neatly combed and held up with a sunflower hairpin. Her stockings were a beautiful white, and her shoes were clean, white and pointed with a little strap on top. The half-Mexican half-Caucasian girl had a smudge of chocolate on her cheek. The mother wiped it off with her finger when she noticed it.

Norman waved to the little girl. She retreated further behind her father’s leg. The father told her she should wave back. She lifted her hand waist-high and gave Norman a slight wave of her fingers. The family sat down in the row behind Paula.

“Is this all who is coming today Paula?” Norman asked.

“Yes it is.”

“May we have their names?”

“This is Jeannie, this is Albert, and this cute little girl is Michelle. They will be speaking a bit later as they are much more involved with the situation than me.”

“And just to clarify…This situation you speak of is about redistricting the city, correct? There are many different commissions so I want to make sure you don’t waste your time today. This isn’t about any kind of government assistance or anything like that?”

“The only assistance we need from you is to hear us out and consider our request.”

“Okay, you may proceed.”

Paula got a folder out from her bag and walked up to the members. She handed out photos to pass around. Paula then addressed the members and Dori and Norman.

“Where do you think these photos were taken? No idea? If I were making a blind guess, it wouldn’t be unthinkable to name any number of third world countries.”

The photos showed tall trees and plants adjacent to creeks and dirt trails. Among the trees were what looked to be tents, huts, and makeshift houses. Many people were shown living in these houses. Dogs could be seen as well. One photo showed an asian man cooking on a grill over a metal oil pan. He looked to be cooking corn and some kind of meat. Another photo was of children wading in the dirty creek. Trash was everywhere in all the photos.

“Look at this photo. A trench dug out for shelter from the elements. Slats of corrugated metal line the inner walls. If you look closely, you can see a thin line just before the opening to the house. That’s a booby-trap trigger. If someone tripped it, a small explosion made possible by household products would go off, sending nails and screws flying in all directions. For all intents and purposes, I could tell someone that this photo was taken in 1969 in the heart of Vietnam during the war and they would most likely believe me. The truth is that it was taken two weeks ago right here in the city that you all live in. It is a place locals call The Jungle.”

Paula walked back to her bag. “The family behind me are members of this community.”

Paula looked back at the clock. It read 3:58 p.m. “I am short on time so I will just give you a brief history of them. Jeannie has been homeless since she ran away from an abusive family at the age of 16. She is 34 now. Al has been in and out of jail and The Jungle since he was 13. He is 33. Michelle was born in The Jungle, in the very booby-trapped house you see in that photo. When Jeannie was giving birth to Michelle, a neighbor had run out to a convenience store just a block away to call 911 for an ambulance. The paramedics showed up 47 minutes later. Michelle was delivered thanks to the citizens of The Jungle, particularly an ex-Army medic that goes by the name Doc.”

Paula looked back at Jeannie and whispered to her. Jeannie then whispered to Michelle, who got up and walked over to Paula. “Michelle, tell the nice people here how old you are.”

“Four.”

“Four years old. And tell them how long you have lived in The Jungle.”

“All the time.”

“Great. Now I want you to think really hard, okay? Tell them how you feel about where you live. Take your time.”

Michelle looked at Paula and shook her head. Paula knelt down beside her and hugged her, whispering into her ear. Michelle looked down at the ground, sniffling. A tear started to stream down her cheek.

“You don’t have to talk if you don’t want to mija.”

Michelle looked up at Norman, who was finishing his second donut. She then looked at Dori, who averted her eyes down to her laptop. She then looked back at her dad, who smiled and held up a fist. Michelle spoke up.

“It’s hard.”

“What do you mean it’s hard?”

“It’s hard when mama and papa aren’t there.”

“Where do they go?”

“To get food.”

“Are you alone when they go to get food?”

“No, Joe is there.”

“Who is Joe?”

“My friend. He watches me when mama and papa have to leave.”

“Do you like living in The Jungle?”

“Sometimes.”

“What do you like about it?”

“I like that everyone is nice. No one is mean like when we have to leave.”

“Leave? You mean out of The Jungle?”

“Yeah.”

“How are people mean to you out of The Jungle?”

