Madam President, Crazy Skunk Lady

When it rains, it pours! I’m excited to report that another one of my short stories was just published in an online literary magazine called Mobius: The Journal of Social Change. I encourage you to check it out on their website here:

This is another story I churned out during the depths of the COVID-19 lockdowns. A fascination with certain black-and-white animals and the ridiculousness of the current political climate inspired me to write it. The story is satirical and fun, but also has a more serious angle about coping with loss. In addition, this is the first time I have written from the perspective of a female protagonist, which was an experience in and of itself for me. And as usual, I’d like to offer my gratitude to everyone who gave me advice on this latest story and helped to make publication possible. I hope you enjoy it!

Full Synopsis: A perfect storm has enveloped the first woman president of the United States, Deborah McMullen. As if losing the election to a brash, populist member of the opposing political party was not bad enough, her secret service SUV crashes off a bridge shortly after her successor’s inauguration. The tragedy kills her husband and leaves her with brain damage that causes a total loss of her ability to smell. Though initially relieved when she is finally discharged home after a long recovery in the hospital, it does not take long before she finds life without her husband and her lifeblood of politics to be lonely and boring. But all this changes when a chance encounter with a friendly skunk gives her a bizarre new idea on how to fill these voids. Acquiring numerous pet skunks provides her with much-needed joy, but former colleagues, the media, and her brutish successor are not so accepting of her strange new hobby. Her choice will come down to whether her newfound love for skunks is worth sacrificing her presidential image and legacy.

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The Skeleton Dentist in Providence

Good news! My latest short story was published on a literary blog called “The Yard: Crime Blog”. I encourage you to check it out on their website here:


It has been over a year since I last published a story, despite being more prolific in my writing and submitting to more publishers than ever before due to the extra time I found on my hands during the COVID-19 lockdowns. After finding success with two stories in 2019 and early 2020, the many rejection letters I’ve received since then have reminded me that a writer’s journey is not always linear. Sometimes it can feel like two steps forward, one step backward. Today, I feel that finding success again has re-taught me the values of persistence, dedication, and patience. And as usual, I’d like to offer my gratitude to everyone who gave me advice on this latest story and helped to make publication possible.

I can’t say there was any single inspiration for my latest story. Rather, it is the result of several influences, including a recent trip to the dentist, the popular lore of the human skeleton, and my desire to write another horror piece. Check it out if you dare!   

Full Synopsis: Eddie, a workaholic New York City businessman, has had a rough ride before ending up at a dentist office in Providence. Emotionally crushed after catching his long-time girlfriend cheating on him, he decides to move to Rhode Island to get away from the torment of their breakup and start a new life. But the stress of the ordeal has led him to grind his teeth to the point of a massive toothache. When he arrives at the dentist office, he finds himself unwittingly divulging everything that had been weighing on him to the sweet, vampire-pale dental hygienist, Suzie. But the sympathy and comfort he initially receives from her instantly morphs into bewilderment and suspicion when he meets Dr. Knochen. The frail, old dentist appears to him in the form of a human skeleton, leaving Eddie frightened and lost for words. There’s something strange and unsettling going on in that dentist office in Providence. Either that, or the trauma of the breakup has caused Eddie to completely lose his mind. 

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Side Effects Include Sleepwalking and Practicing Witchcraft

Synopsis: My latest story is a dark and eerie one, conveniently ready just in time for Halloween! A fascination in psychology, folk tales, history, and the culture of my home state of Minnesota inspired me to write this story. Oh yes, and also a latent interest in black magic and witchcraft!

Ex-felon, Henry Schmidt, is doing his best to get his life back on track since his release from prison. He’s got a new job working in the Northern Minnesota iron mines and has been caring for his only remaining relative, Grandpa Franz. It hasn’t been easy. Grandpa Franz is nearly 100 and his mind is assailed by a combination of Alzheimer’s and a life-long struggle with PTSD, which has persisted since his deployment to the European Front in World War II. All of this changes for the better once Grandpa Franz starts taking a miraculous new experimental medicine that seems to return him to his healthy, stable old self. That is, until one morning Henry finds that Grandpa Franz has set up a mysterious ritualistic altar on the kitchen table in his sleep. Henry looks to his fascination in psychology he developed while reading books in prison to try to explain his grandpa’s strange new behavior, but the local reverend has a different explanation. It’s a bizarre, haunting explanation that will leave Henry skeptical, confounded, and disturbed.

Side Effects Include Sleepwalking and Practicing Witchcraft
By Marshall Geck

            I’ll never forget the first morning we learned that Grandpa Franz’s new medicine was making him practice witchcraft in his sleep.

           It was a cold Saturday morning in January. The forests around our house had accumulated a fresh layer of snow overnight. The sky was that distinct deep blue you see just before dawn during winters up north. For someone who had to clock in at the iron mines every weekday at a time of morning when everything was still coal black, waking up to any light was as good as sleeping in.

            I pulled myself out of bed, put on my robe, and groggily sauntered out the front door into the frigid air to pick up the newspaper. I came back inside to the warmth of the house, shivering, and made my way to the kitchen to prepare my morning coffee.

            What I saw there woke me up more than coffee ever could.

            Grandpa Franz sat at the kitchen table in his blue pajamas. His eyes were closed and his head hung over the back of his chair, mouth gaping open and drool dripping all the way from his chin down to the scar that ran along his throat. His white hair was disheveled, the rosary around his neck dangled by his side, and his loose, liver-spotted skin was frightfully pale.

           I nearly fell over from the shock. Was he—I couldn’t bear the thought—could he possibly be…dead? A bolt of terror shot through me. A moment later, an eruption of snores quickly put this fear to rest.    

           Nearly as alarming as finding him passed out in a chair was the assortment of items on the table in front of him. I turned on the kitchen light and stepped closer to get a better look.

           It was the most bizarre ensemble I had ever seen. In the center were pieces of silverware eerily arranged in the form of a five-pointed star. The star was enclosed by a circle of black pepper sprinkled on the table. Four candles sat at even intervals around the circumference of this circle. Black wicks and runny wax told me they had been burning for some time. Between the candles were bowls, each containing something different: a little pool of water, a small box of matches, some dirt resembling the soil from our house plants, and white feathers I quickly recognized to be from our couch pillows. Capping off the entire scene was a decorative skull my mom had bought me during a trip to Mexico as a child.   

           I was dumbfounded, curious, and concerned all at once. Was Grandpa Franz ill? Had something caused him to go mad and set all this up? Was he trying to communicate something? Or was this arrangement of stuff meaningless?  

           I put my hand on his shoulder and gave him a gentle shake.

            “Grandpa Franz, wake up.”

            He snorted, smacked his lips, and slowly peeled back his eyelids. His pale blue eyes surveyed his surroundings. When nothing registered, they went wide with horror. I knew this face. He was about to have a panic attack. Just as I was about to lean forward and calm him, he suddenly resumed his composure, furrowed his brow, and looked up at me questioningly. How he managed to recover so quickly from an onset that looked inevitable, I had no idea, but I didn’t have time to ponder it.

            “Grandpa Franz, you okay? What are you doing passed out in the kitchen?”

            “What are you talking about Henry?” he said through his croaking morning voice. “What time is it? What’s all this junk you’ve put here on the table?”

            “I didn’t do this! It must have been you!” I was so stunned by his accusation that I couldn’t help laughing.

            “I certainly didn’t! Why would I leave a bunch of crap on the table?”

            “I don’t know, you tell me.”

            “Well, I can’t tell you. I went to sleep in my bed last night and none of this was here then.”

            “Okay, Grandpa Franz. So, if you didn’t do it, and I didn’t do it, I guess someone broke into our house. They took you out of your bed, sat you on the kitchen chair, set up all this stuff, and then just left?”

            “Henry, quit trying to confuse your old grandpa! My mind isn’t completely gone yet.” He rubbed his eyes and sat up in his chair. “Go make some coffee, will you?”   

            I sighed. Although baffled as ever, I knew that pushing him wouldn’t get me anywhere before he had his morning coffee. I gave him the newspaper, walked over to the kitchen counter, and prepared the drip machine.

           While he read the paper and the coffee brewed, I grabbed my little wire-bound notebook and wrote down how I had found him. It was easily the strangest chapter in an otherwise overwhelmingly positive story.

            Just as I was about to bring up the topic again, there was a knock at the front door. I poured his coffee, handed him his mug, and went to answer it.

           Grandpa Franz’s psychiatrist, Sally, stood on our doorstep. Her head was covered by the fuzzy-rimmed hood of her thick purple parka. Frozen white breath emanated from her face.

            “Good morning, Henry! I was helping set up the winter banquet at the church. Instead of going all the way home on the other side of Ely, I thought I’d take a chance that you and Grandpa would be up already. Looks like I was right! I hope you don’t mind that I’m earlier than usual?”  

            “No, it’s fine,” I said. “Come in.”

            “Thanks, darling. Uff da, it’s cold! I tell you, January is the reason Minnesota doesn’t have a population of 10 million!” She stepped into the foyer and slid out of her parka. I hung it up in the coat closet while she let herself into the kitchen.

            “Morning, Franz!” she said as she entered. “I see I caught you and Henry in your jammies. That’s okay, you’ll just be extra comfortable during today’s session.”

            Grandpa Franz looked up from his paper. The consternation that came over his sky-blue eyes signaled that the gears in his head were turning. He studied every wrinkle on her face, every orangish-grey dyed hair on her head, and every patch of purple in her outfit, all in search of something—anything—to remind himself who she was. I was certain he wouldn’t recognize her, until suddenly he put down his mug and exclaimed:

           “Sally! Praise the lord, you look fresh as ever! Is it Saturday already?”

           “Yes, Franz. The time flies, doesn’t it?”

           “You’re telling me. The older I get, the more it all blends together. If I wasn’t nearly a hundred, I might ask if I could go back to work in the mines again, just to mix things up.”

           Sally chuckled and put her hands on her hips like a mother amused by a silly thing her child said. It wasn’t long before her mascara-lined eyes were drawn to the cluster of items on the table. She cocked her head in curiosity.

            “What’s all this stuff?”

            “Grandpa Franz put it there last night,” I said before he could respond.

            “Darn it, Henrik Schmidt. I didn’t! You did!”

            I rolled my eyes. Sally studied each of us with a look that was equal parts confusion and suspicion.

             “You two are silly,” she said. “Well, never mind, let’s have our session on the other side of the table. Henry, would you please pour me a cup of coffee? Milk and a little bit of sugar.”

           I poured her a mug from the carafe and left the two of them to their cognitive behavioral therapy session.

           I sat down in the La-Z Boy chair in the living room with my own coffee mug and my feet on the ottoman. The room was now doused in soft morning light as the sun’s rays found their way across the dense birch and pine forests outside and through our living room windows. Had I not been so confounded by the scene I had just woken up to, it would have made for a pleasant place to kick back for the morning. But instead of relaxing in the morning glow, I dug into my latest psychology book. I read eagerly but aimlessly, hoping I would stumble on some answers to my questions about Grandpa Franz’s strange behavior.  

           I was so immersed in the book that I completely lost track of time and was surprised when Grandpa Franz shuffled into the room and announced his session was over.

            “And she wants to talk to you,” he added. “I’m going for a shower.”

            I closed my book and went back into the kitchen, where Sally’s plump purple figure sat at the end of the table opposite from Grandpa Franz’s new collection. A sudden awkwardness found its way into my step as I realized I was still my robe, despite having had over an hour to change. But her smile assured me she didn’t mind. I pulled up a chair across from her and set my coffee mug and book down on the table.

            “Understanding the Human Mind and Why Some People Lose It,” she read the title aloud. “Another psychology book? Well, I’ve never heard of that one, but I obviously couldn’t approve more of the topic.”  

            “It’s a remnant from prison,” I said. “You either read, or you go insane spending years staring at the walls. For whatever reason, they had more psychology books in the prison library than anything else. Probably because so many…interesting psychological subjects end up there.”

            “I’ll bet. Have you learned anything interesting from this book?”

            “Apparently there’s a growing body of research that shows coffee consumption can lead to a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s. I guess it wasn’t enough to save Grandpa Franz.”

            Sally smiled and sipped her coffee mug, leaving a purple tread of lipstick behind.

            “Yes, if only! Although to his credit, there aren’t many people that make it to their late 90’s without going mentally downhill in some way or another. So, who knows? Maybe his coffee obsession held off the worst of it! And anyway, from what I can see the new medicine seems to be helping a lot. Do you think so, too?”

            “Yeah, it’s incredible. He’s not as forgetful as he used to be. At one point he seemed to think he was meeting Irene for the first time every day she came. Now it’s rare if he doesn’t recognize her.”  

           “Irene is his caretaker during the week while you’re at the mines?”

           “Yeah,” I said, nodding.  “And my conversations with him are much, much better. He can keep his focus. He’s not as confused, and he doesn’t ask me the same question over and over again. It’s almost like having the old Grandpa Franz back.”

           “That’s terrific!” Sally grinned and held her coffee mug with two hands like a giddy little girl. “And have you noticed if it has had any effect on his PTSD?”

           I pursed my lips.

           “Well, obviously I try my hardest not to do anything that would trigger that. But there have been a few things to suggest that it might be helping. I can’t say for sure though.”

           “Okay, at least it’s not getting worse. Are you documenting all of this?”

            “In my notebook, all the time,” I said, pulling my little notebook out from my robe pocket to show her. “It feels good. Like I’m contributing to a new medicine that will eventually help other people with the disease.”

            “That’s true. Documentation is so important for experimental medicine. Keep it up.” She turned her gaze to the jumble of items on the other side of the table and pointed. “So, what’s the deal with all this stuff?”  

            “I have no idea. Grandpa Franz must have put it there in his sleep last night because he insists he didn’t do it.”

           “And you didn’t see him do it?”

           “No. He must have done it in the early morning hours. It wasn’t here when I got home around midnight and went up to bed.”

           “What were you doing that kept you up so late?”

            “Just at a house party thrown by someone I used to know in high school.”

           “You weren’t doing drugs there, were you?” Sally’s voice lowered and she narrowed her eyes into an intense glare, cracking the skin-colored makeup where the crow’s feet formed around her eyes.

            “I’ve been sober since I got out, thanks,” I said testily, annoyed by the sudden challenge.

            “Good. Keep it that way.” She resumed her affable smile as quickly as it left. “So, you’ve been getting out and reconnecting with friends then?”

            I shifted in my seat, irritated by her probing.      “Sort of.”

            “What do you mean, ‘sort of’?”

            “You’re here to treat Grandpa Franz,” I said flatly, squeezing my agitation into my coffee mug. “Not me.”

            “Yes, but your well-being and his are closely linked. And even if I wasn’t here for professional reasons, I’d still be interested, as a friend of the family since you were a baby, to know how you’re doing.”

           I stared at her in silence for a moment. It was a forceful, penetrating stare intended to make her feel awkward and back off. But she simply returned the maneuver with her chocolate-colored eyes locked on mine.

           “Look, you don’t have to open up if you don’t want to, but I have a feeling it hasn’t been easy for you,” she said. “And I also have a feeling that you’re not going to do yourself any favors by keeping it all bottled up inside.”

           I gazed out the window, torn between resenting her intrusiveness and acknowledging that she was probably right. I opened my mouth and spoke, low and robotically: “I guess I had this fantasy that I would just pick up where I left off when I got out, kind of like making up for lost time. But a lot of my old high school friends have either moved to the Twin Cities or hidden themselves away with a family. So, reconnecting isn’t really an option. Anyone else I meet isn’t exactly thrilled to be friends with an ex-felon.”  

            “How does that make you feel?” 

            “Depressed,” I said, my gaze still out the window. “I can be having a great conversation with someone, but as soon as they find out where I spent my 20’s, they’ll suddenly get all nervous and hesitant. It’s as if they think I’m a maniac about to murder them where they stand. I feel like the world will never let me forget what I did, even though I’ve done my time. I’d probably feel even more alone if Grandpa Franz didn’t require so much care. Between him and working in the mines, I have enough distractions.”

            “Sometimes a disease can be a blessing in disguise like that.” She nodded slowly and looked at me with empathetic eyes. “How are you enjoying the mines then?”

           I shrugged. “It’s honest work. They have me driving the taconite to the ore separating plants in those giant dump trucks.”

            “I’ve seen those; they’re as big as a house!”

            “Yeah. Although now that I’ve gotten used to them, all the pickup trucks I see around Ely look so small to me.”

            Sally laughed, which compelled a smirk to my mouth, releasing the tension from the interview.  

           “You’re funny. Well, consider yourself lucky. Not everyone finds a good job straight out of prison. You should be thankful that Grandpa Franz still knows the folks over at the mines and could get you set up there. I’m sure your parents would have been proud to see you following in the family’s footsteps. You look so much like them these days! I like you clean shaven and your hair short like that. It’s much more grown up than the Fidel Castro beard and man bun. And you got rid of your eyebrow piercings too!”

           I nodded slowly, rubbing my hands together under the unsettling weight of her analyzing eyes. I stared vacantly at the blue, red, and black tattoos on my arms swaying back and forth. They reminded me that there were aspects of my former wayward self that wouldn’t be rectified as quickly as my hair and eyebrows.   

            “Well, I won’t embarrass you much longer,” Sally said, sensing she was making me self-conscious. “We can leave it there for today. Thank you for the coffee.”

            She stood up and tipped her mug towards me to show that it was empty. It contained several new lipstick streaks.

            “And just keep an eye on all of this, okay?” she waved her hand over Grandpa Franz’s collection of junk. “Let me know if it happens again.”

            I nodded, stood up, and walked her to the foyer.

           “What are you and Grandpa going to do today?” she asked as she slipped on her parka.

            “I’m not sure.”

            “Why don’t you take him ice fishing? It’s finally clear out, and he used to love a day on the ice. It would be a good way for you two to spend some time together.”

            “Yeah, maybe,” I said, though I felt more like spending the day reading and watching football after a hard week at the mines.

            “Do it, Henry. You have your whole life to watch football, but you won’t have Grandpa Franz forever,” she said, somehow reading my mind.

            “Bye, Sally.” I opened the door, the impatience creeping into my voice as the Arctic air enveloped us.

            “Bye, darling. See you at the banquet tomorrow.” She put her arm around the back of my neck and pulled me in for a soggy purple kiss on the cheek.   

           I closed the door and stood there in my robe, watching her waddle away in the snow through the peep hole. She squeezed into her little purple car, did a three-point turn, and then disappeared behind the trees at the first bend of our unshoveled white driveway.

           I continued gazing outside for a moment. The sun shone bright and seemed to make the entire landscape glisten. The sky was a crisp, clear blue, a welcome change after a miserably overcast week. The pines and birch trees were covered in snow, forming an enticing white wilderness where usually a dark and foreboding forest stood.

            It really was a good day for ice fishing.

            Just as I was about to walk away from the door, a familiar black car came around the bend and rolled up through Sally’s track marks to our house. My jaw tightened, my eyes narrowed, and a bitter liquid rushed into my bloodstream.

            “Shit.”

            I turned around, stomped into the living room, and sat back down on the La-Z Boy chair. I propped my legs on the ottoman and thrust my book into my face.

            The doorbell rang once. I ignored it. The doorbell rang twice. I ignored it.

            “Henry, there’s someone at the door!” Grandpa Franz yelled from the bathroom.

            I said nothing and continued reading my book. The doorbell rang again.

            “Henry! What’s wrong with you? Can’t you hear there’s someone at the door?” Grandpa Franz shuffled into the room, his white hair wet and combed back. I raised the book to completely cover my face.

