A Moment in Paradise

Paradise is where you find it.

Kim walked down the dark, deserted street of the little mountain town. At 10 pm. the sidewalks rolled up, except for a couple of bars that carried a pub menu to look respectable. Nobody glanced in her direction as she ambled down the street. Kim looked down and scowled at her worn, tight jeans, and faded college t-shirt that told everyone she was just another dropout.

Kim stopped for a moment and forced herself to smile. Life was not all that bad. After all, Doreen had given her a part-time job at the tourist information center. Alice had given her a room in exchange for maintenance on the house. A glow in the sky coming from the next town over caught her eye.

She winced at the thought of the college town nearby. Self-absorbed professors strutted around like royalty. They would stroll down the sidewalks looking down their noses at the locals. The townspeople appreciated their business but scowled as the elitists left their stores. The sleepy college village was now segregated between those with PhDs and those who built the town.

These same professors would talk class after class about the oppressed, and examples of injustice weren’t hard to find on campus. Kim’s roommate slept with a professor just to get an ‘A.’ The roommate had no concerns for his wife and children, nor the fact he was sleeping with other students. Kim had grown tired of the hypocrisy. If these were the people she would spend her life working around, she preferred to walk away.

It only took a ten-mile drive to find her new world. People here welcomed everyone, even the college dropouts that meandered through town. Fashionable cars driven by stylish people would park next to old rusty pickup trucks. Vehicles that coughed and smoked would start up next to high dollar imports. Nobody minded. Everyone was equal, and everyone smiled and waved to one another.

Kim leaned against a light pole and looked towards the local bar and restaurant. Patrons filled the patio on this late summer night. The owner, Patricia, walked back from a table and spied Kim. She smiled and waved. Kim smiled, waved back, and rested her head against the pole. She was not sure where she would end up, but for now, she would stay in paradise.

Bitten

Careful where you step.

Jerry’s pace quickened against the crisp mountain air. Dusty clouds emitted from his jogging shoes as he traveled up the dirt road. A view of the Rockies was on his left and an Aspen covered slope on his right. His agile legs expertly guided his feet around the rocks that could twist his ankle.

The smell of pine and fresh air filled Jerry’s nostrils, and a smile remained transfixed across his face. The dirt road turned sharply and substantially increased in grade. His leg muscles started to burn. The smile left his face for a few moments before it returned, and the burning disappeared.

The sun was beginning to break over some of the lower crests, and its warm glow fell on the back of Jerry’s t-shirt. He turned the next switchback, and the sun heated his face. He glanced up at the clear, blue sky when a sudden pain struck his right ankle mid-step. Instinctively, he kicked and saw the small rattlesnake go flying off into the bushes.

He stuttered, wobbled, and stumbled. The blood swiftly pumping through Jerry’s veins began to burn.

Jerry let himself collapse in the middle of the road. He screamed, and the morning’s smoothie ejected from his stomach. Tearing at his shirt, he fashioned a tourniquet using a nearby stick. His hot muscles and veins fought against the restriction put upon them.

Jerry blocked his instincts to stop tightening the torn fabric and twisted the stick between gasps for air. Dizzy and nauseous, he worked to control his breathing.

He had wanted a quiet run, and now it looked like he was going to die in the effort. The minutes ticked by, and his right leg became numb below the tourniquet. Looking down, his toes and foot looked as though they would pop if someone poked them with a needle.

An unnatural rumble emitted from the bottom of the valley. Jerry blinked, shook his head, and strained to decipher the sound below. Whatever it was, it was climbing up the dirt road. The distinct sound of an engine began to grow louder, and Jerry said a prayer of thanks.

A black jeep appeared around the bend and Jerry hollered and waved with everything he had left. The red-headed driver stopped and jumped out. Her tight hiking outfit and boots fit her girlish figure like a glove.

Jerry gasped, “A rattlesnake bit me.”

“Don’t move,” insisted the young woman.

The hiker went back to her jeep and got one of her walking sticks.

“Grab hold of this. I’ll take your other shoulder and help you up. Then we’ll get in the jeep.”

Jerry managed to keep his foot off the ground. A warm wave rose from his stomach to his chest, and the road rose and fell under his feet. He swallowed hard, and they worked their way over to her jeep.

The young woman already had the passenger seat tilted forward, and Jerry eased into the rear. He laid there on his back with his foot elevated. She grabbed an ace bandage from her first aid kit, and the two of them tied off his tourniquet. Dialing 911 on her cell she jumped in the front seat, turned the jeep around and made her way back down the mountain to meet the ambulance.

“If you don’t mind me asking, why didn’t you have a cell phone?”

Mumbling through the pain, he responded, “Solitude.”

The young woman glanced at him over her shoulder, “Judging from that swollen foot, I think your running days may be over.”

Jerry attempted to smile, his voice strained, “Maybe. There’s always swimming.”

“Does that mean next time I’ll find you floating in one of the lakes?”

“Possibly.”

The woman reached back with one hand grasping at the air. Jerry grabbed her hand for a moment. “My name’s Maria.”

Although he was wincing with pain, the conversation was keeping his mind occupied. “I’m Jerry. Thanks for the rescue.”

The ambulance appeared ahead, and she pulled to the shoulder. The EMTs brought the gurney to her vehicle and Maria hastily scribbled something on the back of a card from her purse. She walked over and put it in Jerry’s hand.