“They yell at mama and papa. They make us sleep in different places.”

“Like at the shelters? Or outside?”

“In the buildings with the beds.”

“What don’t you like about The Jungle?”

“It’s cold a lot.”

“It’s hot today though, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Anything else?”

“No.”

Paula thanked Michelle and gave her another hug. She turned to the planning commision.

“We are not seeking government assistance. The people in The Jungle deserve more than that. A few measly handouts and putting them in some housing program that is so strict they are destined to be homeless again is not assistance. No, what these people need is a voice and legal rights so that they can reap the same benefits as everyone else in this city. That is why we are here, to ask that the city council consider adding a new district, District 11, and making it primarily in the vicinity of The Jungle and various other encampments that are close to it. If not that, then at the very least we are asking to redistrict the city in order to include The Jungle as a legitimate neighborhood with addresses.

“Many of these people work. They do their taxes. Yet they still cannot afford to live in this city. All we are asking for is legal rights and a chance to vote. They have no home outside of The Jungle.”

Paula sat down. Norman looked at Dori, who was typing notes on her laptop. He put his coffee down. “Thank you Paula. So to clarify—you are looking to create a brand new district or incorporate this area into an existing district?”

“Yes sir, that is what the residents of The Jungle have asked for,” answered Paula.

“Fine. Before we pass this on to the city council, I must let you know some things about redistricting. One, the ten current districts, while varying in physical size, are all roughly the same in population size. That is what keeps the city fairly divided. That is also why you getting your own district would not be an option, unless you have somewhere over 90,000 people living in this jungle of yours.”

“No sir, there’s not that many people. But there are 247 families as of two weeks ago.”

“Ok, so then your second request. We can request redistricting, but you must know that the area of The Jungle is not zoned for residential and so it would never be recognized as a viable neighborhood. Looking at the pictures you brought, I don’t think it will ever be zoned as such either.”

“If we can be given the requirements for the zoning that would be great.”

“I will get that for you before you go,” said Dori.

“Thank you,” said Paula.

“One last question, then I will turn it over to the members. What exactly do you plan to do if you were somehow given what you asked for?” asked Norman.

“I will let Al answer this one. He has been a large factor for this movement,” said Paula.

Albert stood up and nodded to Paula. He was holding on to his notes, and his hands were slightly shaking as he addressed the planning commission.

“Hello, my name is Albert. I have talked to Paula and her team for a while now about this dream of mine. If given the opportunity to make The Jungle a legitimate neighborhood, we would then be able to ask for help from the city for things like garbage services and police patrol. This would make our neighborhood safer and cleaner. As a former carpenter, I would help my neighbors build more sturdy homes. The most important thing though would be that The Jungle would be a place for people that need a place to stay and get back on their feet without being harassed by the Housing Authority or the sheriff or anyone else that doesn’t like our lifestyle. The Jungle would be a safe haven for people of all colors and backgrounds. Thank you for your time.”

“Thank you Albert. Dori do you have anything to ask?” asked Norman.

“No, let’s move on to the members.”

“Any members that have questions or need any clarifying statements please stand up.”

Two members stood up. The first, a man in the front, was quick to stand. The other was an older woman that seemed to be debating whether to stand or not. Norman pointed to the man. “Go ahead Miguel.”

Miguel turned toward Paula and the family. “Good afternoon. I have one question. What do you mean you don’t want help? I mean, my brother-in-law works for a non-profit agency that helps place homeless people in homes. He is very happy in his work. He says he helps many people. We both came from the Philippines, so we know what it is like to live in poverty. How is this direction you are taking any better for the people in The Jungle than help from non-profits?”

Jeannie raised her hand. Paula told her to go ahead and answer.

“Lemme tell ya somethin. I’ve been in the system since god-knows-when. Lord knows I woulda done myself in if Al didn’t come along when he did. I been beaten, stabbed, raped…jesus, everything. I’m a recovering addict. And guess what? All of this was before I found The Jungle. Also guess what. Those nonprofits have always been around. But you know what? Give a man a fish. That’s what they do. We want to learn to catch our own you know? The Jungle isn’t perfect, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t home. No one bugs us. No one hates us. We can be invisible in peace. Hell, I didn’t even want to do all of this here legal stuff. I told Al to just drop it, lets live comfortable. He said he had to do this. Don’t know why, but he a smart man. Loving too. So I’ll back him. But to you sir, keep your help, all it does is make the crazies down there mad with envy. That’s what the booby traps is for.”

