Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Just Cause

By Jason Offutt

The hot wind pushed David as he walked the narrow path, gripping a line of cable so he wouldn’t be lost in the night. The sand thrown by the wind stung his skin, but he no longer noticed. The sand would sometimes bring blood to the small patch of his face he left exposed to breathe, and maybe it did tonight, but the dry air evaporated any moisture it touched. I may find out in the morning, he thought. If I light the lamp. The satchel over David’s right arm shifted and almost fell, but he didn’t let go of the cable to secure his load. He couldn’t risk being lost in the wind.

David paused, the weight of the satchel made his arms weak and his back ache. His body was old, but how old he’d long ago forgotten. He steadied himself with the steel cord anchored in concrete and hoisted the strap of the satchel back onto his arm. The load was heavy and he knew the thick leather strap would leave a bruised strip across his thin shoulder in the morning. But he wouldn’t see it.

Squinting through dirty goggles, David could see a squat, black shape through the sand. He was almost home. He grunted and finished the last few yards to the cabin.

“Marta,” David called in the darkness as he walked through the sand room and into the small home. The only noise he heard over the wind was a wheeze from the far side of the black cabin. He slowly lowered the satchel to the wood floor and pulled out a bottle. “I’ve brought you some water.”

David’s boots scraped on sand as he walked through the darkness toward the wheeze. No matter how careful he was when he came home to Marta, sand always found its way into his home from the entryway where he left his desert clothes. David couldn’t get away from the sand, but after the years, he was used to it.


Another wheeze.

David felt for the chair he kept beside Marta’s bed and sank into it. He was tired. The trips to the well were almost too much for him. He wondered what would become of him and Marta when the trips to the food drop were too much, too.

“How do you feel?” he asked, although he knew she wouldn’t answer. Marta had been sick for weeks, her breathing becoming thicker, louder, until she couldn’t spend the oxygen to speak.

David reached in the darkness until he felt Marta’s dry, cracked face, cool in the stifling heat of the cabin. He smiled as he stroked her brittle hair with stiff fingers.

“Do you remember when we were children, Marta?” David asked into the darkness as he dabbed water onto her dry, cracked lips. “Do you remember the grass that grew around this cabin? Do you remember the trees and the blue river?”

Marta’s breath came in thick, wet gurgles, like an ancient drainage system clogged with leaves. David patted her vein-strewn hand.

“I know you do.”


A fireball screamed toward David’s head. He laughed and threw up his hands, a wall of water rippling in the air above him. The fireball careened off the wall, dying in a hiss as it fell harmlessly into the green grass. David smiled. He’d won again.

“That makes the fifth in a row,” David called into the pasture that surrounded the cabin. “Aren’t you tired of this game yet?”

“No,” Karl said from somewhere in the chest-high field they would soon have to cut. David heard a giggle in his brother’s voice.

He smiled and pulled his arm back to throw something that didn’t yet exist.

“Then catch this.”

“Boys,” said a voice behind David, the tenor of the word staying his hand. “You need to stop.”

It was Father.

David’s fingers crackled with the static electricity he was pulling out of the air. It would have given Karl a nice shock, but now he knew his hand would ache all day with the unused energy. He brushed his hands on his wool pants, but it just made the feeling of bugs crawling through his skin worse.

Father laid his hand on David’s shoulder. Father was a large man and the weight of his hand, calloused and scarred from a life of work, was heavy on David. David had grown almost as tall as Father, but he felt he would never be as large.

“Karl,” Father called into the grass. “Come here, now.”

David tried to steel himself, but he shook as Father leaned close to his ear.

“Karl is still a child,” Father said as softly as his voice would allow. “But you, you are almost a man. You have been drawing life from the earth. And worse, you’ve been doing it for play. A man knows better. The balance is to keep the plants alive. It is to keep the water fresh. It is life for the earth. It is not for us. When we use up the balance, something has to die. Remember this, something has to die.”

David winced as Father squeezed his shoulder under a hand that worked the land. The big man paused as his hand clenched his son. David thought he felt Father tremble.

“Your mother is sick,” his voice a whisper now. “But I cannot help her because the balance must not be used. Not to make her well, not ever.”