           “You’re useless,” he said, throwing up his hands in annoyance. “I’m coming!”

           He lumbered toward the foyer and opened the front door. Cold air poured into the house again, making the hair on my neck stand up.

            “Hello, Franz! How are you today? I just finished setting up the winter banquet with the volunteers and thought I’d drop by to remind you about it on my way home.”

            The greeting was not returned. A long pause ensued. Anyone with a healthy brain would have regarded this silence as awkward or impolite, but I knew Grandpa Franz was just struggling to recognize the man at the door. I sure as hell wasn’t going to help him.

           Finally, he responded. “Peace be with you, Father! Please come in, you must be freezing.”

            “And also with you,” the reverend returned the greeting. I heard him step into the house and shut the door. “Indeed, it’s frigid out today! By the way, was that Sally Clemens I saw pulling out of your driveway?”

            “She’s the one,” Grandpa Franz said. “Today was our Saturday treatment. I’m on a new medicine, ya know?”

            “Ah, the Schmidt house is a popular place to be today! I didn’t know you were on a new medicine. I’ve been praying for a cure for you.”

            “Well, this is the closest one to a cure yet!” Grandpa Franz said with enthusiasm. “So, thank you Father!”

            “Praise be to God. Hello, Henrik! Reading in your robe this morning, are we?”

            The book had prevented me from realizing the reverend was now standing right over my chair. I glared at him over the top of it. He was dressed in his penguin suit of all black with a white collar. He took off his fedora. What was left of his greasy grey hair sat perilously combed over his balding head. Thick, black-rimmed eyeglasses tried their best to hide the dark bags under his eyes. He smelled like he had been rolling in a pile of incense.

            “How are you, my son?”

            “Fine.”

            “You’re looking good these days. No more beard and ponytail! A much more respectable look. I’m just dropping by because the winter banquet at the church is tomorrow, and we wouldn’t want Grandpa Franz to forget.”

            “I know, I heard you when you came in.”

            “Did you also know that people stand up and greet each other when a guest arrives?”

           “Never mind him, Father,” Grandpa Franz interjected. “Come into the kitchen and have a cup of coffee.”

            “Thanks, I’d like that.” The reverend shook his head at me in disappointment.   

            I watched as the two of them walked into the kitchen. Grandpa Franz headed for the coffee maker on the counter, but the reverend suddenly stopped cold. The color rushed out of his face and his eyes widened. He stood there motionless and ashen grey, as if he had just seen a ghost.

            “What’s all this on your table?” he whispered.

            “Grandpa Franz put it there,” I yelled into the kitchen before he could answer.

            “Henry’s just being a smart aleck,” Grandpa Franz said as he extended a coffee mug to the reverend. “It’s just a bunch of junk. Sit down, Father.”

            The reverend continued to stare at the table in horror. Grandpa Franz tapped him on the sleeve with the mug, causing him to snap out of it. He looked around frantically for a moment, then closed his eyes, exhaled, and tried to collect himself. He accepted the mug hesitantly and the two of them sat down to the table.

            I scratched my head curiously, intrigued by his reaction, but my interest swiftly dissipated once they started talking about God and the Bible and whatever else old Christians waste their breath on. Praying to a benevolent God to give people comfort and meaning was one thing, but convincing them that this gave them moral superiority over those who didn’t was what I couldn’t stand. I took some defiant pleasure in immersing myself in a book of science in the room adjacent to where wild stories that masqueraded as divine and unquestionable truths filled the air.

            “Thank you, Father,” I heard Grandpa Franz say after about an hour. “I have faith in God’s plan for me. Right now, though, I think his plan for me is a nap.”

            The reverend laughed, and they stood up from the table. They walked back into the living room and shook hands goodbye. Grandpa Franz disappeared into his bedroom, while the reverend started to put on his coat. For whatever reason, he seemed to be taking his time.

            “Henrik, can I have a word with you?” he asked, once Grandpa Franz had shut his bedroom door.

            “I’m kind of busy,” I said with my eyes fixed on my book.

            “Those objects on your kitchen table. You’re sure Franz put them there like that?”

            “He did it in his sleep and doesn’t remember.”

            “You’re sure?” the reverend gasped.

            “Yeah. I’m sure. Why do you care so much?” I said, putting down my book and looking up at him from my chair with a raised eyebrow.

            “Because that’s an altar for satanic witchcraft. Your silverware with the pepper around it is in the form of a pentacle, a classic symbol of devil worship. Those candles and objects in the bowls—the dirt, matches, feathers, and water—they’re meant to invoke the elements of earth, fire, wind, and water. Witches bend these elements to their will to create a transitional space between God’s creation and the underworld.”

           “What the hell are you talking about?” Angered by his wild allegations, I jerked up from my chair and slammed my hands on the armrests.  

           “Please listen,” he begged. “That skull is an offering to the evil one when the witches establish their wicked portal. The devil is attracted to anything that resembles death and human suffering. Once they contact the demon and enter his good graces with this gift, a witch can harness his power for whatever black purposes they desire.”

             “That’s absurd! Do you even know my Grandpa? He’s Ely’s number one God-fearing man. Where on earth would he learn witchcraft?”   

            The reverend frowned, closed his eyes, and muttered a prayer. He then crossed himself and opened his eyes again.

            “You know what happened to him during the war, right?”

            “A lot happened to him during the war.”

            “You know he was captured by the Nazis, right?”

            “And then he escaped.”

            “Is that all you know?”

            “It’s not something I can bring up casually,” I said heatedly, my blood pressure creeping further and further upward. “It’s off limits. I’m not looking to provoke a severe PTSD episode just for a few war stories.”

            “Well, let me tell you that he actually escaped twice. You already know he escaped the Nazi prison. He pretended he was ill in the middle of the night and then used a bed sheet to strangle the guard that came to inspect him. He put on the dead man’s uniform and walked out of the compound as if he were one of the Germans. But it wasn’t long before the alarm system and search lights came on. He made a dash for the forest when he heard gunfire and screaming guards. At one point, he was grazed by a bullet. You know the scar on his neck?”  

           “How would you know any of this?” I asked with narrowed eyes. “He never talks about the war.”

            “What I’m telling you came straight from his mouth during many painful divulgences in confession, my son. Lord only knows what else he experienced that he didn’t tell me.”

            My fists tightened, my face burned, and my eyes went wide with fury. Whether or not the reverend was telling the truth became irrelevant to me. From the moment I was out of the womb until my parents were taken from me, they told me never to bring up the war with Grandpa Franz. My entire life, I had watched him sit through unsuccessful therapy session after unsuccessful therapy session. My choice was to either avoid putting him in situations that reminded him of the war, or spend my energy trying to calm him down from a panic attack.

           And yet, here was the reverend, insisting he was intentionally provoking such traumatic episodes every time my ultra-pious Grandpa was compelled by his Christian teachings to enter the confession booth.

            “So, you’ve been torturing him for years? Is that what you’re saying?” I said through clenched teeth.

            “I’m one of the few people to whom he could confide these awful memories, my son,” he said in a pathetic attempt to feign humility. “And I implore you to listen to what I’m sharing with you now. His wellbeing may very well depend on it, as could yours.”

           I said nothing and stared at him intensely. It was the same forceful, penetrating stare I had given Sally. I wanted to make my meaning clear: if he was telling me lies and stories, he better not proceed any further with his charade. But he continued undeterred.

           “As I was saying, the bullet responsible for that distinctive scar on your Grandpa’s neck thankfully did not strike anything vital, but it still caused him to bleed heavily. A search party of Nazis and barking German Shepherds came after him, so he couldn’t stop and tend to his wound. The forest he had raced into was dense and black, and he feared he’d run into a tree or trip and break his leg at any moment. At some point, the loss of blood was too much, and he collapsed unconscious on the forest floor.”

           I was increasingly aware that this was a remarkable amount of detail to simply make up on the spot.

            “His nightmare was far from over when he came to,” the reverend continued. “He awoke in a damp stone basement, surrounded by tallow candles, flaming torches, dried herbs, pungent incense, rusty chalices, fearsome-looking blades, and bizarre amulets in all shapes and colors. Even more terrifying, he was tied to a circular wooden table with ropes made of horsehair. He told me that he was naked, aching, and dazed, but luckily the wound on his neck had somehow been stitched. Before he had time to get his bearings, a door creaked open and three people came down the stairs into the basement. Their faces were hidden by black veils, their skin covered in runic symbols, and they spoke a language that was neither German nor anything he had ever heard before.”

           I raised my eyebrow at this bizarre turn of his story. Under any normal circumstances I would have declared it ludicrous and ended his fantastical sermon right there, but a smoldering intrigue stopped me. The gnawing possibility that the reverend could have been telling the truth and was revealing more about the war than Grandpa Franz had told me in my entire lifetime had sparked a latent desire to hear more. My breathing slowed and I listened intently as the reverend went on.

            “The mysterious miscreants carried branches, each with a long handle on one end and a bushel of thorns on the other. They held these under a torch, lit them on fire, and then proceeded to beat Franz while shouting black incantations. He screamed out in agony as the flames singed his skin, but this only made them laugh and swing harder.  

           “They were witches, Henrik, performing satanic rituals on him. They kept him tied up in that basement for months. When he wasn’t being tortured with spells, incantations, and bodily inflictions, he was all alone in that damp, dark dungeon; scared, cold, and hungry. They fed him minimally and tended to his wounds, seemingly for no other reason than to prolong his torment.”

            I cringed at the thought of Grandpa Franz being subjected to such horrors. I knew he had been through some awful things, but it was nauseating to hear about them in such gruesome detail.

            “One night, the witches were about to conduct another torture session on him,” the reverend proceeded. “They started by illuminating the room with candles and torches. Suddenly, they paused and went back up the stairs, perhaps only briefly to get more of their satanic instruments. As fate would have it, they had left one of their tallow candles close to Franz’s restraints. At the risk of severe burns, he thrust the ropes restraining one of his wrists over the flame until it caught fire. When he judged it had burned just the right amount, he swept his arm forward and the rope came apart in flaming shreds. Having freed one arm, he used the candle to free his other limbs in the same way.

           “He stumbled over their horrific artifacts until he found a torch. He lit it on fire and then waited by the stairwell. When the unsuspecting witches returned, he swung it directly in their faces. They screamed and fell to the floor, burned and blinded. Wasting no time, he ran up the steps and out of the basement, through a wooden door, and back into the night-time woods. He ran as fast as his malnourished legs would carry him. The only thing that guided him was a desire to get as far away from his captors as possible.”

           I was leaning forward in my chair, hanging on every word. The reverend’s story had become like a movie I became so sucked into that I forgot it could be fiction. It was awe-inspiring to think that Grandpa Franz had the strength and cunning to make such a miraculous escape. But equally, the thought that he may have endured more than I ever could have imagined unsettled every nerve in my body.

            “God must have been looking out for him then,” the reverend went on. “Because Franz just happened to stumble upon a sleeping platoon of American soldiers. The men on night watch nearly shot him out of fear when they saw him emerge from the dark woods; panicked, naked, and covered in bloody injuries. They lowered their guns when they heard him screaming for help in American English and listened in disbelief as he frantically recounted his plight.

           “They took him in, gave him clothes, and fed him. But they believed him to be a madman, so they dropped him off at then next medical camp along their march. He stayed there for some time while they nursed him back to health. They cured his bodily wounds, but there was no curing the wounds of his mind. The darkness had found a home in him and was not prepared to leave. You know all too well how much mental anguish the war has caused him since.”

           The reverend’s demeanor was solemn and resolute as he concluded his tale. He neither stuttered nor diverted his eyes from me. I was silent, overwhelmed, and unsure what to believe anymore. On the one hand, his story could not have been more outrageous and improbable. And yet, even if only a fraction of it was true, it was easily the most thorough explanation for Grandpa Franz’s lifelong struggle with PTSD I had ever heard. So many episodes from his past reared up from my memory and took on new clarity in light of the reverend’s horrific account.

            “He has kept this darkness buried for many years,” the reverend resumed after a long pause. “But now I fear something is taking hold of his unconscious mind, making the things he witnessed bubble up to the surface. I fear something evil was guiding his hand as he set up that alter in his sleep. And if what you say is true, that this is the first time he’s done it, I also fear that something new in his life enabled the evil to make him do it. I believe it’s the new medicine, Henrik. I believe you should take him off it now, before it’s too late.”

           I instantly snapped out of my trance as he said this. My blood pressure returned to its former heights as I saw his true intentions. He had zero interest in enlightening me with my Grandpa’s traumatic past. He had been trying to alter Grandpa Franz’s medical prescription all along, based on nothing but his superstitions. It was enough to remind me that the reverend told crazy stories in order to manipulate people for a living. I felt stupid and insulted to have fallen for them.  

           “Maybe instead of playing doctor with people who have real mental health conditions, you should leave this to science, Father.” I scoffed, feeling as though steam might start rising from my ears.

            The reverend sighed, took off his glasses, and then rubbed his eyes with his thumb and index finger. “Tell me, Henrik, how much do you really know about this new medicine he’s on?”

            “I know it’s the only thing that has managed to stabilize him.”

            “But you know nothing else about it, correct? And since it’s experimental medicine, neither does science. Is that not the case? Of course, what do I know? I’m just a man of God, not a doctor or scientist. But I do know this, Henrik: thinking you know more than you do can be more dangerous than not knowing. As an old friend of your grandpa, and out of an abundance of caution, I urge you to reconsider that medicine.”

            “Don’t you have a Saturday mass or something to prepare for? You really should get going,” I said while waving him away, unwilling to play his game anymore and concerned about what I might do if I became even angrier.

            The reverend looked down at me with disgust. “Fine then. I can only show people the good way. They’re the ones who must choose to save themselves.”

            I stood up and motioned toward the door. He stood there with a pensive face for a moment, before gazing down and walking slowly into the foyer with his hands held behind his back. I followed and opened the front door for him. That familiar blast of cold air scraped every piece of my exposed skin like vaporous nettles. He put on his fedora and stepped out into the snowscape, his eyes still shifting back and forth.

           Suddenly he stopped, pivoted in the snow, and turned to face me.

           “Look, Henrik, I know you’ve never been a fan of the church and we’ve never been best friends, but I want you to know that I’m proud of you. I’m proud of how you’ve turned your life around since you got out. I’m proud of the care you’ve shown Franz in the late hours of his life. You’re a paragon of redemption. Do you know Matthew 7:13? It says the gate that leads to destruction is wide and broad, and there are many who enter, but the gate that leads to life is narrow and straight, and few find their way to it. I believe you once entered the broad gate to destruction but are now embarking on a noble journey toward the gate to life. The last thing you need now is to let this wickedness thwart your new honorable quest.”

           These words sent me unexpectedly spiraling in all directions. Part of me wanted to shut the door in his face for trying to manipulate me with Bible verses, but another part felt too confused to do anything. I wanted to be suspicious and dismissive of his sudden praise, but against my orders, my brain released all the chemicals that make one feel appreciative and humbled. The way he said he was “proud of you” like a father to his son activated a childlike longing to be acknowledged and cared for; a sentiment I had felt from the moment my parents died, but that had been unfulfilled ever since.  He may not have meant a single word he said, but he succeeded in knocking down my guard and confounding me with colliding emotions. I stood there facing him like a mute man for what felt like hours.

           Finally, I sighed and pushed out the words. “See you at the banquet tomorrow, Father.”

           The door squeaked as I gently shut it. Looking out through the peep hole, I saw him close his eyes, cross himself, and then turn around and walk away towards his black car. He got inside, did a three-point turn, and disappeared behind the trees at the first bend of our unshoveled, white driveway.

           I spun around and leaned against the door, alone with my brooding thoughts in the silence of our family home in the woods. My mind raced in circles, grasping for explanations, arriving at none. The enormity of not knowing seemed to widen with each minute that I stood there doing nothing.  

           I pulled my notebook out of my robe pocket, flipped to the next blank page, and wrote. Possible side effect: practicing witchcraft in sleep?

           It pained all my rational sentiments just to write it down. It was as if I was doing psycho-science a disservice simply by giving such a ludicrous idea credibility by putting it to paper. And yet, the reverend had planted the seed of doubt in my mind, and it had sprung up a garden of “what ifs?”

           It was then that I resolved to find the answer. I would watch Grandpa Franz like a hawk. I would record his every move. I would study every book I owned. I would get to the bottom of it, even if I had to quit my job in the mines and get a psychology degree to do it. It was a daunting prospect. Daunting, but oddly exciting.

           But first, I had to take Grandpa Franz out ice fishing. It was too nice of a day not to.

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Crystal and Her Lionfish

I’m excited to share two pieces of good news. The first is that I recently finished a new short story. The second is that this story has been published in an online monthly literary magazine called “Five on the Fifth”! I encourage you to check it out on their website here:

I’m particularly happy about this one not just because it’s my second publication in six months, but also because it comes after several years of trying and failing to get published. Hopefully it’s the beginning of many more publications to come as I continue my journey as a writer and learn more about what makes for a strong, publication-worthy story. I’d also like to offer my gratitude to everyone who gave me advice on this latest story and helped to make publication possible.

The story itself was influenced by a friend of mine in high school who used to love aquariums, but one day bought a lionfish that ended up being extremely aggressive and corrosive to his entire tank. It was additionally influenced by a less-than-stellar relationship I had in my early 20’s, though luckily that one ended nowhere near as tragically as the one in my new story.

Full Synopsis: Life isn’t very exciting for Patrick O’Brien. He’s past his prime, balding, and works a dead-end job at a hardware store in Boston. His only real passion is his aquarium, which he has transformed into a thriving marine ecosystem in the middle of his living room. But everything changes when he meets his spunky new girlfriend, Crystal, and allows her to add a beautiful lionfish to the aquatic artwork. Suddenly, life is more frenzied and eventful than he can handle, and not in a good way. As Crystal gradually dominates his life, so too does the aggressive lionfish take over his aquarium. It isn’t long before the disintegration of both starts to take a toll on him. Crystal and her lionfish will pack a nasty, lasting sting before it’s all over.

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Hawking Spring

Synopsis: I’m glad to be posting my latest short story in a much timelier fashion than my last. This is due in part to the fact that I didn’t have many life events consuming my time outside of work, and also because this story is much shorter than I typically write.

I had been meaning to write a ghost story for a long time now, and had a lot of fun with this first attempt. That said, perhaps more could be on the horizon?

This story follows a brilliant engineering student at the University of Cambridge, Jeremy, whose passion actually doesn’t lie in physics equations at all, but in novels and stories. And one spring, he just happens to be haunted by the ghost of a famous physicist—Stephen Hawking—every night on his way home from the pub. As he struggles to make sense of why is being haunted, he finds no help from his disbelieving course mates, professors, college mentor, or parents. All they see is a gifted student squandering his potential by reading stories all day and droning on like a madman about supernatural scientists. Finding himself isolated and with Hawking’s ghost tormenting him night after night, Jeremy’s health and well-being take a turn for the worst. He realizes something must be done, or else the last story he encounters could be the tragedy of his own life.

UPDATE: Exciting news! This story has been published by a quarterly literary magazine called The Hungry Chimera. As such, I have removed it from my blog for now and encourage you all to view the published version here:

Big thanks to everyone who gave me advice on my story and helped to make this possible! I hope you all enjoy everything the issue of the magazine has to offer.

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A Park to Save the World

Synopsis: First off, I must once again apologize for taking so long to post something new. A grueling job search and a thousand other life events just always seemed to get in the way of my writing.