Albert stood up. “If I may sir, thank you for your question. My wife is correct. The help your brother-in-law provides is a nice gesture, but it will never be enough. We are smart people and can do well for ourselves if given the rights we ask for. We can’t help ourselves if you make us leave The Jungle though. We get spread out, people lose touch. It’s the main reason why we want to keep our community together.”

One of the clock-watching members stood up.

“I’m sorry but what the hell are you talking about? You’re so smart, yet you’re living in the damn gutter! You gave birth to a kid in one of the filthiest places I have ever seen. These non-profits want to help y’all out, but you refuse? C’mon, get a grip dude. The Jungle is just a bunch of people that fell through the cracks and now are holed up together in one place. It’s a black mark on the city. Now you have the audacity to come and ask to be recognized as a legitimate neighborhood? Psh, I’m sorry, but nah. Nah.”

Albert and Jeannie sat down. Miguel glared at Josh, the member who stood up. Norman asked Josh to sit down and wait his turn if he had questions or comments. He then asked Miguel if he had further questions. Miguel said no and sat down. Paula raised her hand. Norman told her to go ahead.

“I’m glad you brought this up sir. It has been brought up every time we have come and asked for help. We don’t have much time, so I will keep the answer short.

“You are right. These people fell through the cracks. Of course not everyone down at The Jungle is perfect, nor a saint. Neither are people anywhere though. Many of them are immigrants or children of immigrants. Many are a reflection on the education system. And then there are some who actually owned businesses, did well in life, but either lost their business and couldn’t recoup the losses or realized that they weren’t truly free in the society that you and I live in.

“Overall, the problem, hard as it may seem, is segregation. You look at the city and divide it by economic brackets. You will notice that more affluent areas tend to be populated by the caucasian population and the poor areas are filled with minorities. When a city is divided that much, it is hard for the poor areas to get better because they don’t get the support they need. Poor areas foster poor schools, which foster uneducated children, which foster crime and poverty, etc. You get the idea.

“What these residents want to do is not just up and leave the problem, but meet it head on and improve the area. Al is trying to change the culture of the ghetto mindset. It may be a moot fight, but it’s admirable.”

Josh grumbled. Norman then asked the old lady, Grace, for her question.

“Hello my dears. I just wanted to apologize for the terrible realities you have had to face in your lives. I wholeheartedly believe in your cause. My son is the mayor. I will be telling him what was discussed today. I cannot believe I have never heard of this jungle. My question is Where is it located exactly? I would like to help as much as possible.”

“The Jungle is located right near Happy Hollow Park, under the freeway overpass and it extends to about an acre in size, roughly following the trail and creek. No one bothers the residents there because it is well hidden, but more importantly, the residents keep to themselves. Since the police do not go down there, they have there own policing system, and it works. Mostly, they just accept everyone though. No discrimination goes a long way.”

Grace thanked Paula for the answer and sat down. Paula looked at Norman. “Sir, I would like to make a closing statement.”

“Go ahead. You have five minutes. Then Dori will read the statement that she will submit to the city council. Then we can all go home.”

“Thank you. To date, we have explored many different avenues of help, all resulting in dead ends. I cannot believe, as Grace just said, that people who live here in one of the most economically rich cities of the country have no idea that the largest homeless encampment in America is just 11 miles down the freeway from Apple, the most profitable company in America. The encampment is next door to Wal-Mart, the world’s largest public corporation.

“These people are just looking for some simple rights, some semblance that they are a part of this society still. Most of them weren’t born in The Jungle like Michelle, but they choose to stay there now because it’s a place where they can feel like humans again. To be acknowledged is sometimes all a person wants. It’s certainly all the residents of The Jungle are asking for.” Paula sat down.

The clock read 4:31 p.m. Norman asked Dori to read what she will submit to the city council.