“Mother …” David started.

“Enough,” Father said. “Just show me, and show Karl, how grown up you can be.”

David watched the tall grass, Father’s hand feeling like a millstone on his shoulder. A small section of weaving grass moved against the tall stalks swaying from the wind. A moment later, Karl stepped out of the grass, his shirt blackened from one attempted attack that never made it far past his hand.

“Come here, Karl.”

Karl walked toward his father like his legs were much shorter than they were. He stopped outside Father’s reach.

“Am I in trouble?” he asked.

Father nodded and reached for him, his arms longer than Karl had thought. A hand wrapped itself around Karl’s budding bicep and dragged him closer.

“Yes, you are. But I won’t scold you now,” he said, relaxing his grip on David. “A new family has moved to the valley and needs help building their home. You boys will go. I have animals to tend.”

David knew it wasn’t animals Father had to tend. He’d already fed the livestock. Father had said Mother was sick. He was staying behind to tend for her.

“Yes, Father,” David said, looking into his father’s sad, weather-creased face. “We’ll represent the family well.”

Father smiled and gave the boys a push.

“Just see you get home by nightfall.”

The soup was warm. David turned the cup up and drained it quickly. Everything was warm now. He longed for a nice cup of cool spring water, or maybe a piece of ice. The warm wind of night whistled outside the cabin, bringing sand from many miles away. There were no trees now to block the wind, so it carried the sand everywhere – and the wind was always hot.

“The soup is terrible, Marta,” David said in the darkness, Marta’s thick breathing the only sound to interrupt the wind. “I’ll try to give you some, but don’t blame me because it’s bad. The soup packet was the only thing at the food drop when I arrived. The others must have missed it.”

Or they knew it was bad and left it.

David felt his way along the wall from the dry sink to Marta’s bed, his shoes scraping sand all the way.

“I heard a report on the wireless while I was out to the well,” he said. “A team digging atop the Old Forest has found viable acorns and a few other seeds. Trees, Marta, trees. If they can grow enough trees, maybe the sand will go away.”

Marta coughed.

That sounded like blood, David thought. I must risk the light soon.

David’s leg hit the chair and he sat on the old wooden furniture, left over from the days when the cabin was Father’s. Father may have even built the chair himself, but David couldn’t be sure. So many things had come and gone.

“Here’s some soup, Marta,” David said, scooping some of the watery, tasteless liquid in a spoon and slowly finding her mouth.

“That’s good, Marta,” he said. “I’ll find something better soon.”


The valley stretched for miles. Tall, green trees as thick as hair on a child crowned its sides. Ten families lived there. In the fall four other families visited the valley from the other side of the mountains, bringing apples and dresses and honey and news. The news was never good, it was always of death and the desert growing from someone outside the valley using the balance, but Father had to know everything. He cursed the news to Mother when he thought Karl and David were asleep in the small cabin’s loft.

Karl ran ahead of David as they walked toward the land of the new family. David carried four wooden mugs and a bucket of water he’d dipped from the spring behind the cabin.

“What do you think they’re like?” Karl asked, bouncing along the trail to the river.

“I think they’ll be people,” David said, smiling at his brother. “Or maybe monsters with horns and long noses and bottoms as big as a bear’s.”

Karl laughed and tossed a ball of fire at David’s feet.

“Maybe you’ll like a monster,” Karl said, laughing and kicking dirt toward his brother.

David skipped over the tiny fireball, water lapping from the bucket and onto the dusty trail.

“Karl. Father said you can’t …”

He froze and Karl ran into his back, water splashing from the bucket down David’s leg.

“Hey, watch it,” Karl said. “What’s the …”

David stood in front of what was once a great elderberry bush. The plant was still tall over him but its branches and stem, full and healthy when David and Karl went to the river the day before, were brown, lifeless. No berries would grow from this bush again.

“What happened?” Karl whispered.

“It’s dead,” David said.

“I know it’s dead,” Karl said. “Do you think we did it?”

David stepped past the bush and looked down the trail that was lined with elderberry bushes. They were all dead.

“I don’t know,” David said. “But the elderberries are gone.”

Karl sniffed and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his shirt.