In any case, the inspiration for this story comes from a bizarre concept I learned about in graduate school called “re-wilding”. I don’t recommend looking into it unless you enjoy esoteric environmental philosophy, but the basic idea is to introduce animals to new environments and let nature take its course, come what may. It’s less about preserving the environment and more about creating – and learning to appreciate – new ones. I also learned that one of the most prominent examples of re-wilding is a nature experiment in Siberia called “Pleistocene Park”. The more I dug into it, the more I felt that the oddball scientist behind the experiment would be a fascinating character to feature in a short story.

Apart from all that academic junk, I’ve always been fascinated with Russia, and thought it would be fun and different to write a short story in a Russian setting. Put everything together, and you have all the threads that make up my latest story!

The story follows a young reporter, Aaron, who writes a column in National Geographic magazine called “Earth Saving Technologies”. However, it’s not exactly riveting work. He usually only needs to pose a few strategic questions to the inventors of the technologies that his column features in order to reveal that most of them are millions of dollars and decades away from commercial use, let alone “saving the world”. Craving inspiration and uninspired by his work, Aaron puts together a proposal for his own full-length issue of the magazine, this time focusing only on radical ideas to save the planet. For his feature article, he sets his sights on an eccentric Russian scientist who has been conducting a nature experiment in Siberia for over three decades. This scientist wants to prove that he can save the world by re-creating the grassland ecosystems of the last ice age. Eager to obtain his content and under pressure to deliver a feature article that is both daring and believable, Aaron travels all the way to Siberia to interview the strange man firsthand. The encounter leaves them both feeling astounded and unsettled.

A Park to Save the World
By Marshall Geck

               The helicopter pilot left me alone in the middle of the Siberian wilderness. It was late in the afternoon and Sergey was nowhere to be found. It was spring in Pleistocene Park at that time, but you’d barely notice. Snow was everywhere and the temperature had fallen well below freezing. We waited for over an hour. I began to fear that Sergey would never come and I’d be left to face the Siberian night alone, without shelter, in the life-threatening cold.
               The pilot stayed with me as long as he could before he had to head back to Yakutsk. I didn’t blame him for being anxious. It was a three-hour journey across a sea of rolling mountains and towering conifers back to the city, a journey across the northern taiga forest one didn’t want to make in total darkness and while battling furious Siberian night winds. He tried multiple times to persuade me that, if I was smart, I would go back with him. But I declined each time. Eventually he accepted my resolve and smiled in approval. There are few things that can amuse a Russian as much as brazenness.
               I couldn’t go back. This was the feature story. Without it, we would have no issue. I would have no issue.
               In five years as the sole reporter for the “Earth Saving Technologies” column of National Geographic, I had never suggested anything so daring as this. Up until now, my first job out of college had been defined by obediently going wherever my editor sent me, interviewing a few eccentric entrepreneurs, and writing highfalutin praise about their little niche inventions. It usually only took a few strategic questions to figure out that the vast majority of them were millions of dollars and decades away from commercial use, let alone “saving the world”. A dogged skepticism and a knack for calculated lines of questioning allowed me to cut through their marketing language and get even the savviest of inventors to admit the true—and often uninspiring—potential of their work.
               To people like my girlfriend, Gina, my ability to shatter the dreams of so-called innovators through a thousand critical questions could make me insufferable to be around. To people like my editor, it is what made me the perfect journalist for the job.
               After countless columns on such inconsequential ventures, I was done thinking small. And I was done writing in just a single column. Over a series of months, I put together an outline for a full-length issue of the magazine. In my issue, there would be no story on the latest limited-use recycling method or the car that had improved its fuel efficiency by an extra few miles. No, in my issue, there would only be space for radical ideas to save the Earth.
               When I finally finished the proposal, I had to summon all my courage just to click the email “send” button to deliver it to my editor. There was little else on my mind while I waited for his reaction. But, to my surprise—and elation—he liked it!
               There was one catch, however. He didn’t want us to feature anything that seemed too fantastical. Our readers, he argued, had to believe that what we featured could be real. “Don’t give me Jurassic Park, Aaron,” he warned.
               I didn’t have that, but I had something pretty close.

               I distracted myself from the creeping fear of freezing to death in the wilderness by taking a few photos of the landscape for my article, which was made challenging by my frozen breath. It fogged up my glasses every time I stuck the camera to my face and formed little bits of ice on my goatee from the condensation. I also had to take my hair out of its usual bun and put on my beanie to conserve heat.
               The landscape was completely devoid of noise. The icy silence seemed overwhelming, perhaps because I was so used to hearing the ever-present noises of subway trains, busses, and police sirens back home in Washington, DC. The helicopter had dropped me off at the edge of Pleistocene Park, so the endless realm of pine, spruce, and larch trees in the forest behind me made the expanse of grassland in front of me all the more striking and out of place. The fields were marked by splotches of white snow and yellowish-green grass. In the distance, I could see a frozen stream along with a herd of large brown grazing animals. All of it was made even more eerie—and exciting—by the fact that I couldn’t be sure whether I was viewing a landscape of the past, or of the future.
               Just then, an explosion of cracking branches and blaring engines erupted from the forest behind me. I jumped and turned to face the uproar in a wide-eyed panic. A huge dark-green machine pummeled through the vegetation toward me. Twenty-foot high trees fell to the ground with eardrum-shattering thuds. The machine bounced right over them and smashed them to a pulp as if they were twigs. It leveled everything in its path before exiting the forest edge, snowmelt and chunks of ground flying from all sides as it slowed and came to a clanking halt on the grassland just feet in front of me.
               My legs went lifeless. I fell to the ground, gasping for air and crab walking away from the whirring machine through the snow. When I had moved away a sufficient distance, I lay back, panting and staring in astonishment at the monster of war in front of me.
               I had never seen a tank in real life before, let alone up so close.
               After a minute, the engines turned off, and everything was silent again. As I slowly recomposed myself, my journalist’s instinct began to kick back in. I straightened my glasses, reached for the camera hanging around my neck, and snapped a picture of the industrial behemoth from my vantage point on the ground. Steam rose from the tank’s tread. On the side of the machine the words “Russian Academy of Sciences” were written in both English and Cyrillic.
               Another moment passed where it felt like nothing— not even the wind—moved, until suddenly, I heard a pop, and a hatch at the top of the tank creaked open. A grey head appeared from the hole, and then a long grey beard. They were followed by a milky-colored jacket, camouflage pants, and black boots. When he had fully emerged, the grizzled old man stood on top of the machine and surveyed the landscape. With a perplexed look on his wrinkled face, he put his two fingers to his mouth and let out a screeching whistle.
               A light-brown husky came barreling out from the woods behind the tank, running at full stride toward me. I had only seconds to shield my face before it launched itself at me. Terror quickly transformed into relief as hot slobbering covered my neck and face. The dog lathered me with licks until I finally pushed the creature off and pulled myself to my feet.
               “Ah, he likes you! That is good. Dog is good judge of character. They can tell when it is bad person or good person,” the man on the tank said.
               I brushed off the snow and dirt from my parka and straightened my glasses. The man climbed down from the top of the tank to the tread, and from there onto the ground. The husky ran up to him, its tail wagging madly. Its owner clasped the big head in his hands and muttered to it affectionately in Russian.
               “Are you Sergey?”
               “Yes, I am Sergey, and you must be National Geographic reporter! I did not expect such young man.” He walked over to me and extended his hand. I shook it.
               “I’m Aaron,” I said.
               His handshake felt like ice and had a grip that could crush bones. His pale blue eyes glowed as he greeted me, and his smile had a deep-wrinkled, rosy-cheeked jolliness that could have passed for Santa Claus.
               “I apologize I keep you waiting, Aaron. It is easy to lose track of time when doing scientific work in wilderness. I am glad you make it to Siberia! Did you have moment to see park without me?”
               His Russian accent was so thick that I strained to understand him.
               “Um, yes…yes I did.”
               “There you see yak.” He gestured to the shaggy animals I had seen before on the grassland horizon. “They are some of toughest animal in Pleistocene Park. I introduce twenty of them decade ago, and nearly half survive first year. With other animal, sometimes only two survive, and rest either run off or find other way to die before they get used to extreme cold here.”
               I took off my gloves, pulled out my notepad, and began to scribble all this down for my article.
               “I see, and those other animals in the distance? Are those horses?”
               “Yes, those are Yakutian horse. They were some of first animal release when I originally start park thirty year ago. With them, most of first were killed by bear or Siberian Tiger, and many other die from eating poisonous plant. It take ten year before more horse were born than die, but now there are nearly forty in park. After lesson I learn from them, I introduce sheep, moose, and reindeer in more methodical way. But mammoth is not here yet. If you will wait just two or three year, genomic science develop fast, and it will be possible reconstruct genome of mammoth.”
               I wrote this all down intently, but my handwriting was becoming messy. The wind was picking up, and my hand was going numb as the cold of the night set in. Sergey noticed me shivering and smiled.
               “You are cold. Come, we can continue conversation in cabin. Tomorrow I take you around park and show you more.”
               He put his hand on my shoulder and started leading me toward the forest edge. The husky followed by his side as we walked through the icy grass and snow. I marveled one more time at the massive tank as we passed it.
               “Are you just going to leave the tank there?”
               “Of course, I leave there! You think someone going to give me parking ticket?” he laughed. “You are in Siberia! We are only people for many, many kilometer.”
               This made sense to me, though the image of a tank left in the middle of the wilderness just seemed so out of place that I couldn’t help but ask. I stopped and took one last photo of the hulking mass of metal, which was now silhouetted against the dark blue twilight sky. It could not have been a more tailor-made scene for National Geographic.
               We entered the forest. Sergey reached into his pocket and clicked on a bright white LED flashlight. It was a good thing, too. The taiga was an opaque black den at night, and it was difficult to see even inches in front of us. He told me to watch my step as we walked over fallen branches and through patches of mostly-frozen mud.
               As we snaked our way around trees and deeper into the woods, creeping thoughts began to emerge. I wondered just what on earth I was doing following an eccentric scientist who had flaked on our initial meeting time and nearly run me over with a tank into a dark forest just above the Arctic Circle. There are only so many oddities one can encounter before alarm bells start to go off. If Sergey wanted to murder me out here in the wilderness, there would be nothing and no one to stop him, and nowhere to escape. My heart began to beat faster at these irrational thoughts, and I started to think that maybe Gina was right when she told me I was crazy for wanting to come here. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for this. Maybe I really was better off as a behind-a-desk journalist who only left the office to interview some harmless inventor at an incubator around the corner in Washington, DC.
               I shook off such doubts. Maybe all of this was indeed crazy, but the thought of returning home to my editor with nothing to show for it, after blowing a massive hole in National Geographic’s travel budget on a flight to the Russian Far East and a chartered helicopter into the Siberian wilderness, was even crazier.
               My racing mind came to a halt as we pushed through a patch of small pine trees and within view of a modest cabin. In the bright white light of Sergey’s LED flashlight, I could see that the structure consisted of little more than logs stacked on top of each other and a scrap metal roof, with tuft packed into the spaces between the logs. Two dirty windows flanked the entrance, which was sealed by a wooden door and padlock. From the outside, it was hard to tell whether I was viewing the yard of a mad scientist or a hillbilly. There was an assortment of items scattered around; a rusty oil drum, a large measuring stick, a rain gauge, a barometer, a gas meter, a solar panel, a few shovels, a metal storage box, and smoked fish hanging over a beam. Light smoke streamed out of a tarnished metal chimney pipe towards the rear.
               I wasn’t sure what was more frightening. The thought of being murdered in the wilderness or the thought of spending the entire night in that shack.
               Sergey approached the door and opened the padlock. He pushed it open with a rusty screech and motioned for me to enter the darkness within. I hesitated. My instincts screamed that this was dodgy, and that I should instead be running in the opposite direction. But apprehension yielded to politeness after Sergey gestured again for me to step inside. I did so and had only blackness and an earthy smell as company.
               Sergey set down his flashlight. I heard him shuffling around the room. He turned on an electric lantern, and then opened a cast iron stove in the corner to reveal a pile of red-hot wood. I watched as he chucked a few fresh pieces inside and transformed it into a crackling fire with a few puffs from a dusty bellows. Together, the two sources of light illuminated the room.
               The cabin was minimalist—consisting of little more than a cot bed, the cast iron stove, a few framed black-and-white photographs on the walls, a wardrobe, and a small wooden table with two chairs. However, in contrast to the disarray I had seen outside, it was surprisingly tidy. Moreover, the fire in the stove and the soft light of the lantern cast a warm yellow glow over the room, making it feel almost cozy. I could hardly call it a vacation cabin in the woods, but it could probably pass for rustic. I started to feel slightly more at ease.
               “There is second mattress under bed. I will pull out and you can sleep on tonight,” Sergey said. “Sit down and I will take care.”
               He motioned for me to sit. I took a seat at one of the wooden chairs at the table. It let out an unnerving creak the moment I slouched into it. The husky had followed us inside and came to put its head on my lap. I petted it gently as I watched Sergey remove his coat and adjust his suspenders and fleece sweater underneath. He began to busy himself with something at the wardrobe, and then turned around bearing a massive, yellow teeth-filled smile and holding two shot glasses. They had gold Cyrillic letters on them and were filled with a clear liquid. He extended one to me.
               “For you,” he said. “This is true Russian vodka.”
               I was stunned by this sudden offer.
               “Oh…thank you very much, but I’m okay.”
               Sergey’s smile only broadened, seemingly amused that I would even try to reject his offer.
               “Come on, American, vodka is traditional way to welcome guest in Russia!”
               Not wanting to offend my host, I took the glass slowly.
               “Za zdorov’ye!” he said, downing his vodka in one gulp.
               I put my lips to the brim and took a single sip. It might as well have been jet fuel. The flaming liquid burnt my lips, tongue, and throat in quick succession. I started coughing and heaving almost instantly, scaring off the husky I had been petting.
               Sergey let out a guttural laugh.
               “It is good, yes? This will keep you warm entire night. In Siberia, we drink vodka like we drink water.”
               I made a mental note to write down that bit of cultural insight for my article, even though I couldn’t think of anything more disgusting.
               “Now I must get borscht.”
               Sergey opened the front door and walked back out into the frigid blackness. The husky followed him outside.
               I sat there alone for a moment, yearning for something to extinguish the chemical taste that lingered in my mouth. Eventually it subsided, and I found myself staring at the black-and-white photographs on the wall and listening to the whoosh of the wind starting to pick up outside. I snapped a few pictures of the inside of the cabin and jotted down a few observations for my article. Thankfully, I did so without a shivering hand this time.
The cast iron fireplace quickly warmed up the room, so much so that I was beginning to feel uncomfortable in my thick parka. The logs and tuft of the cabin trapped heat surprisingly well, and before long the room approached sauna-liked temperatures. I slide off my coat and hung it on the back of my chair. I also removed my gloves and beanie, and tied my hair back into its usual bun.
               Sergey soon reappeared carrying a large black pot by its iron handles. He shuffled across the room and set it onto the stove, reached for a large wooden spoon, and began stirring whatever was inside. His trusty dog followed, chomping and licking its teeth like it had just been fed.
               “It is too cold to stir,” he said. “Only little time.”
               He then grabbed a clear vodka bottle from the wardrobe and walked over to take his seat at the table opposite me. After pouring himself another glass, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a little red packet of cigarettes. He took one out, puffed it to life with his lighter, and then extended the packet for me to take one.
               “Thanks, but I don’t smoke,” I said, more emphatically this time.
               Sergey shrugged as if to say “suit yourself”, and then leaned back in his chair and took a deep, long puff. He blew out the smoke, stroked his long grey beard, and looked back at me with contentment.
               “That is fine. I am happy you just drink with me. There is no one left to drink with here anymore.”
               I felt compelled to take another sip of the rocket fuel under the pressure of his happily insisting eyes. It went down slightly easier the second time around.
               “Borscht will be ready soon. I make yesterday and store outside. In Siberia, outside is freezer. I hope you are hungry.”