“Don’t lose this. It has my business number on the front and my cell phone on the back. Let me know how things turn out. Maybe we can go to dinner sometime, and you can tell me how you managed to avoid this from happening until now.”

Jerry looked into Maria’s bright, blue eyes and muttered. “Remind me to thank that snake later.”

The EMTs delivered a quick dose of pain medicine and pushed the gurney into the ambulance. Jerry felt himself relax and closed his eyes.

Alone

It is not good to be alone.

Ahmed walked through the steel and glass canyon. He shivered, and his chest tightened as the cold afternoon breeze cut through his blazer. Ahmed distanced himself from the mass of humanity crossing the street.

Two blocks later, he arrived at the familiar breezeway and hurried to an unoccupied table in the empty plaza. Ahmed closed his eyes and let the sun warm his cold face. A chair slid from the other side of the table, and a dank smell wafted in the air. Ahmed opened his eyes. Before him sat a man in dirty clothes, and a threadbare overcoat. The stranger smiled and stuck out his crusty hand.

“Hi, people call me George. Sorry if I disturbed you. I just needed to sit a spell.”

Ahmed kept his cold hands in his pockets. “I don’t want to offend you, but there are lots of other tables.”

George pulled back his hand, “I see.”

Ahmed felt his face flush and quickly interjected, “It’s nothing personal, I came here to be alone for a few minutes.”

George nodded and said, “Isn’t that a coincidence, I used to come here seeking solitude myself.”

“But not today.”

“I do as I please. Look, I used to look miserable like you. I bet it’s your job and maybe the family.” George held up his hand, “No, you don’t have to answer, I can see it in your face. Well, I got tired of everything, too, and I left it all behind. Now I live free and do what I want.”

Ahmed leaned forward, “Did you have a family?”

George stared blankly up into the sky. “I used to. The pressures at my job and home; I just couldn’t deal with it anymore. So, I quit work and walked out. My wife filed for divorce after I didn’t come back home. It took the papers a while to find me.”

George’s hollow eyes looked into Ahmed’s, “I have to admit, I do miss the kids. Eventually, my wife remarried, so the girls got a new dad.” George shrugged, “Nobody seems to miss me.”

“I’m not sure I want to walk out on everyone and everything.”

George waved him off, “Give it time, you will.”

Ahmed stood up, “I appreciate the visit. If you don’t mind, I think I’ll head back to work.”

“That’s the spirit. Before you go, any chance you can give a fella a couple of bucks for his advice?”

Ahmed pulled out a twenty and handed it to George. They shook hands, and Ahmed left, determined never to return.

Voices in The Breeze

Life and death can happen in a whisper or a scream.

My few friends call me Owen. Names are such weak attempts to identify who we are. We are nothing more than souls to be discovered and then gone. Forever lost back to the earth.

I had a close friend once. His name no longer matters. We used to hike among the rocks and mountains on the edges of the Mojave Desert. On one fateful day, we were trekking along a dusty forgotten path as was our custom. Dust rose from the ground with each footfall or occasional gust of wind. We had long since given up any effort to stay clean. Even in late September, the sun’s heat baked our skin mercilessly. Hot and dirty, we were thrilled to find the long lost ghost town nestled between the rocky cliffs of a small pass. We sat down in front of a dilapidated schoolhouse and gave our tired bodies a rest.

The warm water from our canteens soothed our parched throats. Scanning around the small town, I was the first to notice the dark opening in the hillside. On closer inspection, the dark entrance opened to a manmade tunnel. The old mine meant refreshing air. We would have to listen for rattlesnakes, but if we were careful, we might find something to occupy us until the day had cooled and we could return to our camping spot.

My friend and I walked quickly to the mine’s entrance. All we could think about was the chilled air waiting inside. I paused for a moment at the mine’s entrance. Only the wind could be heard blowing through the tunnel. We allowed our eyes to adjust, and our skin enjoyed the cool
breeze rushing towards the opening. We each chose a side of the shaft and pushed our backs against the wall. The sun provided a pale hue to light our way. We could make out rocks on the floor and the changing shadows deeper inside. We began stepping along the wall and had gone in at least 200 feet when I spied the end of the tunnel and could tell it turned in two directions.

In anticipation of what lay beyond we quickened our pace. Two steps later, the world changed. I heard my friend scream. I could barely make out the horror on his face as he fell down the black hole in the floor. His screams
seemed to go on forever until they quietly faded away. I cautiously stepped closer towards the dark hole in the floor yelled his name again and again, but he never answered. I picked up a nearby rock and dropped it down the shaft, but I never heard it hit bottom. My fingers desperately dug through my backpack, hoping to find anything that could help. My fist gripped a forgotten penlight, and I turned it on and dropped it into the void. The light disappeared into the darkness.

I yelled one last time before rushing headlong out of the mine and down the hot, dusty road towards our campsite. Three hours later, I stumbled into what had been our sanctuary. I dove into my tent, grabbed my cell phone, and called for help. The ranger station knew the location; we had not been the first visitors in this part of the desert. The ranger’s truck finally rolled into my campsite after an eternity. One Ranger coldly informed me that my friend had fallen into a bottomless pit. None of the rescue ropes or spotlights had been successful in finding the bottom. His partner told me that locals had quit counting the mine’s victims long ago. I argued about the lack of warning signs, and the rangers scolded me for not using proper equipment.

Now I sit here alone at the black, chilly mine entrance. All hope of rescue is gone, and my friend is lost forever inside the earth. I will never forget his screams riding upon the cold, dank winds inside.