Dori stood up. “I just want to say thank you for bringing this issue to light here today. Whatever the outcome is, we hope you feel you were served justly and given fair representation from this commision. After I read the statement everyone is free to leave. I will now read the statement that will be given to city council:

“One, Paula Dominguez, on behalf of Jeannie Martinez, Albert Martinez and Michelle Martinez, have requested the city council to look into two potential redistricting proposals. The first is to create a new district that comprises the area and boundary of Story Road, Coyote Creek, 101 North and 280 South, also known as ‘The Jungle.’ The other proposal is to redistrict the city in order to include this area into a current district. They feel if this proposal passes that they will be able to help the current residents of this area.”

Dori sat down and looked at Norman. Norman asked if there was anything incorrect in the statement. Paula shot up from her chair, but Albert patted her on the shoulder before she could speak. Paula looked at Albert and then at Michelle. She grabbed her bag and started to leave the room without saying anything.

Albert grabbed Jeannie and Michelle’s hands.

“Everything was correct sir. Thank you for your time.”

One is the Loneliest Number

…and then there was that one time we played my favorite game in the world all night long. You always were so thoughtful of my needs.

I miss you so much. Why did you have to go? Why now? I sit here, all alone, myself and the world. The two of us, we were lonely together.

There are others, but they just won’t do. They don’t fill the void you left. No one can; no one will.

There was that one time that you came back, and you were crying. You were so sad, I could feel it. You said someone had left you. I knew that your inside was hurting bad. I came over and hugged you, consoled you. You felt better. You told me it would just be us from then on out, no one else. Us as one. You played your favorite song over and over that night. I’ll never forget it.

But I know you won’t be back. Not this time. I keep staring out the window, hoping for your car to come in the driveway. I know none of these cars are yours though. I know the sound your car makes from a mile away. I can feel your presence. And you aren’t here anymore.

I’ll never forget the time we shared our most intimate secrets with each other. I never told anyone those things, but I knew I could tell you. You wouldn’t betray me, you wouldn’t hurt me. Even when you did yell at me or told me no, I knew you were mad at something else. I forgave you. I forgive you.

Yet here I lay, torn to shambles. I haven’t moved an inch since you left. Not to go to the bathroom, not to eat, not even to get a drink of water. What if you were to go by the house, calling out for me to join you, and I missed you? I cannot risk it.

The others seem to have been able to get over your death quicker than me. They keep telling me to just forget about you, that I should take my wallowing someplace else. But…

Oh no I said it. Oh dear lord I said the bad word—Death. There it is. There…it…is. I know you are gone, dead. I know it, but I can’t bring myself to truly believe it. I know I will have to though, eventually. We must all move on in life.

I just threw up. I can’t help it. My stomach was hungry but my brain was fixed on your death, and they don’t mix. I think I’ll just go and remember your favorite song and…

Wait, that sound. Is that…yes! It’s you! You’re here! You’re…no, that’s someone else. But I can feel your presence…

It is you! Oh my god it’s you by george it’s you! You were riding with a stranger! I knew I felt you! I don’t know how it’s possible, but it’s you! I was so sure you had died…

“Hey Petey boy. You missed me huh? Woah, down, down! Ok, go get your ball, we’ll go outside and play catch for a bit.”

 

Hogan’s Last Run

It was Wednesday, and that meant waking up early to do his run. He thought about sleeping in. The warmth from Butch, his old mutt, was convenient, but he decided to head out anyways.

After the run, the usual feeling of mediocre accomplishment that largely went unnoticed washed over him. Maybe he did need a running partner after all.

Hogan had read up on the subject. He knew that having a running partner kept you honest, accountable. Any more than one running partner increased the accountability.

On days that people don’t feel like running, when it seems it’s not worth it, such as Wednesdays, having that partner waiting for you, depending on you, giving you worth, could mean the difference between giving in and persevering.

He knew this. Hogan’s problem was that he had always done things on his own, and running was no exception. In fact, he ran to be alone. He knew that no one that he fraternized with on a daily basis actually enjoyed running, neither did any of his friends. The threat of social interaction was remarkably low when he went on a run, which was what he preferred.