               I was indeed. The travel and bizarre events of the day had been enough to distract me from the fact that I hadn’t eaten in many hours.
               “Yes, I appreciate the hospitality.”
               He nodded and took a sip of his vodka.
               “This cabin is just small outpost. It is not main station where research happen. I bring you here because it is good starting point for park tour tomorrow.”
               I nodded, and the room went silent. I wanted to talk but struggled to begin. My mind was busy comprehending the strange place I was sitting in and the strange man I was sitting with. My eyes wandered to a black-and-white photograph on the wall of a woman in a fur coat and felt hat. Sergey seemed to notice this as he puffed away at his cigarette.
               “That is daughter. She is your age. I have not seen her for many year. She grew like flower in good soil, and now she live in Moscow. She will not come to Pleistocene Park, and I will not go to Moscow.”
               I reverted to journalist mode as he began to muse on his personal life. I scribbled down his anecdote in my notepad.
               “Why won’t you go see each other?”
               “She is like kid, and kid want to do own thing. She say Pleistocene Park is too far, and I am old man. City like Moscow is too much chaos. Of course, I miss her, but my work is here. It is true, I am far away, and winter in Siberia is hard, but it is also beautiful solitude here.”
               He paused for a moment between more puffs of his cigarette.
               “Do you have girlfriend?” he suddenly asked.
               “Yes.”
               Sergey looked pleased at my answer as he leaned back and sipped on his vodka.
               “That is good. I think at first you were maybe like this.” He made a wrist flapping motion.
               I decided to change the subject before my first encounter with Russian homophobia went any further.
               “So, would you like to conduct part of our interview tonight?”
               “Of course! That is why you are here, is not? You have come very far and give me great opportunity to raise profile of Pleistocene Park. So please, ask me question.”
               I flipped to a blank page of my notebook and readied my pen.
               “Okay, first of all, where did you get your tank?”
               Sergey let out a raspy chuckle.
               “That is old soviet tank. I cannot tell you where it come from, but you can get many thing in Russia if you know right people. Biggest problem is not getting tank. Biggest problem is training dog not to be afraid of tank.”
               Sergey petted the husky with his non-drinking-and-smoking hand. It sat next to his chair, leaning its head on his leg, panting softly.
               “And why do you have it?”
               “I use tank to create habitat for more animal. Herbivore need space and grass, not tree and forest.”
               “Is that why you were running over trees? To create more space for your animals?”
               “Yes, correct. Do you remember animal I show you in park today?”
               “Yes.”
               “That is only small fraction of what you would see here twenty-thousand year ago. If you stood in same spot during last ice age, you would see hundred mammoth, thousand bison and horse, three thousand elk, thirty woolly rhino, forty musk ox, many tiger and lion, hundred wolf—and every once in while, human. But that would be rare.”
               Sergey paused for a moment as he put out his cigarette. I jotted down every word, eager to capture the ancient landscape he was painting. It was pure gold for a National Geographic audience.
               “That is landscape Pleistocene Park is recreate,” he continued. “During Pleistocene era, nearly all Siberia grassland. Taiga forest you see today could not exist because so many animal trample and eat tree before they grow. Tank is like mammoth knocking down tree. I am like mammoth knocking down tree.”
               Sergey lifted another cigarette to his mouth and fired it awake with his lighter. The smoke was starting to fill up the room and become unpleasantly pungent.
               “I bet you never interview mammoth before?”
               I stopped writing and looked up at him. He was leaning forward on the table and staring directly at me, locked on with a psychotic smirk across his wrinkled mouth. Through the wafting smoke and dull yellow light of the room, I could see a flash of madness in his pale blue eyes. It was paired with an uncomfortable silence, with only the screech of the wind outside providing any reprieve.
               “No, I can’t say I have ever interviewed a mammoth before, per se,” I said to break the awkward moment. “But…so…you are recreating the grassland ecosystem of the last ice age. But why? What is the point?”
               Sergey leaned back in his chair again and glared at me.
               “Did you travel whole way to Siberia and not even read science behind Pleistocene Park first?”
               “No, I’ve read it, but I want to hear it in your own words.”
               Sergey sipped his vodka and continued.
               “You think I am just crazy man obsessed with seeing ancient landscape. I can tell. But that is not true. Pleistocene Park has greater purpose.”
               “And what purpose is that?”
               “You wait. I must check borscht.”
               Sergey pulled himself to his feet and lumbered over to the cast iron stove. He leaned his rumpled figure over the pot for a moment and nodded his head in satisfaction. I watched as he turned to the wardrobe and grabbed a pair of bowls and spoons, and then returned to the pot to dish up the soup. His husky followed every step as if it too were expecting to receive a second dinner.
               “Careful it does not burn you,” he said as he handed me a bowl and spoon.
               “Thank you.”
               I looked at the hot liquid in front of me. It was an unappetizing dark purple, and had little twigs and leaves floating in it. I picked up my spoon and swirled it around, creating steam with a smell so penetrating that I wouldn’t have been surprised if the broth was entirely vodka. Meanwhile, Sergey had already begun pouring spoonful after spoonful into his mouth, while intermittently rubbing the bits of liquid that fell in pink droplets on his beard to his sleeve. I dipped my spoon in my own bowl and slowly lifted it to my mouth.
               Perhaps it was because up until that point in my journey I had been subsisting on airline food and portable snacks, but I thought the soup was incredible. It was savory, but also tart, and had hearty chunks of potato and root vegetables. I ended up eating with such voracity that I had to wipe splotches of it from my own goatee.
               “So, I was telling you about greater purpose of Pleistocene Park,” Sergey resumed as he finished his bowl.
               I set down my spoon and picked up my pen and paper again.
               “Greater purpose of Pleistocene Park is that it will someday save world.”
               “Okay. Save the world. How exactly is it supposed to do that?”
               “Pleistocene Park is help mitigate effects of global warming.”
               The skepticism neurons in my brain began to fire. This is where I knew things would become far-fetched. There was a danger in proceeding without tact. A logical and credible explanation for his strange “purpose” was needed, or else the readers of my article wouldn’t get past the first few paragraphs.
               There was yet another moment of silence. Sergey was again staring me dead on, but this time there was no smile to be found.
               “Okay, forgive me for being blunt, but you must understand that this will seem rather odd to the average person. How could knocking down trees and creating grasslands in the Arctic help fight global warming? If anything, I would think you would want to preserve the forest in order fix that problem.”
               Sergey looked away, mumbled something to himself in Russian, and waved his hand dismissively.
               “You must understand, taiga forest is artificial. It only exist because during last ice age, people arrive and kill all animal with spear and fire and appetite. When human appear, all mammoth disappear, and soon all grassland disappear. When there was no more animal to trample and eat tree, that is only reason taiga forest grow.”
               “So…you’re saying that, in a way, the reason the taiga exists is because of humans?”
               “That is exactly what I say.”
               “Okay. That’s an interesting theory. But what does that have to do with global warming?”
               Sergey raised his index finger, and then slowly turned it upside down to point at the floor.
               “You are sitting on ‘carbon bomb’. Arctic soil is biggest carbon reservoir on planet, and most Arctic soil always frozen. This soil you call ‘permafrost.’ But today, because of global temperature rise, permafrost soil is melting, and that melting release carbon as greenhouse gas. If all Arctic soil melt, it release carbon bomb into atmosphere, and then planet will cook completely. Grassland actually keep climate colder than taiga forest. It will help cool planet.”
               I needed him to elaborate. It still wasn’t adding up.
               “But that doesn’t make any sense. Isn’t the Arctic already one of the coldest places on the planet?”
               “Yes, but it was colder during last ice age, when all Siberia was grassland. Reason for this is simple physic. First, dark forest absorb more heat from sun than pasture covered in white snow. Second, when layer of snow build up in forest, it act like blanket and make Arctic soil warmer. But when many animal trample snow in pasture, there is no blanket, so is colder. Bottom line is much colder climate in grassland than in forest, and that can help slow melting of Arctic soil. This is how I provide humanity with lifeline. This is how I save planet from overheat.”
               Here is where I knew my article had to walk a tightrope between genius and insanity, but also where Sergey’s experiment was packed with promise for my first issue. Demolishing forests went against nearly everything National Geographic readers had been taught about preserving the environment, not to mention everything the magazine had ever advocated for. I became almost giddy envisioning a feature article that would create both fascination and controversy among our readers as they grappled with the idea that toppling forests and replacing them with grasslands and grazing animals could actually save the planet.
               And yet, I could almost hear my editor’s voice whispering in the howling wind outside the cabin: “Don’t give me Jurassic Park, Aaron.” If Sergey’s theory didn’t seem credible in my article, he would appear to be nothing more than a delusional madman who dreamt of saving humanity while joyriding his tank around the Arctic.
               It was time to put my skepticism neurons to work.
               “Okay, so according to your theory, if you topple the forests and use animals to create the colder grassland ecosystem of the last ice age, you will save the world from global warming. How do you know that any of this is correct? What evidence do you have to prove it?”
               Sergey put out his second cigarette, crossed his legs, and assumed a pensive expression.
               “You must understand, I am like pioneer. When I first receive research station from Russian Academy of Science and start park here in early 1990s—when you were probably not yet born—no one talk about permafrost. No one care then. Now, all look to me as leading expert.”
               He paused and downed what remained in his second glass of vodka.
               “I take measurement of soil carbon and temperature all around park for many decade. Without data, you have nothing. Every time I introduce new species of animal, I analyze data from park and compare to data from taiga forest. And what data show is that air temperature and soil are colder in park than in forest. I am absolutely sure theory on Pleistocene Park is correct. If you put grassland across all Siberia, it can be powerful weapon against global warming, and it cost very little money.”
               Data or no, transforming practically an entire continent from forest into grassland sounded pretty extreme. Little wonder his idea hadn’t caught on in mainstream science.
               “If you’re so sure and have all the data to back it up, why hasn’t the world noticed yet? Why haven’t they noticed you in thirty years?”
               Sergey grunted like an offended dog and glared at me. I could almost see the little grey hairs standing up on the side of his neck.
               “It is difficult to explain something which people never saw. This is massive project, and must be done in methodical way. I need only to establish example for show that theory is correct. They will notice soon. That is why you are here. You will help them notice. Pleistocene Park will be only beginning. They will notice, or else humanity will be doomed.”
               Among the sweat and deep furrows of Sergey’s forehead, a vein began to push its way to the surface. The sinews in his liver-spotted hands protruded as he clenched his vodka glass. The dog seemed to realize his master was becoming angry. It stood on all fours and stared at me like a hungry wolf.
               My hand began to tremble as I wrote in my notebook. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. It was pumping adrenaline and generating a strange mix of feelings. There was fear from Sergey and the husky’s menacing stares, but there was also excitement. I knew I had him right where I wanted him. When an inventor starts becoming defensive, I knew I was asking the right questions.
               This is where Gina would have wanted me to stop. But only a lesser journalist would have let their fear end the inquiry. Only a lesser journalist would have cowered once his interviewee took offence. Only a lesser journalist would have pulled back right at the moment when a slightly-testy interview started to become a riveting and revealing one.
               I sat up, straightened my glasses, and cleared my throat.
               “You want to put grasslands across all of Siberia. A project of this ambition, even with the best intentions and based on the best science is likely to have unintended consequences. I think you would agree with me that what you have done here at Pleistocene Park has been on a very small scale. But how do you know, for example, that running over all the forests in your tank won’t actually have the exact opposite effect of what you are trying to achieve? What would you say to someone who thinks that you might just end up damaging a beautiful Arctic ecosystem and creating many, many more problems than you solve?”
               “Where are you from?” Sergey suddenly burst out while pointing an accusing finger at me.
               “Me?”
               “Yes, you.”
               “I’m from Washington, DC.”
               “Do you think when people cut down forest to build Washington DC, they worry about unintended consequence?! Man has been making massive city like this and creating new environment all over planet for many thousand year. Who ever worry about unintended consequence?! You buy water bottle on plane ride here, you throw away and it end up in giant plastic island in ocean. Did you think of unintended consequence then?! Man is burning fossil fuel and putting hundred million ton of global warming gas into atmosphere like open sewer. Who worry about unintended consequence?!”
               Sergey was practically screaming now, throwing both hands in the air as if giving an angry Shakespearian monologue. The mix of vodka and aggravation had turned his pale blue eyes red, making him appear almost demonic through the tobacco haze that filled the room. His dog had transformed into a hound from hell, ready to pounce on me at any moment. A ridge of fur stood up along its back, and its lips curled into a threatening snarl. Outside, the winds raged, causing the window panes of the cabin to rattle so violently I feared they might shatter.
               I could no longer write in my notebook. I was frozen in place, wanting to continue, but paralyzed and thunderstruck by the fury of it all.
               “What I am doing is what man always does! Man creates unintended consequence. Man creates new environment. You find taiga forest beautiful, and I tell you it is manmade! Pleistocene Park also manmade. Why should it not also be beautiful? Man killed all mammoth. Why should man not bring mammoth back? And why should my mammoth not also be beautiful?”
               With this, he slammed his fist down on the table, and dared me with his eyes to respond. There was fire in them, but suddenly, it was mixed with water. Tears fell over the bags beneath his eyes, streaked across his cheeks, and disappeared into the forest of his grey beard.
               It is hard to explain my feelings at that moment. The fear and excitement were still there, but there was also something else I had never felt before. The old man’s tears seemed to contain everything. Passion, purpose, vision, and inspiration, but also pain, resentment, obsession, and loneliness. Thirty years of all those feelings condensed into those drops. Suddenly, I didn’t want to continue. I no longer cared about my article or my editor. All I wanted to do was to end the interview and be alone.
               “Look, um, I see that— I see that this discussion is upsetting you.” I struggled to speak over the lump building in my throat. “Why don’t we end it for tonight and continue this in the morning?”
               Sergey wiped the tear streaks from his cheeks with a sleeve and closed his eyes, as if trying to recompose himself. His husky, too, let its ears return upright and sat back down onto the floor, panting instead of clenching its teeth. The clatter from the cabin windows also ceased as the winds outside subsided.
               When Sergey finally opened his eyes again, the red rage I had seen in them was gone.
               “Yes, I apologize. Sometimes I will get too passionate. It is because my work is very important,” he said with a defeated sigh. “You are right. It is late. Let us sleep now.”
               He stood up slowly, groaning as he lifted his old bones to his feet. He lumbered over to the cot and strained to pull out the second mattress underneath it. Feeling a flush of guilt and not wanting to just sit there watching the old man struggle, I stood up and walked over to help him. He gave me a sad nod of thanks.
               There was dejection in his walk as he crossed the room to the lantern. He put his hand on the switch and paused. His gaze held at the black-and-white photo of his daughter on the wall. After another deep sigh, he turned out the lantern, slipped a few more pieces of wood into the fire in the cast iron stove, and then closed its door.
               The room went black. I heard him rustle into the sheets of his bed. The dog’s nails clicked along the floor in the corner of the room, circling before it lay itself down to rest. I stood there aimlessly in the darkness for a moment, troubled by my uncontrollable thoughts. Finally, I too knelt onto the mattress on the floor and pulled myself into the blanket at its foot.
               Though I was exhausted, there was no sleep. Even though every muscle in my body felt fifty pounds heavier than usual from the extraordinary events of the day, sleep was nowhere to be found.
               It wasn’t that I felt bad for the man in the bed next to me and the distress I had caused him. I had incited outbursts in many inventors before. It’s that I couldn’t stop thinking about Sergey sobbing. Strange as it might sound, I envied him. Because I knew there was no room in the life of a professional critic like me for all those feelings I had seen in his tears. Whether saving the planet or simply crazy, he had found a lifetime’s worth of purpose in Pleistocene Park. What would ever bring me that type of feeling? A little column in a magazine that tears apart people’s dreams?
               Maybe Gina was right. Maybe I was insufferable.
               As my mind raced with these thoughts in the darkness, the Siberian night winds renewed their attack on the cabin with a whoosh, gust, and roar. They were frightening, but also eerily enticing. In fact, if I listened closely enough, and if I didn’t know any better, I might just have thought I was hearing the trumpet call of a mammoth.