“It was us,” he said, a tear running down his cheek. “Father told us not to use the balance, and I did anyway. I killed the elderberries.”

David gently grabbed his little brother’s face and turned it toward him.

“No,” he said. “You mustn’t think that way. We don’t know what happened to the elderberries. The new people may have used the balance because they don’t know any better. Father may have used …”

A branch snapped. David dropped his brother’s face and turned toward the sound. A girl holding a wooden pail now stood on the river path. Her brown, curly hair ran behind her ears and over her shoulders, cascading down the back of a once-white dress.

She’s beautiful.

David smiled, and thoughts of the elderberries were gone.

“My name is David,” he said, pulling a wooden cup out of his satchel and dipping it into the bucket of spring water. He held it out to her.

She smiled and reached her hand out for the drink.

“I’m Marta.”


David awoke sometime before midnight although the drop alert hadn’t sounded. He sat in his little bed across the cabin from Marta’s, sweat sticking the sheets to his skin. He wondered how long it would take his eyes to die in the darkness, leaving him blind like a cave fish. He smiled. Cave fish didn’t exist. The war had taken away enough of the world’s water, fish probably didn’t exist anymore. Birds and squirrels probably didn’t either. He didn’t hear news of fish or birds or squirrels, but the news rarely talked of anything but the schedule of food drops and the desert.

Marta wheezed.

David propped himself up in bed with tired, sweaty arms. Marta’s breathing was thicker. He ran a hand through his thin, greasy hair and stared into the dark cabin. A kerosene lamp sat on a stand next to Marta’s bed, but David hadn’t lighted it since the day Marta told him she was sick. There wasn’t enough oxygen in the air anymore to share it with fire. The war had seen to that.

She coughed again and grew silent.

“I’m going early to the food drop,” David said into the darkness. “I’ll bring you home something good, Marta. A potato, perhaps. The man on the wireless said there are still potatoes and sometime they’re at drops. I’ll bring you something more than soup.”

David rose and moved across the wooden floor, the boots he slept in scraping over sand. He pushed open the thick canvas curtain he’d nailed over the doorway to keep the dust in the sand room. Dust wasn’t good for Marta’s condition. He sat on a board he’d nailed into the wall and pulled on the heavy wool, sand-encrusted clothing that kept the wind from bleeding him.

He hadn’t gone to the drop this early for a long time. People were mean early. David pulled a short-bladed knife he’d once used for hunting off its hook and slipped it into his pocket. Before Marta was sick, she made him leave the knife at home. Now, he had to make sure he made it home to her.

He slowly pushed open the door against the hard wind, the darkness of night brighter than the darkness of the cabin. David missed the day, but the day was different now. It would kill you with its heat.

David felt his way around the side of the cabin until he found the metal cable, then he started his long journey to the drop.


Father took a long drink of spring water before he looked at David.

“You want to marry Marta?” Father asked. “You’ve only known her two months. I’m not even sure I like her father yet. He’s too good at cards.”

David felt a trickle of sweat run down his back. He fiddled his hands under the table until he saw Father smile.

“She is a pretty girl,” Father said. “And smart. Are you sure you want to marry a woman smarter than you?”

David smiled, too.

“Didn’t you?” he asked.

Father laughed and slapped David on the back, almost sending him to the floor.

“Then you’re ready,” Father said. “When is the wedding?”

“Too…” David started, but his voice squeaked.

“Tomorrow,” he said. “If we can have the loft in the barn to live in until I’ve built a home. I’ve already cleaned it and made some furniture ...”

Father put up his hand, stopping David’s words.

“Tomorrow will be good,” he said, his voice growing loud. “I’ll have all the valley here.”

David frowned.

“Do you agree to tomorrow because of mother?” he asked. “Is she worse?”

The door crashed inward. It was Karl. David’s brother spilled onto the floor, sucking the air like he was suffocating.

“Karl,” Father screamed.

Father ran to him and pulled Karl’s face to his chest.

“The news,” Karl whispered through the little breath he had left. “The news is here.”

Father lifted Karl’s face and stared into his eyes.

“What has happened?”

Karl tried to speak, but the words didn’t come. Father put a hand up until Karl caught his breath.