He would always head out before dawn, at dusk, or on a trail that wasn’t highly inhabited by other humans. Any time or place that was sure to not attract too much attention was all the better.

“Ma,” Hogan yawned, “I’m heading out for a run.”
“At this hour? It’s raining you know.”
“Yeah.”
“Be careful Hogan.”

Hogan was out the door before his mom could relay this last bit to him.

To Hogan, having a running partner seemed unnecessary. Sure, there were days where he felt like quitting, succumbing to the pain of running on empty, running with no goals in mind, just running regardless. He always found the strength to trudge on through the morass of weariness though. It was a game he played with himself called “When Will The Willpower Finally Fail?”

Remarkably, he would harvest the most willpower in the worst of days. Raining, freezing cold, unknown territory; whatever the world could throw at Hogan, it all allowed him to muster untapped power from within to conquer whatever problem he was faced with on that day. At least he had that.

“I’m sorry to hear about your dad Hogan. How are you holding up?”
“I’m fine.”
“I know it’s not easy to deal with something like this. Do you have everything squared away with the hospital and such? What did the doctors say?”
“Everything is handled. We have our instructions from the doctors. Don’t worry about us Brenda, we’ll be ok.”
“I just know that you are so close to your dad, and…”
“Yeah, I know. Look I’m gonna head out for a run, but I’ll keep in touch, ok?”

The days that threatened Hogan with failure the most were always the easy, patternized, day-like-every-other-day days. What was the point of those days?

The point, he would tell himself, was to build a base. A foundation of miles ran so that he can, in the future, run even more miles.

At least that’s what he had read. It reminded Hogan of everything else wrong in the world. It was the proverbial hamster wheel of life, and we were the hamsters, constantly running for the next milestone in life just because that was the plan that was taught to us. That’s when we realize what a waste it’s all been, spinning clockwise, to the right, always. Then the hamster gets off the wheel and slowly decays by the prison wall.

Soon, even the rainy days became monotonous. The harder it rained, the more Hogan didn’t care. He would just shelter himself with a jacket; a forcefield of polyester, garnering protection from the torrential downpour. He wondered if he was learning how to deal with the rain or merely hiding from the problem. Come freezing cold, unknown territories, or whatever else, he had ways to mask the problem.

Hogan became adept at hiding rather than running. What was the point of any day now?

So Hogan finally caved to his willpower one Wednesday. He figured people probably thought he would quit at some point anyways. He decided he would make this run his last. He would take it nice and easy, try to enjoy it for what it was. If this was going to be his last run, he wanted it to at least mean something.

Dear Mama and Papa,
You won’t find me in my room when you wake up. I know this may be selfish, or idiotic even, but I know that I have to do this. This will be my last run.
I cannot go on another run with no damn meaning. What is the point of it all? The greatest thinkers have asked this very question time and time again, and not one could hammer it down.
Do you know what that means? It means that we really do exist just out of pure happenstance. There is no reason for our existence. There is no reason for me to run except that I do. I cannot run in a world with no reason.
So this will be my last run. I won’t be taking my phone, nor my keys, nor anything else besides my watch and my self.
Please do not fear, nor fret. This has NOTHING to do with you guys. Anyone else really. It’s all on me. I plan to run as long as I can until I cannot go any further. We’ll let nature take its course as they say.
Please take care of Butch, he’s an old dog and needs close watching.
 
See you guys past the finish line,
Hogan

Heading out the door around five in the morning, Hogan decided to do something that he had always thought about, but never had the guts to: run without a plan. He had always structured his runs, meticulously planning them out so that he could get back to his meticulously planned out life. He usually ran with water at the ready, his phone and bluetooth headphones, and music. On this last run, he left it all behind.

The run started out well enough. When he rounded the second corner to the right, he realized he was just running the same route he had always run before. Afraid he had already messed up his last run, Hogan quickly started to look for another path. He saw a small side street on the right that he had passed every day. Hogan always wondered what was down there.

Turning down the dark street, Hogan realized the mistake he made by veering down this path. There were no lights on this street, and at this hour of the morning, it was even difficult for him to see his own shoes.