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The Martyr

Synopsis: I’ve always been fascinated by marine biology, particularly certain giant cephalopods. While I wanted to write a story about said animal, I felt that it would be too strange and nerdy to have widespread appeal. So, in order to bring it down to earth, I decided to write a story that clashes my marine biology nerdiness with the rowdiness of a 21st century beach party.

In my latest story, “The Martyr”, a marine biologist discovers the “specimen of the millennium” when a rare sea monster washes up on a California beach. The promise of impending scientific discovery from analyzing the dead creature enthralls him. There’s only one problem: the massive animal has appeared on the beach in the middle of a loud and rowdy rock concert. He will have to do everything in his power to hold off a crowd of curious drunken goons until his scientist colleagues can get to the scene and help him safely transport the carcass back to the lab.

The Martyr
By Marshall Geck

        I was skeptical when the professor first called me and described the reports.
        Surely, whoever he had spoken to must have been mistaken. It would be the wrong habitat, the wrong ecosystem, and the wrong hemisphere. Maybe it was a big slimy hunk of trash, or even a mangled young whale, but certainly not that. It just wouldn’t make any sense at all.
        But he assured me the sources were credible.
        “This could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he persuaded. “And just think about what it could mean for the Marine Science Institute! We simply have to find out if it’s true!”
        So I hauled my equipment back to my Volkswagen bug and began a three-mile sprint down the beach, with the nagging suspicion that my specimen collection at the tide pool had just been postponed to yet another day for the sake of a wild goose chase.
        I wasn’t used to running like that. The sun was high and hot. I was panting heavily and sweating profusely through my flapping Hawaiian shirt. My hair was swinging every which way over my face and dripping a mixture of sweat and sunscreen onto my big round sunglasses. My sandals kicked up sand as I ran.
        About a mile down, the beach started to get crowded. Sunbathers, beach umbrellas, and surfers began to show up in greater numbers. Fit, unhealthily-tanned women in bikinis and V-shaped men chugging protein-shakes watched me with condescending smirks as I sped by.
        Like they had any idea anyway.
        As the beach became more and more populated with human beings, however, I started to become uneasy. It was soon no longer possible to make a beeline toward the site of the reports. The crowd had become so thick that I was zig-zagging around encampments of beach towels and sun chairs. I ignored the person who yelled “Hey, watch it bro!” when I inadvertently kicked hot sand onto them. Running in the surf was no help either. I couldn’t go more than ten feet along the water without knocking over a child’s sandcastle or entering the trajectory of a football pass. Even the boardwalk, which I could just barely make out through the sea of umbrellas and chairs, suddenly seemed to be packed with pedestrians. Clearly, the masses had thought it a good day for the beach.
        My concern reached an entirely new level when the white high rise of the resort came into view. On the beach across the building and over the boardwalk was a bandshell, and on the stage was a rock band belting out insufferably-distorted music and exaggerating every convulsing move of their instruments. Underneath it was an immense crowd of smiling young men and women, all fist bumping with one hand and holding a tacky red plastic beer cup in the other.
        It was there that the professor said the reports had originated.
        I stopped and stared at the monstrosity of primitive hedonism. A wave of anger rushed through my body as I bent over and heaved for air.
        I didn’t know who put the professor up to that joke, but it wasn’t funny.
        I was just about to turn around and go right back where I came, when suddenly I felt my cell phone vibrate. I reached into the pocket of my cargo shorts and pulled it out. It was a text message from the professor.
        Resort has confirmed the finding. Media now aware and will be there any minute. Hurry!
        Torn between suspicion, excitement, and apprehension, I gritted my teeth and pushed on towards the thumping mass of people.
        The smell of beer, sweat, sunscreen, and marijuana was instantly penetrating as I entered the crowd. It was revolting. Every nerve in my body told me to turn around and get out of there.
        “Excuse me…coming through…gotta move folks…Jesus, can you please step aside already?” I said at intervals as I moved through the mob.
        I didn’t know how much longer I could stay searching aimlessly in that sweltering cluster of bodies, but just then, over the heads of the jumping humans, I noticed a break in the crowd. As I shimmied forward, it became larger and larger, until finally, I heaved my way to the front and arrived in a big empty circle that was free of dancing hooligans.
        And then I almost fainted in shock at what I beheld.
        It was both beautiful and horrifying. It was at least fifteen feet long and five feet wide, and astonishingly well preserved. In contrast to the shapeless blobs of jelly that characterize most specimens of that species when they wash up on shore, the hulking mantle of this one had only barely collapsed. The tentacles, which were covered in frightful one-inch hooks, were splayed out in the sand like a thick mass of ropes, and didn’t show a single sign of shriveling. The creature’s massive eye—about a foot wide—resembled a polished bowling ball and stared back at me with black lifelessness. Perhaps most shocking, however, was that the skin of the monster was not the ghostly white they usually turn after dying, but had a reddish tint to it. The tissue was still alive and reacting in fear! It couldn’t have been dead for more than a couple hours.
        The professor was wrong. This wasn’t a “once-in-a-lifetime” specimen. This was a “once-in-a-millennium” specimen. How it had ended up in such an intact state on a California beach was a mind-boggling mystery. There were so many questions. The promise of impending discovery tantalized my entire being as I stared at the unearthly creature, my eyes wide and mouth agape.
        “Ewwww, it’s disgusting! What is it?!” Slurred a blond woman in a pink bikini.
        I snapped out of my trance and looked around at the mass of goons surrounding the corpse. They eyed it curiously through their sunglasses and between sips of their red plastic cups or drags of their joints. Whitish-grey drops of sweat and grease dripped down their fit and muscled bodies. It was positively gag inducing.
        Then, to my horror, one of the young men extended his foot and poked the specimen with his big toe. A surge of electricity pulsed through me as I realized I needed to do everything in my power to protect the sea treasure I had found. There certainly wouldn’t be a second chance if it was damaged. On impulse, I put my hands in the air and emptied my lungs over the pounding music.
        “Ladies and gentlemen, can I have your attention please! I need each of you to take a step back from the animal! I am a marine biologist and this find needs to remain preserved for scientific purposes!”
        Everyone in the crowd looked at me, several with raised eyebrows and smirks. A few obeyed, but others held their ground. I quickly reached into my cargo shorts for my cell phone and dialed the professor.
        “Yes, did you find it?!” he answered almost instantly.
        “Professor, I need you to tell everyone at the institute to drop what they’re doing and get down here right now. We have a specimen of a generation on our hands, but it needs to be preserved before someone here damages it.” I yelled over the blaring music.
        “Oh, how exciting!” he squealed. “But what do you mean before someone damages it?”
        “This poor creature washed up on the beach in the middle of a damn rock concert. There is a crowd of drunk young people gawking and poking at it. I need you to bring some cones and caution tape to seal off the carcass until we can get it loaded into the deep freeze.”
        “Oh, my goodness!” he gasped. “Okay, stay put, we will get down there as fast as we can!”
        “Please hurry. I don’t know how long I can hold them off,” I urged him. “Oh, and professor, you might want to bring a fork lift. This Kraken is massive!”
        “I’m dying with excitement!”
        With that, I hung up the phone and I looked around at my opponents.
        “Hey scientist dude!” yelled one of drunkards. “What is this thing? A giant squid?”
        I turned to the greasy, clean-cut man, who was sipping out of his red cup and wearing a blue tank top, black board shorts, and baseball cap.
        “Oh no, not a giant squid,” I answered, his curiosity putting me somewhat more at ease. “It’s too big to be that. You see how wide its mantle is? A giant squid’s mantle wouldn’t be so stout like that. Also, this thing looks like it is over a thousand pounds. You don’t get giant squids that big.”
        “So…what is it then?” he probed.
        “This animal is a colossal squid. I’m sure of it.” I diagnosed confidently.
        “A colossal squid? That’s a thing?” A short, whiney-voiced woman in a lime-green swimsuit chimed in.
        “Yes, it’s a thing.” I mocked the coarsely-phrased question.
        “That’s so weird! What’s it doing here?” she continued.
        “Your guess is as good as mine,” I shrugged, knowing full well that her guess was definitely not as good as mine. “This species is supposed to live over a mile under the sea in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. We need to get it to the lab and figure out how it got here.”
        “Dude, that squid is a beast! Look how sharp those hook things on its arms are!” Exclaimed a shirtless pot-smoking man with sunglasses and dreadlocks.
        “That’s not even the half of it,” I said, turning to him. “This animal has a beak big enough to snap your leg off in one bite.”
        “A beak? Stop, you’re not serious!” said the whiney-voiced woman in lime green again.
        “I am serious. Imagine a parrot beak, but ten times bigger,” I motioned with my hands to demonstrate the size, “that’s what’s under this creature’s mantle.”
        “Dude, I want to see!”
        My heart plummeted as the dreadlocked-pot smoker headed towards the squid. Within seconds, instinct took over. I threw my arm out to block his way.
        “No!” I screamed over the thumping music.
        He showed me his palms and recoiled in shock.
        “Whoa, okay man! Chill out!”
        I stood there, frozen in place with my arm outstretched for a good minute. As the adrenaline began to subside and I started to come back to my senses, I noticed that the entire crowd was staring at me with a mix of surprise and smug amusement. I exhaled, put my arm down, and tried to regain my composure.
        “I mean, please don’t touch it,” I instructed calmly. “It’s a miracle that this animal is so well-preserved and exists the way it does, so please just be respectful and leave it to the scientists.”
        “Okay man, no need to be so uptight about it!” the dreadlocked man said as he moved back into the crowd and lit another joint.
        “I have a question, Mr. Hawaiian-shirt-scientist man!” the drunk girl in the pink bikini raised her hand as though she were in a classroom. “What does your colossal squid eat?”
        I sighed and turned to her.
        “Deep-sea fish, other squid, anything it can get its tentacles around while it’s propelling itself through the darkness 5,000 feet below the surface.” I responded, feeling more relaxed again as I lectured.
        “It eats other squid?” she shrieked. “So it’s a cannibal?”
        “I guess you could say that,” I shrugged.
        “Wow, nature is freaky!” she spit as she spoke. “What are you guys gonna do with it?”
        “First move it to the deep freeze, then evaluate and dissect it.” I responded, rolling my eyes.
        “We’ll help you move it, bro,” shouted a chiseled shirtless meathead to my side as he stepped forward. He turned to the crowd, puffed out his chest, and raised both his hands in the air. “Who wants to pick up the mega-squid with me?!”
        “Woooo!” every single one of them cheered wildly and put their red cups in the air.
        My heart immediately started pounding again. I strode over to him and blocked his way to the animal.
        “That’s a kind offer but this creature is going to have to be moved very carefully,” I explained to him, working hard to stay calm. “We need the right tool for the job. One wrong move and it could fundamentally damage the specimen.”
        The greasy meathead raised an eyebrow, extended his bulky arm, and put his hand on my shoulder.
        “Alright bro, whatever,” he said, the stench of alcohol wafting off his breath.
        I turned around and looked at the crowd after he backed away. It was getting bigger by the moment as more curious revelers came to inspect the carcass. There were also at least two news crews present. One man in a black suit with shiny parted hair was speaking into a microphone and describing the “rare and bizarre scene in the middle of a rock concert”, while another in red was talking rapidly in Spanish, both standing in front of their respective cameramen with those big boxy news cameras thrust over their shoulders.
        Having dodged two bullets at this point, my anxiety began to rise exponentially. I simply had to hold them off until my backup arrived. But how?
        “Of course! The colossal squid and giant squid aren’t just of interest to science!” I screamed over the music, throwing my hands in the air. “They have also been part of fishermen lore for thousands of years.”
        The crowd looked up at me, surprised and confused by my sudden outburst. It was working.
        “Old Nordic cultures believed in a sea monster that the surviving records suggest looked very much like the creature you see here today. They knew the giant squid as the ‘Kraken’. You can imagine that if you were sailing along in times past—ignorant and superstitious—and happened to encounter something like one of these gigantic cephalopods, you might think you just saw a sea monster as well. The rational explanation for such stories, of course, is probably a run-in with a beast similar to the one you all see at my feet.”
        My eyes wandered to the edges of the crowd as I lectured, desperately searching for a sign of the professor and his crew. The crowd was listening, but was getting restless. Several talked amongst themselves or gestured at the squid. More news anchors and cameramen were also pushing their way to the edge of the creature to get their winning shot.
        “And…um,” I struggled to carry on, “you don’t find this animal only in old fishermen’s lore either. There are references to enormous monster squids in modern popular culture as well. Who here has read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?”
        No one raised their hand. Several new young drunkards were joining the circle and staring keenly at the animal. They wanted to touch its shiny rubber skin. Badly.
        “Well, that’s okay!” I yelled louder than before. “It’s just recommended reading. But anyway…um…so… you might not think that the colossal squid has any predators, given how big and formidable it is. But actually, much of what we know about it comes from carcasses recovered from the stomachs of sperm whales. That should give you an idea of just how rare a fully-intact specimen like the one you see here today is.”
        It was no use. The wobbly, half-dancing morons were now poking at the creature with their hands and toes like children at a petting zoo. They retracted upon touching the elastic slime of its skin. It seemed to lose its reddish-orange color the second they made contact.
        I was instantly furious.
        “Everyone! I’m going to have to ask you once again to take a step back!” I screamed. “This is an exceptionally rare find and is not to be damaged!”
        “Come on man, one little touch is not going to damage it,” argued one insolent young man with aviator sunglasses and blonde, slicked-back hair.
        “It’s not worth the risk!” I shot back, my blood boiling. “Please have some respect and leave this to scientific professionals!”
        Then, to my utter horror, one of the tentacles started moving in hard and sudden jerks. Panicked, I looked down the carcass of the creature, and my eyes went wide in anger at what I saw.
        A mid-sized dog had one of the tentacles in its mouth. It tugged mercilessly and shook its head as if the squid had just become its new chew toy.
        I erupted. I sprinted down the carcass, bent down, and shoved the mutt from its side with all my strength, sending it flying through the sand like a tumbleweed. The dog let out a screeching yelp as it landed. It quickly kicked itself back onto its feet and cowered away in fear. The crowd let out a collective gasp louder than the booming music.
        “Hey! What the hell do you think you’re doing to my dog!?” shouted a stocky bearded man in sunglasses and a red tank top.
        I turned to him and planted my foot in defiance, red in the face and with gritted teeth.
        “Your dog was damaging a priceless scientific specimen!”
        “Dude, this thing is massive. It’s not going to ruin your priceless scientific specimen just because my dog wanted a little calamari. You best check yourself, bro.” he warned.
        “I’m not your bro!” I roared in his face. “And this is not a play thing! You can’t abuse it like some beer can you just pounded down your throat after a day at your miserable Hollywood advertising job!”
        The crowd was on edge in excitement. Even a few of the news reporters were turning their attention away from the animal and towards the escalating conflict.
        “Watch it bro,” he mocked, clenching his fists and staring unbreakingly into my eyes, “I’m not going to tell you again.”
        I couldn’t stop myself. The adrenaline took over.
        “Oh no, not this time! I’ve spent my life standing down to ignoramuses like you, but not this time. Not when there is something this important on the line. Just because you don’t have anything better to do with your life than drink your face off, tan yourself cancerous, and brag about your six-figure salary selling worthless consumerist trash doesn’t give you the right to look down on those of us who actually choose to use our brains for the good of humanity. I got news for you, bro, there’s more to life than partying. Knowledge matters. Inquiry matters. Progress matters. Booze, fist bumping, and this ear-splitting garbage music doesn’t matter, you smug pathetic ape!”
        And then, everything went black.
        My face burned and the world spun as I lay face-down. The dog barked, music blasted, people shouted, and sand flew in every direction. I opened one dizzy eye and gazed up at the chaos. People were holding the bearded man back as he puffed out his chest and let out a continuous refrain of “I warned him!” The news crews scuttled about and worked frantically to capture the pandemonium. “A fight has just broken out here at the scene where the massive sea creature has washed up on the beach!” the anchor in the black suit yelled excitedly. I rolled my eyes into the back of my head.
        When I opened them again, I let out a sigh of deep and grateful relief at what I saw. Several of my colleagues were scuffling with the crowd, motioning for them to get back from the squid with outstretched arms. The force of numbers appeared to be working this time as the red-cup-and-sunglasses-toting revelers began to shrug and turn around towards the band stage. Another of my colleagues was unrolling yellow “Caution” tape and setting up orange cones, creating a perimeter around the animal.
        Then, someone grabbed my shoulders and pulled me up into a sitting position. I looked up through bleary, sandy eyes to see the long grey beard, shiny bald head, and thick-rimmed glasses of the professor. He kneeled down to me and put his hand on my shoulder.
        “Are you alright?! What on earth were you doing fighting with that man?!” he exclaimed as he tried to shake me into consciousness.
        I rubbed my eyes and looked at the fuzzy world around me. The crowd was clearing and my colleagues were starting to attend to the enormous carcass. Over the ever-blaring music, I heard the rumbling of a refrigerator truck making its way through the mob towards the scene. On the ground to my side, the sand was red with blood splotches, and my nose ached horribly. The punch had happened so quickly and with such impact that I couldn’t even remember it.
        “Is the colossal squid okay?” I groaned.
        “Ah, yes!” he said, turning around to view the creature as he wiped the blood off my face with a tissue. “It is truly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! Never in a million years had I expected to see such an amazing specimen! There are so many exciting questions to answer. This might just be the biggest day of our careers!”
        I turned to view the squid. Foot-upon-foot of shiny red rubber skin gleamed back at me in the sun, and the ropey mass of thick tentacles appeared to wave and clap in my lingering stupor. I looked slowly up and down the animal until my gaze stopped at its big, bulbous black eye. In that shiny round abyss, I saw another galaxy—one filled with billions of bright stars, mysterious planets, and colorful nebulae just waiting to be discovered. They swirled and turned, forming faces I had seen only in textbooks: Galileo, tried as a heretic for refusing to disavow his theory of heliocentricity; Kepler, excommunicated for positing that the moon was a solid body; and Bruno, burnt at the stake in the name of cosmic pluralism.
        I wanted to crawl into that space and float away with them. Science can never have enough martyrs.

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Frosting

Synopsis:  This is a short story that has been floating around my head since my college days. At the time, I noticed there was a particular game going around my fraternity where brothers would embarrass and ridicule each other using a certain fizzy, sugary, alcoholic beverage. While most would probably dismiss this game as just the latest frat house antics, I often wondered if there was more than met the eye. I found it very suspicious, for example, that a demographic who would otherwise have absolutely no interest in said sugary alcoholic beverage was suddenly buying packs of it for the sake of this new game. Could it be that this game was more than a passing bro fad? What if it was actually the product of some sneaky and clever marketing ploy by the makers of the drink, and the rest of us were too dumb to see it?

Thus emerged my story, “Frosting”, wherein I imagine what the board room meeting to devise such a ploy might have looked like.  The story follows the Vice President of a failing beer company somewhere in middle America. After 30 years of business struggles and competition from the craft breweries springing up all across the country, he believes his company has reached a crucial juncture.  He is now deeply fearful that the entire business and all of its old traditions could be facing an imminent end. But these dire circumstances also make him a man with little left to lose, and he believes he has come up with an idea crazy enough to stake his career on. He will have one chance to convince the senior executives that it is the only way to save the company.

 

Frosting
By Marshall Geck

       The breathing exercises weren’t working that day.
       It was hard to inhale deeply or count to twenty with the wind cutting my face. The pain from my rapidly-numbing fingers didn’t help either. It was simply too cold to concentrate, let alone to calm down. I opened my eyes, exhaled a puff of frozen air, and kicked a snowball down the sidewalk.
       It wasn’t really even a snowball. Just a filthy frozen dirt clod.
       The city I walked through was so much like that snowball it made me sick. Surely at one point the snow was clean and blindingly white. But now, as with all the snowbanks on the sidewalk, it was covered in gravel, slush, and exhaust. Reduced to a pile of shit, simply because it didn’t move. Similarly, the boarded-up windows and abandoned buildings I passed were once glimmering symbols of enterprise. Now they were a smear of filth on the American landscape because the businesses that built them were all too convinced of their own immortality. Complacency is poison for business, and so too was it for my city.
       In retrospect, how it all got to this point is vivid and clear. When one of the local bars started serving pints of the craft brew stuff, the executives of Smerton Brewing Company simply gawked in amusement: “A novelty beer! Well, isn’t that something?”
       Little did we know that while all those “novelty beers” were spreading from bar to bar, we were too busy bickering with the unions and brewing up the same tasteless, factory-produced crap to realize the threat.
       As I said, in retrospect it is all clear memory, but that still doesn’t stop me from endlessly reflecting on where the time went and how we went wrong. The part that frustrates me the most is that, while the market was changing and our sales were dropping, I was persuading the company to stay the course. I can’t possibly count the number of times I argued something like:  “We have one of the most recognizable and positively-regarded beer brands in the industry. Why kill that by doing something different? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
       Our slogan, “Stand with Smerton Trophy”, usually featured an American farmer toasting our iconic trophy-shaped beer can to old glory while the sun set red over a corn field. The advertisements resembled old war-time posters that conjured blue-collar patriotism, the kind that our mid-aged, working-class clientele found irresistible.  Never mind that the only time Smerton ever actually won a trophy for best beer was over eighty years ago and just about anything was better than the piss water people used drink back then. No, that ancient accomplishment—which would never happen again—made Smerton part of a tradition. By drinking Smerton, the customer was choosing a time-tested product that reminded them of simpler days.
       Or so that was the marketing logic I had reinforced for years. And truth be told, it worked. People did stand with Smerton. People all across America stood with Smerton for eighty fine years. Indeed, the president of the company and proud heir of the family business, Bob Smerton, wasn’t exaggerating when he said that even the entire city stood with Smerton. The brewery and its related industries provided by far the greatest source of economic activity in the region for a long time.
       And yet, that exact same glorious history was incredibly effective at blinding us from the truth; the truth that even though people respected our brand, they still preferred the new craft brew stuff.
       Much of the decline started with Bob, my boss for the last decade. Bob was nowhere near as enterprising or creative as the company’s founders. What he lacked in intelligence and business knowledge, however, he made up for with charisma and a bluntness that many found refreshing. Since the day he took over for his deceased father, he was the face of the Smerton empire; proudly promoting his family’s legacy at parties and beer festivals across the country. So long as he could do this job well, it mattered little to most in the company that he was a stubborn, pig-headed brute. It mattered little, that is, so long as I was there to make all the important decisions.
       This was an easy job for many years. In most cases, Bob would trust my decisions about our marketing and business strategies, no questions asked.
       Until the day arrived when we needed to do something different.
       When we started competing with the craft beers and our sales began to dramatically decline, even I had to admit that staying the course was unsustainable. But trying to persuade Bob that we needed to diversify our product line and change a business model that had worked for nearly a century was like an affront to his entire being. Convincing him that we needed to close entire factories or risk severe losses certainly wasn’t much easier. Even when I did manage to get through to him, sometimes the change was too little too late. That my latest product idea—“Smerton Frost”—had fallen flat in terms of sales was proof of this to me. By the time we finally put the wheels in place to deploy the product, several competitors had already launched their own lines of sweet and fizzy alcoholic drinks aimed at capturing the young women’s drink market.
       But what was most troubling about Bob’s stubbornness is that, because I was always the bearer of bad news and the one pushing him to change, he began to associate all of the company’s misfortunes with me. Worse, Bob was certainly not the type to have any qualms about shooting the messenger.
       I found this terrifying. The mere thought of having to find new work at my age—and in the current economy—sent shivers down my spine stronger than any Midwestern winter chill ever could. The kids still had several years of college left, and retirement was at least another decade away. It had actually gotten so bad in the past few months that for the first time in my life, I feared going to work. Every day on my commute, I felt a painful dread that Bob would suddenly decide that he had had enough with me. At times, I could barely look at him without my heart plummeting into a pool of panic and resentment.  Then, on the commute home, I would exhale in relief, elated having survived another day, only play out the horrible drama all over again when I woke up the next morning.
       This was no way for a man to live. If the end of my career at Smerton was truly near, I thought it far better to see it out on my own terms. I decided it was high time for something completely new. Something bold, something daring, something to prove that this buffalo nickel was still worth a thirty-year investment by the company. After months of research, ethnographic studies, and target-audience receptivity tests, I had come up with an idea crazy enough to stake my job on. And I was ready for my presentation about it to be either my last hurrah or my saving grace at Smerton.
       My first challenge of the day, however, was counting to twenty without losing my nerve.

       After taking some long frigid breathes and slowing down my pace, I began to feel my entire body go numb. Like a dead man walking, I stared vacantly and walked in slow steps through the revolving glass door and into the shining modern lobby of Smerton Tower. Patty, the receptionist, eyed me curiously when she didn’t receive her customary morning greeting. My eyes wandered away from her instead, briefly contemplating how the same black leather couches and marble statues I had passed by for years could appear so different to me when my mind was so absorbed with apprehension. I walked into the elevator, pressed the button, and stared at the steel door the whole way up.
       When I reached the 10th floor, my trance was replaced by a flurry of second thoughts. My mind ran wild with doubt as I moved through the hall of cubicles and into the warmth of my office. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, after all? Maybe I would have been better off spending these past few months polishing up my resume and contacting some headhunters? What if someone found my idea offensive?  What if they all just think I’ve lost my mind?
       Not that any of this senseless worrying would get me anywhere. I was on at 9:30 AM, and the town hall clock tower outside my office window said it was 9:15. Fifteen minutes beforehand was not the time to let toxic thoughts take over.
       “Get a grip. You’ve done your work, you know your stuff, and you’ve set the stage,” I thought to myself. “You’re as ready as you’ll ever be.”
       I sat down at my desk and purposelessly shuffled through my note cards. A clamor of chuckles made me look up. A group of my colleagues in black business suits was outside my office walking towards the conference room, sipping coffee mugs and exchanging morning trivialities along the way. I stared at them blankly and continued to shuffle my note cards.
       Until I saw Bob’s big round figure trailing the group.
       He caught my eye and stopped momentarily. Lowering his glasses, he smirked and then raised his coffee mug to me. It was a morning “cheers” not unlike the thousands that came before it. Except this time it seemed to say “Last chance, or it’s your ass, old friend”.
       I raised a mug back at him to return the gesture, and waited until he had passed completely before I sprinted out the door and into the bathroom.
       A few stomach contortions later ended with only dry heaves into the sink. I clasped the counter with sweaty palms, and lifted my leaden head until I was facing myself in the mirror. My big brown eyes were wide with dread, and once-black-now-peppered hair drooped limply over my forehead.
       In that moment, I looked more unlike myself than ever before.  In fact, the fear on my face looked so silly and cartoonish that I actually let out a hysterical laugh.
       What kind of Vice President breaks down like a college intern before a big presentation? Forget what happens in that conference room, I was far more of a leader than Bob would ever be.
       Did the PR folks rush to Bob when The Times wrote that exposé about Smerton cutting corners on hygiene at its facilities after some old man found rat shit at the bottom of his bottle? No, they ran to me because I could play damage control like no one else. “Emergency opposition research!” I commanded, and it was done. We promptly launched a smear campaign against the old bastard to make him look like a crazy meth addict with zero credibility. And who did the accountants turn to when they needed to streamline the company? It sure as hell wasn’t Bob. They knew no one could trim the fat like me. I fired off some pink slips and had that balance sheet back in the black in no time. Bob might own the company on paper, but there was no denying that I was the reason it had survived this long.
       I smiled at this thought and wiped the dry-heave spit off my mustache.
       My confidence once again intact, I re-parted my hair and straightened my tie. A few more deep breaths and I exited the bathroom.