“The war has moved,” he whispered. “The desert is growing outside the valley.”

David started toward the door, but Father grabbed his arm.

“No David,” he said. “You can’t do anything about the outside. You can do something about the valley. We have a wedding tomorrow. That’s what you need to think about.”

David stood for a moment, watching Father comfort Karl, the great man for a moment blocking everything else in his life. He put his hand on Father’s and smiled.

“I’ll go tell Marta.”


Three people stood in the dull glow of a tungsten bulb hanging from the roof of the drop when David slid through the door. He stood in the 20x20 tin shell of a building blinking to get used to the light. He didn’t enjoy the light now. When you’re not used to something, it becomes uncomfortable.

David looked around the room when his eyes let him. He knew these people, Michael, Jennifer and Donnaly. He’d grown up with Michael, and he’d watched Jennifer and Donnaly grow from babies, and he hated them. They took what they could from the food drops. David had a few scars from them all.

“David,” Michael said, shuffling over the sand-covered concrete floor toward him. “The potatoes the wireless talked about. The potatoes are mine. If there’s anything grown, I’m taking it – not you.”

David pushed a hand into his wool jacket, fingering the knife.

“Marta’s sick,” David said, feeling his jaw muscles tense more with every syllable. “I’m taking what I want for her.”

Michael looked at David’s arm sticking in his jacket pocket, then at David’s eyes.

“Sure, David,” he whispered, backing toward the far wall. “Whatever you want.”

David relaxed his grip on the handle of his knife. Nothing was going to keep him from helping Marta.



The summer had grown hotter than David remembered any other.

“Are you hungry?” Marta called from the loft as she saw David walk across the field toward the farm. She’d been at the hay door for hours, waiting for her husband to come home from the small patches of green trees that dotted the valley. Waiting for him to come home with something more to eat than potatoes.

David walked through the stooped yellow grass, brittle from lack of water, his rifle hanging at his side. No meat again tonight. The trees were barren of life as they’d been since the war found its way into the valley. David walked into the dry, dusty barn and crawled up the wooden ladder nailed into the wall, wondering what would happen when all the trees were finally gone and there would be no more wood to use for building.

He crawled through the trapdoor to Marta’s smiling face.

David stood and placed his rifle on the wall rack under the trophy of a buck he’d brought home two falls ago. She ran to him and wrapped her arms around his neck.

“I didn’t see anything, Marta,” David said, holding his wife. “I’ve been hunting every day for weeks and we’ve had no meat. We have to have meat.”

Marta grabbed David’s chin and turned him to face her.

“We have potatoes and other roots,” she said, pulling his eyes to hers. “The war hasn’t killed the tubers. We will eat. Don’t think we will starve if animals that aren’t there don’t jump in front of your gun.”

David smiled. She was right. Marta was always right.

“What has happened here, Marta?”

Marta frowned, her limp, sweat dampened curls clinging to the sides of her face.

“What do you mean?”

David slowly released her and walked to the table, sinking into a chair he had built before the trees started dying. A dinner of soup was already on the table. Marta had known he wouldn’t find any game.

“We’ve killed the valley,” he said, grabbing a wooden cup filled with water. “The outsiders grew the desert, but I’m as guilty as them for bringing it into the valley. I’ve used the balance, too.”

Marta knelt beside him, moving the cup so she could grasp both of his rough, dirty hands.

“You’ve done nothing,” she said. “You and Karl played as children. That didn’t create the desert. Throwing fire and water at your brother didn’t kill anyone. It didn’t kill the deer and it didn’t kill the forest.”

David turned his head from Marta.

“We killed the elderberries,” he whispered.

A tear ran down Marta’s cheek, diverted by her smile.

“I was always partial to blackberries, you know?”

David held his wife and cried.


Two more people came to the drop. David didn’t recognize them. Strangers never came to the valley anymore. Since the desert had invaded the valley, there was no need. They were young people, David thought, although he couldn’t see their faces through the scarves that covered their mouths. They held themselves like young people – tall and straight, not beaten down. They stood away from Michael, Jennifer and Donnaly and settled near David. David clenched the knife so hard his hand hurt.