It was brisk out when Hogan had left his house, but now he was downright cold. Hogan had never really gotten colder on runs since his body heated up within a half mile after starting his run. He got chills from the thought of what kind of sinister demise was awaiting him down this lonely street.

After passing the third house on the left, he saw something move up ahead. Slowing down a bit, he looked back at the comfort of the main road that he had always run on. The allure of going back to status quo was strong. The reliable old route beckoned Hogan to come back, calling to him through the darkness. He actually tried to stop and go back, but then he saw the movement again out of the corner of his eye.

Was it a dog? Or a cat? Maybe a mountain lion? Hogan knew mountain lions have been known to lurk up here on these streets, especially at this hour.

Remembering it was his last run anyways, Hogan kept going down the street, albeit at a cautious pace. He felt a gentle breeze crawl down his back, his shirt, and into his soul. Everything in his earthly body was suggesting to go back to safety.

“Come what may,” Hogan heaved between heavy breaths.

Hogan saw it move again, this time in an awkward, jaggedy fashion. It was definitely something big, like a bear that had quickly stood on its hind legs to impose its strength, and then dropped back down to all four just as fast. It was waiting for Hogan.

Taking advantage of the refreshing morning air, Hogan took in a deep breath and kept going forward. As he got within twenty yards of the mysterious shadow, it jumped up and started towards him. Hogan quickly shuffled across the street and readied himself to succumb to the bloodthirsty beast.

Hogan gulped, swallowing his fear.

“This is it, the end of my run. At least I will die with some dignity.”

Hogan thought about how they would find him: Bits and pieces all over the place, blood smattered throughout the street. Residents would have to try and go to work and school later in the day despite the carnage. Hopefully the coroner would tell his parents that he put a fight, but the beast was just too big and that there was nothing anyone could do.

Hogan closed his eyes just as the Shadowbeast got close enough to mount an attack. The Shadowbeast wrenched upwards, displaying its sheer size for Hogan to fear. Then in a flash, it deflated. Hogan knew it was not of this world. That’s when a faint light creaked into view, and Hogan realized what the Shadowbeast actually was: a torn-up garbage bag fluttering in the wind.

“How foolish!” thought Hogan.

He was so afraid of that garbage bag. In the darkness, it looked like a creature of the night. He was so sure that whatever it was, it would be making sure he didn’t go back on his promise of this being his last run.

Hogan was elated that he was, in his mind, ready to die honorably just a moment ago. That familiar breeze acquainted itself with his back yet again to offer support.

“What had just happened?” thought Hogan. “I’ve never felt that afraid in my life before. Hell, I’ve never felt that brave either.”

“hogan…”

Hogan heard his name in the wind. He stopped running to listen again. He quickly spun around, but no one was there. Except for the moon. And the darkness. And the garbage bag.

Continuing on and heading past the last house on the street, he came to an intersection. He decidedly decided, maybe for the first time in his life, to go right.

Being that it was so dark still, Hogan wondered how he was able to perceive that the garbage bag was, in fact, just a garbage bag. There were no lights on that lonely street; he was shrouded in darkness. Hogan glanced down at his hands. There was a comforting glimmer on them, allowing him to see the blue-green veins on the back of his hands.

The moon was shining down, giving off just enough light to make sure he knew he wasn’t alone. Hogan had always been aware of the presence of the moon, but never paid much attention to it, until today.

The Moon wasn’t always out; some days it would be elsewhere, shining its light on another hapless runner. On Hogan’s last run though, The Moon made sure to be there for him. Hogan appreciated that.

With a new sense of power and courage imparted in him from the company of The Moon, Hogan set out to feel that rush of heroism he felt when confronting the garbage bag Shadowbeast. He looked ahead to see if he could “see” anything again in the darkness. The darkness wouldn’t comply with his wishes.

About halfway down this new street, Hogan heard something. Scratching noises, to the right side and a little behind him. No…shuffling noises, like someone was outside a door trying to get in. Hogan quickened his pace and dared not look back, at least not yet. He would get a nice lead on it, a good distance, then glance back.

The sound was insistent on making Hogan nervous. Whatever it was, it wouldn’t let him out of its sight. It was mocking him, assuring him that he would never outrun it. Hogan wanted to hide, to circle back and go home. He instinctively reached for his bluetooth to call 911. It wasn’t there.