       When I arrived in the conference room, my colleagues were already assembled around the table chatting with one another. Looking outside the window panes, which formed the outer wall of the room, I could see the sun beginning to break through the grey clouds that were hovering over the city and the river.
       I would take any good omen I could get.
       Bob sat at the head of the long conference table, stroking his bald spot and fiddling with his suspenders. I felt his penetrating eyes follow me as I walked over to the projector at the opposite side of the room and uploaded my slides.
       When the first slide appeared on the projector screen, I wasted no time in launching into my presentation, knowing that every second I delayed would cause me to become more nervous.
       “Good morning everyone, I would like to get started,” I began.
       My colleagues ended their conversations almost instantly and turned their full attention to me. Bob folded his hands on his gut, leaned back in his chair, and watched intently from the opposite side of the table.
       “Thank you. I hope you are all keeping warm. I swear the weather today is colder than Bob was to those beer judges who mistook him for the mascot of Humpty Dumpty Brewing Company at the state fair last summer.”
       Everyone laughed, including Bob. Now I was rolling.
       “Okay, so this meeting, as I’m sure you’re all aware, is to discuss some of our recent problems with sales. After that, I’m going to present to you a bold idea for how we can turn those trends around, make Smerton Frost a profitable product, and get Smerton Brewing Company back on its feet again.“
       I advanced to the next slide, which was full of beer sales graphs and financial forecasts that would make most businessmen gasp.
       “As most of you know, sales of our flagship beer, Smerton Trophy, have been steadily declining for years. The reasons for this are many, but changing consumer preferences and increasing competition from craft breweries are most to blame. However, I will argue that we must continue to produce this product even if it comes at a loss. I say this because Smerton Trophy is central to our company identity. It is the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of Smerton. To eliminate such a time-tested and recognizable product would be suicide for the Smerton brand. The real profits, therefore, must come from other product lines that use the familiar Smerton label to their advantage. That’s where Smerton Frost was supposed to come into play.”
       I advanced the slides again to show more sales trends that were nearly indistinguishable from the harrowing ones that came before.
       “But, as you can see, it hasn’t been as successful as we would have liked. Why is that? Because we were slow to deploy the product and because the target market became saturated before we could take advantage. By the time Smerton Frost reached the shelves, there were at least five well-recognized competitor brands of sweet and fizzy alcoholic beverages targeting twenty-and-thirty-something-year-old women.”
       “Or maybe it was just a bad idea all around,” Bob interjected, “did you ever consider that explanation?”
       I ignored the interruption and pushed on before anyone could react.
       “Nevertheless, there are good reasons why we would not want to change course right now. We have already invested a large amount of time and money into the branding and capital required to make Smerton Frost. To reverse course or redirect resources into new products could lead to even greater losses at this point. Moreover, the product itself is not critically flawed. The problem is our target market was exploited by competitors while we were still reacting to the evolving trends. What we need to do is redirect Smerton Frost to a more promising market, one that has not yet been so extensively exploited.”
       “And what market would that be, exactly?” Bob interrupted once more.
       “I’m getting to it,” I said, this time with less patience, “There is a particular demographic that consumes more alcohol per capita than any other group—outside of alcoholics, of course.  Research suggests that this demographic can spend up to ten percent of their lives ‘blacked out’ and nearly a third of their lives hung over. They practically make a sport of consuming large quantities of alcohol in single, peer-pressured settings. What’s more, this group doesn’t have a clue how to spend money responsibly and is extremely prone to impulse buying.  And yet, despite all these facts, this is a market that is remarkably under-exploited, both by us and our competitors.”
       My colleagues were leaning their grey heads forward as I said all of this. I took my time before advancing to the next slide.
       “I’m talking, of course, about ‘bros’.”
       The revealing slide showed a photo of young men in various-colored polo shirts, sunglasses, and backwards baseball caps; all striking a pose in front of a Southern-style house with tall white pillars and three giant Greek letters on the roof.
       There was pin-drop silence and puzzled looks all around.
       “What are ‘bros’?” one of my colleagues finally asked, “You mean ‘brothers’?”
       “No, this is a very distinct demographic,” I exhaled and replied, “These are meat-headed, collar-popping, chest-bumping, testosterone-fueled young men who love competition, relish womanizing, and positively live for parties. They will take up almost any excuse to drink and turn any occasion into a drinking event; be it tailgating, weddings, birthdays, holidays, graduations, you name it. They will drink during the morning, during the day, and at night. And during one of their all-day drinking events, which they call ‘benders’, even a small group of bros can easily consume a keg or two. In short, this demographic is a gold mine just waiting to be exploited.”
       More silence.
       “You’re basically talking about college fraternity boys? We can’t market to frat boys,” Bob griped with his hand outstretched, “Most of those kids are under the drinking age. Do you have any idea how much trouble we would get into if we started marketing to under-aged kids?”
       A few of my colleagues adjusted their hearing aids and started whispering to each other. I swallowed and continued.
       “Yes, and that is exactly why this marketing campaign won’t be like other campaigns. You’re right, it would certainly be bad PR to be seen marketing to this group. But the beauty of what I’m about to propose to you is that we won’t be seen as marketing to them, even though we really are. What I’m proposing is a marketing stunt that is highly coordinated, but on the surface will appear to be nothing more than a wacky trend stemming from the crazy imaginations of bros. You could call it guerilla marketing, or a ‘viral campaign’, if you will.”
       One of my colleagues raised his stubby hand.
       “I’m sorry, but I just can’t imagine a group of college frat boys getting excited about a fizzy, sugar-water drink that is usually marketed towards women. Even with some stealthy marketing stunts, I think getting them to like this product would be an uphill battle.”
       “You’re getting ahead of me,” I smiled, switching to a slide filled with bro opinion polls, “and you’re absolutely right. Bros don’t like Smerton Frost. In fact, they hate Smerton Frost, perhaps because it is exactly the type of drink that has been so extensively marketed to women. Research shows that a central aspect of bro culture is ostentatious masculinity. Bros will go to great lengths to appear macho, especially in peer-pressured settings. A bro wouldn’t be caught dead drinking a Smerton Frost, lest he appear feminine and suffer the belittlement from the other bros. But, far from locking us out of this market, I believe we can actually use this to our advantage. In fact, I have come up a marketing ploy that will not only attract this lucrative demographic to our product but, by my calculations, could actually generate so many sales that it would singly-handedly get Smerton Brewing Company back in the black again. And what’s more, it would do all of this without drastically changing business course or sacrificing what we’ve already invested in Smerton Frost.”
       Bob stared at me with his eyebrow on the high, while the rest of my colleagues listened on the edges of their seats for the second time of the day. I cleared my throat, even though it didn’t need to be cleared.
       “So, without further ado, gentlemen, I give you ‘Bros Frosting Bros’.”
       I switched to the next slide, and allowed the picture to sink in. Many turned their heads to the side. Some squinted at the screen. Others adjusted their glasses. The bafflement was suffocating.
       “I don’t even know what to think about this,” Bob shrugged and threw his hands in the air, “What is even happening in that picture?”
       “What you are actually seeing here is a marketing stunt,” I explained, “As you will observe, there are two bros in this picture; one in a red polo, and another in a blue polo. The bro in the red polo is standing, while the bro in the blue polo is down on his knee rapidly drinking a Smerton Frost. The bro in the red polo, you see, has presented a Smerton Frost to the bro in the blue polo, who, having received the product as a surprise, is thus forced to get on his knee and finish the entire bottle at once. This is all much to his embarrassment. You will notice all the other bros in the background pointing and laughing at his misfortune. Having succeeded in catching him off guard with a Smerton Frost, the bro in the red polo can thus be said to have ‘Frosted’ the bro in the blue polo, hence the stunt name ‘Bros Frosting Bros’. Now, under normal circumstances, such a bizarre scene would never happen because, as I mentioned, bros are repulsed by Smerton Frost. Moreover, they would certainly never get down into such a submissive position in front of another bro. But, the beauty of this demographic is that, when something is seen a popular prank, a meme, or a game by which one bro can humiliate and assert his dominance over the other, almost anything becomes possible. This stunt takes advantage of yet another defining characteristic of bro culture: their fierce competitiveness. Any type of game that allows them to feel superior over others and reap social validation is irresistible for bros. And of course, with any exceedingly macho culture comes homophobia. The act of one bro getting down on his knees while the other bro stands looks very much like…well, you know.”
       Several wrinkled mouths around the table dropped at this comment.
       “And so you can see, every element of this marketing-stunt-disguised-as-a-game is designed to ensure that the loser receives the ultimate insult according to bro culture, while the winner reaps proportionate rewards by the same cultural rules.”
       Another of my colleagues raised his hand.
       “I don’t get it. How exactly is this a game? If that, uh, ‘bro’ in the blue polo was afraid of being handed a Smerton Frost and having to chug it on his knees, wouldn’t he just avoid the red one? That doesn’t sound like much of a game to me.”
       “Good point. That’s why there is another layer of complexity to this stunt which I haven’t explained yet,” I continued, “Under the rules of the ‘Bros Frosting Bros’ game, a bro need not always fall to his knees once presented with a Smerton Frost. There is a way to block the move and turn the humiliation on your opponent. Let’s imagine that the scene on this slide had not yet taken place. And, let’s also imagine that, this time around, the bro in the blue polo happens to have a Smerton Frost in his pocket. According to the rules of the game, if the bro in the blue polo can show that he has his own Smerton Frost on him when the bro in the red polo presents him with the product, then the roles are reversed.  In other words, it is now the bro in the red polo that would be forced to fall to his knees and endure the humiliation. What results from such rules is a constant state of paranoia by which bros try to outwit each other using our product. There is much laughter and social rewards to be gained by ‘frosting’ your bro, but it only makes sense to do so if you suspect that your target does not also have a Smerton Frost on him. Herein lays the game. Take note that the defensive position in this game essentially calls for a bro to have a Smerton Frost on him at all times in order to avoid humiliation. Can you imagine the sales boost we could get if every bro in America had a Smerton Frost on him at all times?”
       There was mumbling, nods, and chin stroking around the table as they comprehended my logic. Another colleague weighed in:
       “It seems like a very creative game, but isn’t all of this a little degrading to the product? I mean, the whole idea is based on people trying to humiliate each other by making them drink a Smerton Frost. Doesn’t that kind of fly in the face of everything that marketing is supposed to do for a product?”
       I took a deep breath.
       “Again, the beauty of my proposal is that we are not directly degrading the product ourselves. If this stunt is deployed correctly, it will appear as though Smerton Brewing Company had nothing to do with it. Instead, it will appear to be just another crazy trend of these college kids with too much time on their hands. What’s more, we can continue marketing the product to women while this all goes on, as initially envisioned. I guarantee you that most women will care little about what bros think about Smerton Frost. Hell, then again, some of them might even join in the game!”
       Several chuckled. Bob was not one of them.
       “Okay, but how exactly do we pull this off in practice?” someone asked, “It’s fun to think about as an idea, but how on earth would you get these young men to start playing this game? Especially when they hate our product, as you already said.”
       “Well, first and foremost, it is absolutely essential that this not be seen as a marketing ploy,” I responded, “If that happens, the jig is up. A group of people who value ego over everything else cannot be made to feel that they are being played for fools or doing someone else’s bidding. Instead, what we need to do is hire some young men to infiltrate bro parties and perform the stunt themselves. These undercover contractors can then convince bystanders that the game they just witnessed is all the rage. As more bros become familiar with the rules, it will have a snowball effect. The game will spread from party to party, campus to campus, state to state, until before you know it, bros are frosting bros all across the country.”
       There were nods and glances that seemed to say “a-ha” all around.
       “And so there you have it. To summarize: the viral marketing game, ‘Bros Frosting Bros’, takes our new product and directs it towards a lucrative, under-exploited demographic, one that many who sell sweet and fizzy adult beverages probably never thought possible of penetrating. By cleverly taking advantage of their mass consumption of alcohol, their love of competition, and their susceptibility to peer pressure, we can break into the bro market and completely resurrect our sales for Smerton Frost. All of this while keeping our current investments in place and saving the money it would cost to change course or develop new products. Never underestimate the power of creative marketing, gentlemen, it might just be what saves this company. Thank you for your attention.”
       Everyone hesitated for a moment. Then, one by one, they began clapping. Some enthusiastically, others not so much. As the applause died down, yet another awkward silence filled the room.
       “Well, what do we think?” I broke the silence.  When no one responded, I pointed towards a colleague. “Al, what do you think?”
       Al shifted in his chair and cleared his throat.
       “I have to say that this idea is extremely…unconventional, though well thought-out. And somewhat funny, too.”
       Several looked at each other with nods and protruding bottom lips.
       “Well, I don’t think it’s so funny,” Bob snorted, “Let me get this straight, you want us to risk this company’s reputation by advertising to an illegal age group that doesn’t like Smerton Frost to begin with, and then waste our resources on an underground marketing campaign that is, frankly, very silly and has no guarantee of catching on to a degree that would actually boost sales? I’m skeptical, very skeptical.”
       Sweat was building on my brow as he said all of this. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they all could have seen my heart throbbing through my suit jacket.
       “The idea is robust in theory,” I managed to retort, “It is innovative and different, yes, but isn’t the reason that Smerton Brewing Company is in trouble today because we have failed to be innovative and different? This could be our chance to turn everything around.”
       Bob grunted. “Daring as it might be, I still find all this quite bizarre. I mean, who in their right mind would ever actually do such a thing?”
       I hesitated and sighed until my lungs were empty. I had hoped that it would not have come to this. But now I could not see any way out. It was time to deploy Plan B. All or nothing. Now or never. And I needed to do it fast, as every single heart-pounding moment I let slip by diminished my courage exponentially.
       “Well,” I whispered after a long pause, “for one, all of you in this room would do it. In fact, you’ve all just been frosted, right now.”
       Everyone looked around, bewildered. One of my colleagues put his stubby hand over his eyes, obviously embarrassed for me.
       “What the hell are you talking about?” Bob barked.
       “Look under the table and see for yourself.”
       Suspicion and concern took hold of every face in the room. Eventually, however, they all looked down and reached under the table. After feeling around for a moment, their sagging faces lit up. They had found them.
       Snaps and peeling-noises erupted as each of my colleagues pulled a full bottle of Smerton Frost out from under the table, still bearing the duct-taped that had held them in place.
       “You have got to be kidding me! Did you really duct tape all of these Smerton Frosts under the conference table before this presentation?” One of my colleagues blurted out, half laughing.
       “It’s not funny,” I said without moving a single muscle in my face, “You will all fall on your knees and finish them right now.”
       Silence.
       “You will fall upon your knees!”
       I screamed so loud that I might have shaken the ceiling tiles. Many jumped in shock.
       “You will fall upon your knees and finish that Smerton Frost now! Come on! How are we supposed to get bros excited for this campaign if we can’t even get excited about it ourselves!?”
       Whatever fear and tension I felt before had now completely dissolved into an adrenaline-fueled rage. Electricity pulsed through my blood and the veins in my neck pounded as I shouted. My colleagues look around at one another; wide-eyed, frantic, and terrified by my sudden fit of passion. The panic in their eyes was palpable and invigorating to me.
       “Get out of your shells! Do you want to be the men that watched this company go under or do you want to be the men who save it?! Do you want to be the ones who chose more of the same shitty marketing that we all know doesn’t work!? No! That time is over! From now on, Smerton Brewing Company will be pioneers of daring and creative marketing! And it all starts right now! You want to keep your jobs?! Then you’ll get on your knees and finish those drinks, right here, right now!”
       Many looked at Bob with pleading eyes, begging him to provide some sort of direction of what to do. Bob offered no answers, as he too could only stare in shock and disbelief at what I was doing.
       Finally, one of them popped the cap off his bottle, inched onto his knees, and began to drink.
       “That’s it Larry!” I pointed and smiled like a madman, “At least one of you isn’t ready to leave this company for dead yet! And what about the rest of you?! Are going to let Larry do this by himself?! Willing to just let the ship sink, huh?! I can’t believe I hired you, seeing what little cojones you all have today!”
       Fear gave way to stern determination as I said all of this. Bob sent many a frightful glare, daring them with his eyes to follow Larry’s lead. It was to little avail. One by one, like falling dominos, they pushed back their chairs, fell to their knees, and began rapidly chugging their Smerton Frosts. Many bottles still had duct tape strapped to them.
       “That’s it! There are the bold men I hired!” I couldn’t stop myself from jumping up and down as I yelled, “Finish them! Let those Wall Street analysts who say Smerton is dead see this now! Come on gentlemen, drink!”
       It was a scene that had to be seen to be believed: a Monday-morning conference room full of grey-haired businessmen on their knees—in thousand-dollar suits—pouring sugary alcoholic drinks down their throats. Eyes watered, throats pulsed, and sweat poured down their foreheads. Like loyal soldiers on the battlefield, they seemed ready to die before leaving a bottle unfinished. I threw my hands into the air like a preacher before his congregation, crying out for the invisible hand of the free market to have mercy on their pitiful souls.
       Finally, gradually, the bottles went dry. The room erupted in a fit of heavy coughs as the men struggled to their feet, wiped their mouths, and slunk back into their chairs. I continued to hold my hands in the air, and as they lifted their bleary eyes to me, I sent them all a warm and approving smile.
       The coughs subsided. I lowered my hands and directed my gaze towards Bob, who had been sitting back in his chair the whole time with a face of stone and his hands folded on his gut.
       Then, in the softest, most controlled voice that had ever come from my lips, I said:
       “Now try to tell me that no one would ever do this.”
       Though Bob’s exact facial features were obscured to me from all the way on the other side of the long conference room table, I think I could make out just the slightest hint of a smile.

 

 

 

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The Handoff

Synopsis: First off, sorry that it took me a while to finish this story, folks. My only (admittedly poor) excuse is that it has been a busy year and I was very nitpicky with its review. Excuses aside, however, this is a short story based loosely on my personal experience graduating from college during the Great Recession. I believe it reflects the experience of many millennials who came of age during a very difficult economic time period and found that, to their surprise, the “real world” was far less welcoming and forgiving than all their mentors led them to believe.

The story follows a recent graduate named Tom who, after eleven agonizing months of unemployment, finally lands a professional position and could not be happier to be moving forward with his life.  But before he even has a chance to get settled into his first day on the job, his feisty new co-worker pulls him into a work crisis that leaves them both racing against time on a wild Halloween night to get a crucial deliverable to their government client before midnight. Failure to make the delivery on time would sink the company before Tom even gets his first paycheck.

The Handoff
By Marshall Geck

         It was 11:30 PM. I opened the door of Jen’s red Prius and found a pile of cigarette boxes, red beanies, round-lensed sunglasses, vegan cookbooks, and obscure Indie rock band CD’s staring back at me. She motioned for me to shove them aside. I did as told and slouched into the vehicle, careful not to step on any of the artifacts I just threw onto the floor in front of my seat. She shuffled her thumb over her cell phone and fumbled with her keys.
         “Here, talk to the client,” she commanded as she threw the phone into my lap.
         I bobbled it briefly before putting it to my ear. But no words came out when I opened my mouth to speak. I had no idea what to say.
         “Hello? Hello?!” shouted a man on the end of the line.
         “Uh, hi this is Tom from EGR Inc.” I finally managed to spit out.
         There was a pause, followed by a heavy sigh.
         “Well, I’m extremely relieved to hear from you. I was getting very nervous here in the eleventh hour. When can I expect to get the public comments from you?”
         “Tell him we’re on our way now and we’ll be there as fast as we can,” Jen instructed, anticipating the conversation perfectly without even hearing it directly. She started the car and turned on the headlights.
         “We’re on our way now and will be there as fast as we can,” I repeated.
         “Very well. I’m in contingency meetings with other agencies at Federal Triangle. Please go there and call me as soon as you arrive,” the man directed, “the clock is ticking.”
         With that, he hung up, and Jen put the pedal to the floor. She peeled out of the parking lot, barreled through a small pile of leaves, and sped right through a stop sign down a dark residential road. I clicked in my seatbelt, grasped the center counsel of the car, and stared wide-eyed at the streetlights flying by. They cast an eerie yellow glow over groups of wispy ghouls, pale vampires, hairy werewolves, and walking corpses on the sidewalks.

         I had thought about dressing up for Halloween that morning, but decided to play it safe instead, seeing as it was my first day on the job. As Jen raced and swerved through the darkness that night, it was hard to believe that it was actually only that morning that I was strutting along the tree-lined sidewalks of Arlington, Virginia on my way to work, admiring the autumn colors and holding my head high like a man who had just conquered Rome.
         I had won some battle, I suppose, one waged over months upon months of endless applications, desperate guidance-seeking, searing rejection, and angry hand-wringing. Looking back, I think the despair wasn’t only due to the seeming impossibility of moving onto the next step in my life or the humiliation of having to return to square one — my parent’s house. What felt far more damaging is that, for the first time in my life, I felt utterly lost. Everyone had always told me: “You’ll set the world on fire, my boy! All you need to do is get into that Ivy League school, make that GPA soar, and pile on those extracurriculars!”
         Eleven months after college graduation, I was sitting in my childhood bedroom, mechanically catching and throwing a tennis ball against the wall right beneath where my degree hung.
         I had built quite the collection of specimens on the shelves in that room since graduating. I only put the best ones on display though. The most intact fossilized nautilus shells, the arrowheads with the fewest chips, and the half-loaves of granite bearing purple quartz in their hollows were featured prominently. Piles of lesser-quality fossils and artifacts had to make due in the moving boxes on the floor. If I couldn’t get a real job, I figured I should at least put my “Archeology, Society, and Environmental Anthropology” degree to some use.
         My parents didn’t understand this collecting project of mine at all, which they instead deemed to be a neurotic coping mechanism. The only reason they allowed me to keep bringing piles of dusty rocks into their house was because they were more preoccupied with their lost pensions and the foreclosure warnings they kept receiving.
         But on that morning in Arlington, money was for once, not a concern. That morning, I was no longer trapped in the limbo between school and the “real world”. That morning, I could finally see a path to moving on, and more importantly, moving out.

         Jen slammed on the breaks and let out a stream of expletives. We screeched to a stop, and our headlights illuminated a group of glowing, steely-white skeletons and mangled, blood-soaked zombies staggering into the street from a bar. They jumped as Jen lay down her horn.
         Though startled for a moment, the blaring horn seemed to bring them back from the dead, turning them into living fossils of obstruction. They taunted us with their drunken recklessness, dancing around the street like careless fiends, kicking leaves at our car, and mocking us with impudent, shrieking laughs.
         Jen turned her wheel, stomped her foot on the gas, and swerved around them into the other lane. I gasped and braced myself as we met the blinding-white headlights of an oncoming car. She peeled away from the panicked vehicle at the last moment, missing a dancing skeleton with the tail of her car by mere inches. They screamed their own set of four-letter words and hurled a barrage of only-nearly-empty plastic beer cups at us as we sped off. She opened her window and put her middle finger into the air as they faded away into the background.
         We soon plunged onto the Interstate 66 onramp towards Washington DC. I exhaled heavily and tried to calm myself by focusing on the red laser at the tip of the Washington Monument, which shone through a thin fog that was building up over the city across the river.
         It was 11:45 PM.

         In truth, I would have given anything to be throwing away some disposable income and enjoying Halloween night after a long day at work like those drunkards. Unfortunately, it wasn’t in the cards for my first day at the job.
         The morning started out calmly enough. I entered the office, coffee cup in hand (I could afford to visit coffee shops now because I was employed), ready to begin an easygoing orientation day. I almost had to pinch myself when I saw a nameplate with my name and title etched into it on the wall outside of my cubicle. After having a rotating work space while interning at the Natural History Museum over the summer — or rather, having them decide as an afterthought where I could perform my free labor while getting in the way as little as possible — it was humbling to instead see a company making a permanent space for me. In fact, I almost felt undeserving.
         I hung up my coat, took a seat at my new desk, and began checking my first work emails, which of course contained nothing but long and dense company orientation manuals.
         That’s when she dropped the bombshell.
         Jen came flying into my cubicle, red coat flapping and green eyes blazing as they struggled to restrain the panic brewing right below the surface. Her sandy blonde hair was in disarray, as though she had just taken off her beanie and hadn’t bothered to straighten things out again.
         I turned to her, stunned by her abrupt entry.
         “Tom, whatever they have you doing today, I need you to put it aside. There is something of much higher priority that I need your help with.”
         She told me that EGR Inc. was under contract with the Bureau of Land Management — or the “BLM” as she called it, since everything in Washington had to have its own acronym— for a project to manage and answer public comments for a proposed new regulation to restrict coal mining on federally-owned lands. She told me that there were four million public comments spread out between their experts in different EGR branch locations across the country. The conservative-dominated Congress—which was at political war with the more liberal-leaning executive branch of government—had slipped some obscure provision into a piece of “must-pass legislation” requiring the deadline for public comments on the new regulation to be pushed forward. Worse still, it required our client to complete the collection process by the new deadline or else halt the regulation-making altogether. The new deadline, she said, was midnight.
         Needless to say, most of this went right over my head.
         She was red in the face and spoke more with her hands than her mouth. She said it was all a “sick attempt to kill the regulation because they all know full well that it will be impossible for us to get the BLM all the public comments by tonight.” She couldn’t believe how Congress “just didn’t care about all the people who suffer from breathing dirty air from coal power plants” and that “every single one of them was in bed with the coal industry.”
         I said nothing and just gave her several jolted nods.
         Then, she instructed me to go around the office asking the other employees to stop everything they were doing and make their computers available to help download the millions of public comments that were located at the other EGR branch offices. She told me to tell anyone that refused or talked back to me to “do as they are told if they still want to have a job tomorrow.”
         What had begun as a day of hopeful excitement turned into an avalanche of stress and dread as I went from cubicle to cubicle telling people I had never met before that they needed to stop working for reasons I could barely understand, let alone recite confidently. Thankfully, most of them complied without issue. Some even nervously joked about how I managed to get roped into such chaos on my first day at the company.
         Only after starting the download on my third computer did I begin to calm down again. About two hours later, Jen and I had about 15 different computers working to download the public comments. Even so, she said there was no telling how long it would take so we “might as well start praying now”.
         As I began to breath normally again, and as the two of us settled in to a day of musical computers in order to continually check the progress of the download and ensure there were no errors, Jen came up to me and apologized for “dragging me into a fire drill on my first day”. She said that I would quickly discover how much of the company’s work was subject to the unpredictable whims of the clients, which in turn was one of her least favorite parts of the job.
         “What keeps me at EGR is that I feel like the work we do can make a difference,” she explained, “I don’t know about you, but I couldn’t imagine working for no other purpose than some company’s profits. I’ll never understand how all my friends and family back home in the Midwest can work for nothing other than the feeling that they are making money and are on the right track in life. Like my dad, he’s been an accountant for a big department store chain in Wisconsin for more than 30 years. Yeah, he’s well off and gave us a comfortable life, but all he does is look at numbers all day. And that’s completely fine with him. It’s as if that’s all he ever wanted from life. I guess I always felt like if I’m going to dedicate so much of my lifetime to work, there needs to be more of a point to it than that. Do you feel the same, Tom?”
         I just nodded in agreement. I suppose I did always believe that I should find a job where I could do what I loved. I counted myself beyond lucky to get an offer with a company that worked on minerals and land management— things that were at least somewhat related to my obscure degree.
         By that point, however, I had spent so much time just trying to get any job and watching helplessly as my student loan interest piled up higher and higher that the meaning or purpose of it all had started become an afterthought.
         “Sometimes I have to wonder just who the weird one is though, you know what I mean?” Jen laughed uneasily, “Back at home, they all think I’ve lost my mind. They prefer life where everything is safe and familiar and non-combative. They don’t understand why anyone would want to leave all that and move to the edgy part of some inner city, and especially some city where everyone wants to be a firebrand for some political cause or another. And you should see their faces whenever I go home and tell them I don’t eat bratwurst and cheese curds anymore! The word ‘vegan’ isn’t even part of their vocabulary!”

         It was 11:55 PM. The fog over Washington had become thick and wet. We sped down Constitution Avenue past blurry stone-columned buildings and hazily-illuminated white monuments. Jen was increasingly aggressive and perturbed now, passing every car in our wake and laying on her horn at anything that threatened to slow us down. I thought that if the traffic didn’t prevent us from getting to our BLM client before the clock struck midnight, a police car surely would.
         Finally, we came to a halt in the middle of the street outside of Federal Triangle. Jen threw on her emergency flashers, ignoring the angry horns from the cars behind us.
         “Call the client again!” she shouted.
         I quickly dialed and pressed the phone to my ear, and each ring without a reply was torturous.
         “Please tell me you’re here!” the client picked up. His voice sounded like someone making a 911 call.
         “Yes, uh, we’re here…should I come into the building?” I asked, doing my best to talk over the blaring car horns behind us.
         “No! It will take you too long to get through security! I’ll come outside and get it from you!”
         With that, he hung up. I sat there in my seat feeling paralyzed for a moment.
         “Get out and take it to him!” Jen commanded as she thrust me the flash drive with the public comments on it, “We don’t have time to find somewhere to park!”
         Suddenly, bright red and blue lights began flashing. Jen turned towards her side-view window and met the stern gaze of a policeman in his cruiser with his window rolled down, indicating in slow and deliberate movements that we had better move immediately.
         “Get out now!” she screamed.
         I jumped to my feet and was out the door before another thought could pass. I stepped onto the sidewalk and watched Jen’s fuzzy red taillights speed off down the street with the police cruiser trailing right behind.
         Completely alone, I hurried along the sidewalk in a desperate search for the entrance to the imposing stone structure at Federal Triangle. The darkness and dense fog obscured the hazy yellow streetlights and made it nearly impossible to tell which end of the building the doors for the general public would be on. I could only hope that I was heading in the right direction. Cold mist on my face paired with cold sweat on my body.
         Just then, I saw a black silhouetted figure walking towards me through the fog. Assuming it to be the client, I rushed forward to meet him.
         It was a man with a top hat, black blazer with coattails, and thick dark beard— the spitting image of Abraham Lincoln. He jumped when I ran up to him, startled by my abrupt appearance through the fog. I quickly apologized when I realized he wasn’t who I was looking for and moved past him. Honest Abe just eyed me suspiciously and staggered on his drunken way.
         It was 11:58 PM.
         More panicked than ever, I turned my stride into a desperate run; looking anywhere and everywhere for a way into the building. Fallen leaves took air as I kicked them up, leaving a swirling trail behind me.
         Then, through the haze emerged another silhouetted figure, also running towards me with loud steps on the sidewalk and his coat flailing behind him. I picked up my speed, and gradually, a goateed-man in a black pea coat, white dress shirt, tie, and crew cut emerged from the fog. I came to a halt in front of him.
         “Are you the client!?” I stammered amid heavy pants.
         “EGR?!” He asked, also short of breath.
         I reached into my pocket and thrust the flash drive forward. He snatched it from my hand, threw his wrist to his face, and pulled back his sleeve to view his watch. My heart raced wildly as I stopped panting and held my breath, ready for the final verdict from the judge and jury of time.
         “Ten seconds to midnight,” he said, with noticeable relief coming through in his voice, “so I can thankfully report this as delivered on time.”
         An uncontrolled, almost giddy smile came over my face.
         “Oh, that’s so great!” I nearly shouted. My exclamation seemed to stun him, so I quickly tempered down my excitement and tried to act as professional as possible, “I apologize that things didn’t go as smoothly as we would have liked today, so thank you for bearing with us.”
         “Thanks to you too, I hope you have a Happy Halloween.”
         And then, almost as quickly as it began, the encounter ended. The client turned around and walked off into the fog, becoming a black silhouette once again before fading away completely.
         I just stood there, motionless. All the events of that day had happened so fast and occupied my thoughts with such intense, single-minded focus that I didn’t know what to do with myself at that moment when everything was suddenly over. Slowly, however, the adrenaline pumping through my veins transformed from fear to triumph. I closed my eyes, and the weight of all the stress melted away. In one instant, every drop of cold mist on my face felt exhilarating. I felt light, exultant, and vindicated—as though I had just come out of the last college exam of my life. I lingered there for what seemed like hours, and would have stayed in that moment forever if I could, but I soon noticed white lights flashing along the curb.
         It was Jen.
         I turn my head one vertebra at a time. Though the window of her car was dark and the fog was thick, I could tell she was beaming at me. I couldn’t help but smile. Gradually, I exited my trance, walked over to her, and pulled myself into the car.
         Jen was on her phone again as I settled into my seat. It was the first time I had ever heard her voice so relaxed and cheerful.
         “I have Tom here right now. Here, I’ll put him on,” she chimed as she handed me her phone. I put it to my ear without even asking who it was.
         “Hello?”
         “Tom, pleasure to meet you. This is Betty Adams, the CEO of EGR,” said a woman on the other line, “I just got a call from our BLM client informing me that you and Jen delivered the public comments on time. I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for the company today. I’d also like you to stop by my office tomorrow so I can thank you in person for the commitment and dedication you showed. I think you will have a great future here.”
         “Thank you, it was no problem,” I responded, nearly choking back tears.
         “I hope you and Jen get some well-earned rest and I look forward to meeting you tomorrow morning,” the CEO commended.
         She hung up. I put down the phone and turned to Jen, who met my look with a warm smile and happy green eyes. She took her hand off the steering wheel, and put it in the air. I met her high-five with a clap so loud that it left my ears ringing.
         “Welcome to EGR! You know, it’s not everyone who can say they helped to save the company on their first day!” She gushed.
         And just like that, initiation seemed to come to an end. The “real world” had finally welcomed me to its ranks, and there was no going back.

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The Celebrity

Synopsis: This is a throwback story I wrote in the Spring of 2009. At the time, I was a UC-Berkeley English Major obsessed with Nathaniel Hawthorne, and I think it definitely shows in this story.  Not only is my language painfully wordy like an 19th-century author, I also imparted it with what I considered to be some classic “Hawthornisms”, such as a prominent contrast of dark and light, an exposition of what it means to be a certain type of American, and a shocking ending intended to leave the reader feeling unnerved.

The story follows Jessie, a young man from the Hollywood Hills, as he travels to Minnesota during the dead of winter for a relative’s funeral. While he initially enjoys getting to know his distant family members there, he can’t help but feel something off-putting about the whole place. Initially, he can’t put his finger on why he feels this way, but it is a feeling that only grows the more time he spends there, until eventually, he simply can’t stand it anymore.

 

The Celebrity
By Marshall Geck

          There were few things that could have so effectively enhanced the gloom of that congregation than a winter storm. Remarkably, most of those in attendance conversed animatedly and with an easy air, making one apt to wonder whether they were actually viewing a funeral reception or a summer barbecue haphazardly conceived in the dead of winter. On the other hand, it could have been that Midwestern charm, which smiles and exerts cheerfulness during sun or sleet, at wedding or funeral, in the presence of life or death. In any case, it was apparent that they were gathered in this house, dressed in black, to enjoy a night together, rather than spend it mourning.
          Just as the snow began to unleash its heaviest torrent, an intense white light pierced through the tall living room windows. Those inside shadowed their eyes with their palms and looked curiously towards the disturbance. Once their eyes adjusted to make out the figure of a shiny black Hummer, they smiled admiringly, as though expecting a red carpet to roll out from this beautiful machine.
          Dan Swenson grinned to himself while the man within the Hummer shut off the engine and stepped out into the bitter cold. As he made his way towards the house along the snow-covered walkway, Dan’s black-haired mother, Julie, assumed the most-welcoming of smiles and hurried over to the entryway in her high heels to greet the guest. Dan watched eagerly as the guest entered and removed his snow-caked hood, revealing his wavy beach blonde hair.
          “How good to see you!” Julie exclaimed. “Uff da, it’s been forever!”
          The guest smirked at the strange expression as they embraced, and then began:
          “They wanted me to send their condolences, and they’re sorry they couldn’t make it. They’re co-producing a film that’s behind schedule and needs to be finished by Christmas.”
          “Well, it was nice for you to come pay your respects, you’ll have to persuade your parents to come visit sometime! That is, if you movie stars ever get any free time!”
          “Or we could go visit Jessie,” Dan interjected cheerfully, “Minnesota probably isn’t high on their vacation destination list, you know.”
          “Good to see you cuz.” Jessie grinned and extended his hand, amused by the way Dan drew out his vowel in the word “know.”
          “Good to see you too,” Dan returned the grin and gripped his hand firmly. “Did you make the drive okay?”
          “Oh man, it was so much longer than I thought. When I agreed to come see you guys I hadn’t looked at a map yet, who would have known that Minnesota was half a country away?”
          Julie, slightly puzzled by the ignorant remark, cleared her throat, “Ok, I’ll let you guys make your rounds. We’ll have plenty of time to catch up later. You should talk to some of your relatives while they’re still here, a lot of them are pretty down and would be happy to talk about a subject other than Mary. Can I take your coat?”
          Jessie gazed into the living room as he slid his arms out of his thick coat and handed it to Julie. The fireplace was sputtering with a struggling fire, casting an orange glow across the room. It had a rather cozy aspect, especially when contrasted with the avalanche of snow falling just outside the tall living room windows. The room was populated by somber men in black suits, sharing memories over red wine. Their pale complexions, typical of those who live in areas with harsh winters, made Jessie gawk with satisfaction at his own skin, which was browned by countless hours at the beach.
          “Is this your first time in Minnesota?” Dan inquired, breaking Jessie’s silent observation. “As long as I can remember, the family always visits you out there.”
          Jessie looked at his cousin, surprised that he could feel so awkward amongst his own relative. “Yeah it is,” he responded. “I actually had to break into my snowboarding gear to make sure that I could find enough warm clothes for the week.” Here a momentary silence passed. “When was the last time we saw each other?”
          “We had to have been about five,” Dan pondered. “Not really old enough to remember much. But you have to answer me this, is every girl in the OC just gorgeous?”
          Jessie turned his face away from the living room to hide his impulsive laugh, the awkwardness effectively expelled.
          “If they’re not gorgeous, then you can be sure that there’s some plastic surgeon who’s going to make a lot of money off them. But we probably shouldn’t be joking right now, it looks like there are a lot of people here upset about Mary.”
          Dan nodded, his eyes brimming with thought. “It’s strange, we all knew it was coming because she had been dying for such a long time, but it doesn’t quite hit you until it happens. That she’s really gone this time and you’ll never see her again, I mean.”
          A moment of slow nodding and wandering eyes passed between the two.
          “Hm.” Jessie said. “I only met her a few times, but it’s strange for me too. Call it a sixth sense or whatever, but I believe that you can feel the death of a relative more distinctly than when other people die because of your connection, however distant that connection may be.”
          “Very deep.”