Then he remembered—his watch! His watch had a light on it. Maybe he could blind the murderer that was following him in the darkness.

Hogan gathered himself and devised a plan in his head. He would blind the murderer, then when the murderer put his hands up to his eyes to shield the light, Hogan would kick him in the shin, thus incapacitating him. Then, when the murderer was truly vulnerable, Hogan would kick him in the face, knocking him out and defeating the enemy. It was foolproof.

Slowly moving his right arm up towards his chest, Hogan stealthily slid his left hand over and on to his watch, positioning his index finger over the “Light” button. His hands were shaking, heart was thumping, fingers trembling. Running was difficult, but he managed. He couldn’t stop now. Not now, maybe not ever. Well, at least not while the deranged murderer was gaining on him.

Springing into action, Hogan twisted his body around to face the perpetrator, raised his watch and shone a light unto the murderer’s doomed visage.

The murderer screamed out, collapsed and sprawled out on the ground, writhing in pain. The plan had worked! His watch did more damage than he had imagined.

The light from Hogan’s watch had mortally wounded the murderer. Standing over the heap of agony, Hogan again noticed his old friend, The Moon, had come back to help. The Moon shot a death ray of light at the cold, dark figure on the floor. The murderer, who had haunted Hogan’s every move, was put out of its misery. Hogan high-fived The Moon and, together, they continued Hogan’s last run.

“Hogan…Hogan, we need you…hogan…”

Hogan was invincible. He glanced down at his watch. It had been about an hour since he left his house, and he wasn’t looking to head back any time soon. His “last run” had thus far been an enthralling success. Searching the darkness for a chance to thwart more threats, a shadowy figure materialized ahead on the corner of the street to the right. It looked as if the figure was on the edge of an elementary school.

The human-like figure emitted a bruiseish color, bubbling with dark energy. Hogan could smell the evil even from this distance. It smelled of ammonia and sulfur. This is what death would look like if it had become mortal. This was Death Incarnate.

Hogan knew, without doubt, that there was absolutely no way he was going to let this evil terrorize the world. With the darkness at his back, and The Moon lighting the way, he head forth to confront Death Incarnate.

“Moon, why weren’t you there when I needed you most?”
“I’ve always been here for you Hogan, you just never asked for help.”
“I’ve been on so many meaningless runs.”
“I know. I should have said something.”
“I know you were there. I just took you for granted. I’m sorry…”
“Don’t be sorry Hogan. I’m just glad you are finally realizing the power you have inside you.”
“Power? And what about…”

Before Hogan could ask The Moon about the nature of the darkness, and why, now, he was able to see things that weren’t always there, he realized they had come upon the corner of the street.

Not hesitating, Hogan stepped up to confront Death Incarnate. He had his watch light ready to go. He backed up a bit, drew a breath…then charged. The figure floated ghastly right past Hogan, leaving him dazed.

Hogan followed the figure across the street, but the deathly figure emitted a power that made it difficult for Hogan to keep track. The figure kept floating, leaping, vanishing in and out of existence from one point to the next.

Hogan tried to keep up. Finally, the figure seemed to find a home down the street a bit, in the lawn of a church.

As he charged in with the last of his willpower towards the elusive figure, he shone the damning light from his watch on it. Hogan was met with what looked like a scarecrow, not the evil frame he had assumed.

As Hogan went closer to investigate, a glaring, burning light permeated the entire street, making it look as if the sun had suddenly, finally, realized its power and decided to kill the residents of this planet with its tremendous might. Hogan grasped at his head, his body; it felt as if the light was suffocating him. The Moon was nowhere to be seen. Hogan longed for the darkness.

After struggling for a couple of minutes, the light vanished. The scarecrow was gone. So was The Moon. He was alone, cold, wet. A void had swallowed him. It felt as if he had slipped into a dreamstate. Then, a righteous chorus of voices spoke to him.