          Jessie was thereafter introduced to several of those attending the reception. Some had faces familiar only in vague childhood memories, others he had never met once, but was surprised to find that they bore a relation. As ambassador for his side of the family, he was obliged to report their state of affairs, as well as answer innumerable questions about the sunshine state. He attracted no small amount of attention among that crowd, and those that weren’t conversing with him would whisper to each other or gaze at him in awe. In short, he was treated as a celebrity, an attention that he found both puzzling and flattering. He reasoned that they must be speaking to him so eagerly in order to distract themselves from the assailing thoughts of their perished relative. Accordingly, he apologized for their loss, and was surprised to receive a smiling “thank you” from most of them.
          As the snow began to let up, the reception began to break up. The guests had paid their final respects and were now making their way down the snow-covered path towards their cars, their huddled black coats and hats sprinkled with specks of snow. As the room emptied and the fire finally succumbed, Dan approached his cousin and invited him to his ice fishing hut on the lake, assuring that the Walleye would be biting at this time of night. In truth, Jessie thought the idea of sitting in a rickety ice hut over a frozen lake sounded miserable. But, not wanting to offend his cousin, and persuaded by his aunt Julie that it would give him a “taste of Minnesota,” he reluctantly acquiesced.
                                
          He was even more reluctant to drive his hummer onto the ice, fearing that it would be too thin to support “his baby.” Dan gasped with laughter and asserted that it was cold enough for the ice to support ten Hummers stacked on top of each other.
          It was eerie to drive over that barren white lake surface. Flat, treeless, and constantly assuaged by heavy gusts of wind, it formed a frozen desert extending into the black horizon. Jessie fought to keep his Hummer steady, since the gales that rushed across the vast expanse were impeded by nothing but this top heavy machine. Coming here had been a sacrifice from his schoolwork that he had agreed to, and driving his wavering Hummer over frozen water didn’t make it any more enjoyable. Notwithstanding, he chatted with Dan for the entire ride as openly as he could manage.
          “So I have to ask,” Jessie said as they pulled up to an ice shack smaller than his car, “why were people so lively at the funeral reception? I would have thought that they would have been much more depressed.”
          “Well, it’s like I said, she had been dying for years, it’s not as though her passing was unexpected. They had time to come to terms with it.”
          Jessie was shocked nearly speechless by an intense blast of cold that hit him when he opened his door and stepped out.
          “Oh,” he managed to spit out. “Was your side of the family close with her?”
          “Ya sure.” replied Dan.
          Jessie let out a howl of a laugh at this response, sending Dan into perplexity.
          “What’s so funny?”
          “Ya sure!” Jessie mimicked. “It just sounds funny, reminds me of Fargo.”
          “That movie entirely overdid the Minnesotan accent,” Dan laughed. “No one talks like that, except for maybe a few people out state.”
          They hurried into the shack, and Dan flipped on a flood light. There were two aluminum benches against the brown padded walls, and in the middle of the room was a hole in the ice, so dark that one couldn’t be sure whether it extended merely a foot deep or in fact reached the center of the earth. Outside, the night winds howled in heavy gusts, causing the shack to creak and shake. It was an igloo as far as Jessie was concerned, and about just as cold. He entered with an eyebrow raised.
          “Well, you realize that movie is what comes to mind when most of us think of Minnesota?”
          “Unfortunately I do know that.” Dan grabbed a fishing pole from the corner of the shack, and began to bait his line with a wreathing leech. “It’s kinda sad, really, that that’s all most Americans know about this place. I mean, this state is part of their country! You would think most people would know at least a thing or two about it.”
          Jessie took his seat on one of the benches and sat stiffly against the wall, his hands buried in his jacket and his chin tight against his chest. He watched his cousin handle the slippery black creature on the fishing line. Disgusted by its appearance and Dan’s ease in handling it, he quickly glanced at the ceiling and tried to think of something to say. Dan dropped his line down the abyss.
          “Is this what you usually do for fun?” Jessie asked. He shifted nothing of his position, save for his eyes, as he attempted to re-ignite the conversation.
          “You betchya. To be honest, ice fishing is mainly an excuse for married men to get away from their wives” Dan pulled a box out from under his bench and extended Jessie a bottle of beer. “To get away from their wives and get shit faced with each other, that is.”
          Intrigued, yet still unsure he saw the appeal in the ritual, Jessie took the bottle and accepted a cheers from his cousin. It was a rich porter with a froth and bitter bite that slid down only with difficulty. Certainly not as easily as the Coronas Jessie preferred. He winced.
          “That’s a dark beer.”
          “Yeah, it builds up your beer jacket quickly.” Dan said cheerfully. “But tell me, you must be in what? Grad school now?”
          Jessie trembled as he sipped his beer.
          “I’ll be finishing up my MBA in about a year.” The cold was occupying the better half of his mind, making his response come off flat and indifferent.
          “Nice. Why business?”
          Jessie shrugged and gave Dan a look that seemed to say “What a strange question!”
          “I just wanted to be financially well off. My mom and dad made it big in their industry, and they taught me to handle my money well. Business seems like a natural extension of what they’ve been teaching me my whole life. I can make money and hopefully afford a house in the OC and family of my own some day…and you?”
          A smirk crept over Dan’s face. “Oh, I’m working on one of those degrees where, once I’ve said the name, everyone always feels the impulse to ask ‘And what are you going to do with that?’ There are two correct answers: nothing and everything. I’m a bit of an optimist so I tend say ‘everything.’ But I don’t blame you, if I grew up in California all I would want to do is settle down at home too. Be honest, do you see celebrities on the street?”
          Jessie wanted to roll his eyes, but restrained himself in the interest of civility. The state of awe with which the people of this region attached to his place of origin and the manner in which they directed every conversation towards it had passed the stage of flattery. Yet, he also felt a sort of pity for them. After all, they couldn’t head to the beach every day, walk somewhere as exhilarating as the Hollywood Walk of Fame, or watch the sunset from the Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica pier. He contented himself with these thoughts, feeling infinitely gratified to live where he did, albeit slightly homesick. To think that he could have been drinking beers in a freezing, dimly lit shack during his adolescent years!  How they managed to remain so upbeat was beyond him. He rubbed his hands together impulsively.
          “Come on now,” he replied. “It’s a big place, its not like you’re going to see celebrities in every direction you look.”
          Dan nodded slowly. A moment passed where the only noises to be heard were the howling winds and the flapping walls of the shack. A heavy rumbling then erupted outside. Slowly, it became more audible. Jessie again raised an eyebrow and felt a hint of apprehension at the knowing grin that suddenly grew over Dan’s face. The door creaked open and a man in a black parka stood at the entryway.
          “Now who owns that big Hummer out there?” The man asked jovially.
          “How’s it going, Jake? That’s my cousin Jessie’s, he just got in from California. Jessie this is my neighbor, Jake.”
          Jake took off his hood and, beaming, extended his hand to Jessie. He had a prominent chin and forehead, as well as big gaping teeth whiter than the surrounding snow. Jessie shook it coolly, then resumed rubbing his hands together.
          “California, eh? You should have brought the weather with you!”
          Jessie could only nod in response.
          “Sit down and have a beer, Jake! You want another one, Jessie?”
          Jessie shook his head. His hands were too busy trying to keep himself warm. He was dumbfounded how Dan seemed to remain completely unfazed by the cold. Jessie had few qualms with the cold while twisting and skidding with his snowboard down a powdery mountain slope, but sitting recreationally in these frigid conditions forced him to contend with the temperature. Dan watched his squeamish movements with a look that expressed both amusement and concern.
          Jake sat down on the bench opposite of Jessie and began conversing with Dan. Up until now, Jessie had found it entertaining to listen to groups of Minnesotans talk with their sing-song accents, but now he half expected that they were purposely drawing out their vowels and ending every assertion with “dontchya know” for some self amusement, like players in a game of charades who refuse to break character even though the game has ended.
          The two chatted endlessly. Several times, Dan seemed to search for a leeway to bring Jessie into their conversation, but Jessie would respond with one-worded answers or let the topic slowly die. Dan appeared disconcerted for a moment, but after so many beers it seemed as though he couldn’t be disconcerted about much of anything. He and Jake simply became all the more happy.
          It seemed only fitting to Jessie that the two should begin discussing summer as he watched their white breath fade in the frozen air. They talked about neighborhood potlucks, pontoon rides on the lake during hot days, and the “state fair.” Their spirits seemed so much the higher by the mere thoughts. Though still silently brooding, Jessie could not help but notice how many neighborhood events the two spoke of, or even how often the words “neighbors” and “neighborhood” were mentioned during the conversation. Awfully simple to confine their social lives so strongly to those in their immediate vicinity, he thought. He tried to imagine throwing a potluck with his own neighbors. Not that they would ever want to, but Jessie was still perturbed to think about how insufferably awkward it would be. After all, the only time he ever spoke with his neighbors was if they happened to catch each other taking the garbage to the curb or picking up the morning paper. They would run through a few trivial questions, search for an excuse to leave when the conversation went dry, then head back to their house with the gate closing automatically behind them. It was a mutual understanding; they each had their own lives, lives which were only made that much easier by keeping on good terms with their neighbors. And they contented themselves smugly for going out of their way to make the effort when they didn’t have to.
          Finally, Dan and Jake finished the last bottles of the case, and decided to call it a night since they had not yet received a bite. Jessie stood up rapidly and walked out the door, annoyed at having sat around for several hours without catching a single fish (and after a lengthy day of driving no less!).  He was met again by a familiar blast of icy air as he exited. The dry snow whirled like dust storms on the flat ice surface, rushing near and far, this way and that through the darkness. It pricked like pins and needles on his face as he rushed to his Hummer. Dan and Jake followed at ease behind him.

          The night passed all too quickly. Jessie was awoken earlier than he would have liked the next morning by Dan, who energetically approached his bed and told him to get dressed because the family and their neighbors were heading to the St. Paul winter carnival.
          “It will do you good after a depressing night. There’s more to do here than go to funerals you know, and it’s the perfect morning to put the mourning aside,” Dan seemed impressed with his own clever wordplay. Jessie stared back vacantly, not quite awake enough to be moved by his cousin’s ardor.
          “Besides,” Dan continued. “It would be blasphemy for someone who’s never been to Minnesota not to visit the winter carnival. It’s to winter what the state fair is to summer. They’re the two quintessential Minnesota get-togethers!”
          Jessie slid his eyelids over his rolling eyeballs, then pulled himself out of his bed languidly and began gathering his heavy clothes.
          His Uncle Steve asked Jessie if they could all pile into “his baby.” Jessie cooperatively agreed, under the condition that he drove. In the calm after the storm, the landscape was no longer shrouded in stormy darkness, but covered with a cloak of snow that sparkled like diamonds against the bright and intensely blue skies. Jessie, irritable from the rude awakening and now compelled to drive, noticed that it wasn’t the barren white scenery from the night before, but had oak trees wreathing their boughs into the air as if to shake off the snow, and rolling hills contrasting sharply against the blue horizon and framed by wooden fences.
          It could have used a few palm trees.
          His Aunt Julie, Uncle Steve, and Dan talked excitedly along the way. Jessie remained silent. He inquired grumblingly where exactly they were headed, and was responded to with an uproar of enthusiastic explanations, each adding its own pang to his morning headache.
          And then, there it was. Towering amongst the skyscrapers of St. Paul rose the symbol of the Winter Carnival, a three-story palace constructed entirely of ice that glistened in the morning sunlight. Jessie found himself in awe for a moment, but sighed when he saw the lines of people filing in and out of the palace.
          What was it with these people and frozen buildings? Did they think that mingling in them was conceivably fun?
          Jessie parked his Hummer near the lake and was once again met by a blast of icy air. He would have ground his teeth, if they weren’t already chattering. Julie, Steve, and Dan were all smiles as they met up with Jake and his parents, and the phases “perfect day” and “gorgeous” were exchanged several times. Jessie shuffled listlessly towards the group.
          “First things first though, we need food.” Julie said with a lively air. “Hotdish is on me, Jessie what do you feel like for breakfast? Hotdish? Or maybe some cheese curds?”
          “Oh, I don’t think I know what either of those are.” He responded, already shivering.
          “Hotdish is like a meat and macaroni dish, and cheese curds are deep fried chunks of cheese.” Dan informed, with an expression that suggested both surprise and amusement at Jessie’s ignorance.
          “Sure, I’ll try whatever.” Jessie muttered.
          Julie shifted her eyes this way and that, disconcerted, but then turned and headed for one of the concession stands. Jessie stood stiff, hands in pockets, staring blankly at the throngs of people milling around the ice palace. The sun, made twice as bright by the multitude of snow and ice around them, seemed to have sent their spirits sky high. There were children running about with caramel apples, adults in overcoats chatting away with smiles, and dogs romping through the snow in search of a thrown stick.
          It was like a scene on the boardwalk, but in the wrong climate zone.
          Dan watched Jessie intently, baffled. He bit his lip and looked back and forth pensively. Suddenly, his eyes lit up brightly, and Jessie became infinitely suspicious as he jogged over to his mother with a shimmering smile. He met her by a concession booth and spoke to her with energetic hands, and it wasn’t long before she returned the spirited grin and nodded in agreement.
          “I have breakfast,” Julie said as she returned with a tray with little bowls of hot-dish and spoons. The family members and neighbors each took one and began feasting. “And I have a surprise.”
          She handed Jessie and Dan a ticket. Jessie first looked at it nonchalantly, then gazed up at her with a look that seemed to say “You have got to be kidding me.”
          It was a ticket for the polar plunge.
          “Let me get this straight, you actually pay to freeze your ass off?” Jessie raised an eyebrow.
          “It’s a philanthropy drive, you pay to jump in but the money goes to the St. Paul Children’s Hospital.” Dan informed, his insistent tone and searching expression looking for any type of affirmation he could produce from Jessie. “Come on cuz it’s going to be tons of fun.”
          Jessie could only stare in disbelief.
          “Ya sure! It’s a blast! Quite literally! Trust Me!” Jake persuaded.
          Jessie’s jaw dropped as he shook his head. “You’re out of your mind! There’s not a chance!”
          “Oh come on! You’re not going to make Dan do it alone are you?” Julie prodded with a nervous grin.
          He felt his hands becoming tied, and he felt the electricity from all those eager eyes weighing on him. What was wrong with these people?
          He pursed his lips and shifted his eyes back and forth. An intense shudder shot through his spine at the mere thought of the cold.
          “Look, I’m sorry, but there’s no way I’m getting into that water. I’ll accompany you if you want to jump in but I’m not getting closer than that.”
          Dan sighed and his face resumed its former pensive aspect. Jessie turned away, not wanting to face him after declining the offer so rashly. As much as he did not wish to insult his cousin, he also felt that what he was being asked to do was simply outrageous, and it surpassed the limits of his courtesy.  When they all stepped outside the ice palace and headed for the lake, however, he noticed that Dan had lost his pensive expression and replaced it with a smirk of resolve, leaving Jessie unsure whether Dan had understood and accepted his decision to sit out this activity or if his suspicious instincts should be aroused for a second time that day.
          A crowd of spectators had gathered on the ice to watch the display of daredevils plunge into a hole in the ice filled with frigid black waters.
          “We’re going to go stand over by the spectators,” Jake said. “Have fun!”
          Dan cranked his neck and closed his eyes, mentally preparing himself for the impending dive. Jessie still couldn’t believe what he was seeing; men and women in nothing but their swimsuits doing cannonballs into the plunge area, only to resurface with faces of morbid terror before scrambling out with all they could muster. Certainly, these people had to find some way to cope with the harsh winters that they were dealt, but this was borderline insane. Somehow putting yourself at risk for hypothermia was supposed to be fun? His whole experience in this state had been shrouded in confusion, call it culture shock if you will, but he felt utterly dumbfounded by this custom. He had spent but a night and morning here, yet with every passing minute his aching to return home weighed heavier on him.
          He walked slowly with Dan out towards the plunge area, shuddering under his coat, the crowd of spectators vigorously cheering them on.
          With a mischievous smile, Dan told Jessie to watch how much fun he was about to have without him, but Jessie only returned the gaze for a moment. He suddenly felt his eyes fixed towards the sky. The sun, that same sun that had brought him so much warmth on a sandy beach, was fading behind a patch of clouds, casting a dark foreboding gloom over the lake.
          And then, to his absolute terror, he was thrown suddenly and forcibly forward, plunging into the black water below him. His heart seemed to stop from shock, and the razor sharp cold slashed through his skin. It was the most horrible and painful cold he had ever known. As he thrashed towards the surface, another body plummeted into the water beside him. He threw his arms towards a nearby ladder in a raving panic, climbed out as fast as his limbs could carry him, and threw himself on the solid ice, his wet body shaking violently.
          As he lay gasping for breath, he heard loud, piercing cheers arising from the crowd. Jessie covered his ears and shut his eyes, his nails digging into his temples. When he slowly opened them again, he saw Dan climbing out of the plunge behind him, his teeth gaping and his smile stretching from ear to ear.
          “You alright? Sorry to do that to you, but don’t tell me that wasn’t a blast!” Dan’s teeth were chattering as he helped Jessie to his feet.
          Still trying to pull his lungs out of shock, Jessie kneeled over panting with his numb hands on his knees. As he gazed up, he saw the figures of his relatives and their neighbors jumping and clapping ecstatically, almost hysterically.
          And then, the magma flowing through his veins erupted, and he turned to Dan with eyes of blazing fire.
          “Get the hell away from me!” He shoved him with all his might.
          “Hey cuz, I was only playing you know! Trying to show you a taste of Minnesota!”
          “Well don’t! I will die a happy man if I never get another taste of this shit!” At this he turned and started taking forceful steps back towards the parking lot on the shore. His family and their neighbors raced after him.
          “Jessie! I have a blanket for you to dry!” Julie cried.
          “No! I don’t want anything from any of you!” There was steam coming off his soaked coat.
          “Look Jessie, I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you!” Dan’s lips quivered with every word, as if he couldn’t believe what monstrosity had just emerged from his good intentions.
          Jessie stopped, turned, and planted his foot, daring them all with his eyes. They stopped and stared back, their own eyes pleading in pale mortification.
          “Don’t follow me.” He muttered.
          They watched in silence as he strode to “his baby” and pulled himself inside. He backed out, flipped on the heated seats, and drove off without a second glance in his rearview mirrors.
          Slowly, gradually, his fury began to abate. But there was something that left him still unsettled as he drove. It was familiar, but obscure and melancholy. It was, so to speak, a feeling akin to the electricity given off by the eyes of a connection, watching intently from around some mysterious corner, although he was entirely alone in the vehicle. Indeed, there were eyes on him, for as his own eyes began to wander, they were met by a woman on a wallet sized photograph that Julie had left on his dashboard.
          It was Mary.
          Her smile was contemplative and bore a Mona-Lisa like smirk. And like the Mona-Lisa, her omniscient eyes met you at every angle of the photograph, as if to say “Bravo.” Jessie grabbed it off the dashboard, rolled down his window, and let the photo be taken by the wind.
          And he pushed the pedal down heading west.

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