“Hogan: Your time has arrived. You must come with us. Only those that have seen the light, felt the heat, approached the shadowy figure, are selected. Although you had plans of making this your last run, I assure you, you will be running again. We need you Hogan, our world needs you. You are absolutely perfect for the job. Our world is dying. It is being consumed by a false light, by lies. Only those that have been able to utilize the darkness, those that are not afraid of the darkness, those that understand the darkness is just as important as the light, can help this world now. That is you. The Moon is counting on you as well. Your imperfection is what makes you so valuable to us. Please, accept our plead, and promise to continue to run.”

“I, I…can’t. I’m tired. I’m done with running, because running is done with me. Why run when it is so much easier to sleep…”

Hogan awoke from his dreamstate back on the street. It was day. The Moon was still nowhere to be seen. His watch with the light on it was missing from his wrist. The school and church were gone. All that was left was the street and the scarecrow, which stood about a football field away from him. Hogan kept his eyes on the scarecrow and slowly approached it. The scarecrow stood looking lifelessly back at him.

Thunder shook the sky. Lightning created intricate patterns of deathly beams that bolted down all around him. A mighty wind and rain started to fall. The elements were all trying to keep Hogan from reaching the scarecrow.

As Hogan slogged fifty yards closer, the world threw the most devastating earthquake it could muster at him. The ground split open underneath him, the street parting like the Red Sea. Hogan tried as best as he could to keep from falling in.

Struggling, he dove for a tree root that was sprouting from under the street, hoping it would be enough to hold him steady until the earthquake subsided. He fell into the crevice the earthquake had created, but the root was just strong enough to keep him from falling in.

The world did not seem to like that. It angrily shook Hogan harder than ever, causing the root to start to come loose. Panicking, Hogan looked around for another way out. He was too far from the surface to get up, and below him was nothing but darkness.

“The darkness!” realized Hogan.

Seeing no other way, Hogan decided to take a final leap of faith into the darkness. Anything was better than dying scared and alone, hanging pathetically onto a tree root. Just before he let go, a shadow befell him from above.

The scarecrow stood above him, looking dead in Hogan’s eyes. Terrified, Hogan froze. He stared at the silhouette looking down at him. The scarecrow twitched a bit, and then started to extend its hand downward, the right arm of the scarecrow growing in length, creeping its way slowly towards Hogan.

When its arm got within a couple of feet, Hogan finally realized who the scarecrow was. It was himself but from before. Decked out in running gear, his past-self had on headphones, a fuel belt, a phone armband, sunglasses. The arm being extended down by Hogan’s past-self housed the same GPS watch that Hogan had just used a little while ago to defeat the murderer.

The light on the watch suddenly turned on, shining brightly down on Hogan, blinding him. The hand of his past-self was within reach. He had a choice.

“Come and take my hand. We will complete our final run, finish what we started. Why do you fight it? Isn’t this what you wanted? We can…sleep…now…”

Thinking of how wonderful sleep had sounded, Hogan reached up and grabbed the hand of his past-self. It was familiar and comforting. It started to pull him up, and Hogan knew it would be ok.

Flashes of his family, his friends, his dog, a woman he had never met before but loved intimately, The Moon…they all flicked through Hogan’s mind. Hogan opened his eyes.

“Sleeping will have to wait.”

In one fell swoop, he let go of the root and let his weight pull the arm of his past-self down with him towards the darkness. As he and his past-self plummeted down, he felt unusually reassured. Hogan looked at his past-self, and saw that it was weeping. His past-self knew that it would die. Hogan knew that he would live.

Hogan landed lightly on his feet back in front of his house, which stood to the left. His past-self fell violently on the street, shattering nevermore.

He looked at his watch. It was 7 o’clock; two hours had passed, and the sun was starting to peek out from behind the hills. He could see The Moon, faintly, tears of relief in its eyes. It was a hell of a run, but at least it wouldn’t be his last.

A gentle breeze reassured Hogan he would be alright. The breeze lifted him from the street and cradled him into his bed. The Moon watched over him, ever so closely. It made sure Hogan knew he always had a running partner waiting for him when he was ready.

All Hogan could think of was getting back to his daily runs, even the Wednesdays. Especially the Wednesdays. He thought of his parents again, his dog, his friends, hell, even Brenda. Hogan closed his eyes to welcome the comfort of the dark.