“Why are you here?” Michael hissed at the new ones. “This is our drop.”

One pulled a scarf down to his neck to reveal a narrow chin just sprouting tufts of blond beard.

“Our drop has been shut down,” he said. “We had no where else to go for food.”

“You’d better find one,” Michael said. “Because you’re not welcome he …”

“Michael,” David said, stepping forward, his hand aching in his pocket. “Remember your place. We have guests who are hungry. We should treat them well.”

Michael struck the side of the metal building with a fist, the cheap tin rattling from the blow.

“Why are you saying this, David? Your wife is dying. She needs the food these people will take.”

David relaxed his grip on the knife.

“We all need it,” he whispered.

The light in the building turned red and the whoop of the drop alarm sounded into the night, cutting through the moaning wind outside. David renewed his grip on the knife and pulled it from his pocket.

For Marta.

The building shook slightly as the hum of a motor filled the gaps in the alarm. A metal plate began to move on the center of the ceiling. It crept slowly off the opening of the great pneumatic tube that brought food from a place David didn’t know. He heard the vacuum rush over the drone of the wind and the alarm and food in boxes, cans and bags shot from the tube and landed in the center of the dirty floor. No one noticed the plate slide closed as they rushed toward the food.

David grabbed a can with his free hand, and shoved it into a sewn-on pocket of his wool jacket. He reached for a bag, but Donnaly kicked it out of his reach. He heard a crunch and looked to see Donnaly lying on the floor, blood rushing from his nose. The youth with the blond beard stood over him. David shoved two more cans into his pocket.

The youth stepped over Donnaly’s writhing body as his partner gathered food. He handed David the bag Donnaly had denied him.

“It feels like a potato, and maybe a carrot,” he said. “Tell your wife we hope it makes her better.”


“I’ve made you a new shirt,” Marta said, smiling at her husband as he walked through the cabin door, a bucket of dirty water in his hands.

David sat the bucket on the floor and took his wife in his arms. She clutched a gray shirt in her hand.

“I can’t wait to wear it,” he said, smiling. “Is today a special day?”

Marta wiggled out of his grasp and back to the floor.

“No. Unless you call finding a ream of cloth in a box special.”

David smiled and kissed his wife.

“Then it is a special day.”

He stripped off his sweaty, sand flecked shirt and dropped it to the floor.

“This is nice,” David said, slipping on his new shirt. “Where was the box?”
Marta bit at her lower lip.

“It was in the loft,” she said. “It was your …”


David stopped buttoning the shirt. He pulled a chair from the table and dropped into it.

“It’s …”

Marta pressed her fingers over his lips.

“I know the pain your mother had before she died,” Marta said, reaching to hold her husband’s face, rough from days without shaving. “I know you and your brother watched your father stand helpless over her. That doesn’t mean you should ignore her now. Think of the shirt as a gift from her, not me.”

David pulled Marta’s hands from his face.

“Father couldn’t care for her,” he said, standing and taking her again into his arms. He buried his face in her thick, brown hair and breathed in her scent. “He wouldn’t take away her pain. I won’t ever let that happen to you.”

David pulled back. He looked into his wife’s eyes and smiled.

“Thank you for the shirt.”


The wind was stronger as David neared home, or maybe, he knew, he was weaker. Tired muscles bunched in his arms and shoulders as he pulled open the door to the cabin against the wind and slipped inside. The cabin smelled of sweat and urine, as it had since Marta had become sick. In years past, he could burn a candle to cover a smell, but not anymore.

“I’m home, Marta,” David said. “I’ve brought fresh food and cans. Maybe they’re beans.”

Marta coughed in the darkness. Something had come out with that cough, David realized. Beans and a carrot wouldn’t make his wife well.

He dropped the food onto the sand-covered wooden floor of the cabin.

“I’m sorry, Marta,” he whispered. “I can’t help you with food and water anymore.”

A tear ran across his cheek as he walked toward Marta’s bed. He hadn’t cried in years. He couldn’t afford to lose the moisture in the desert air. David reached the wall and felt his way to the small table next to his wife’s bed.

“I have to see you,” he said as he fumbled with seldom-used matches and lit the small kerosene lamp. Her hair was still brown and full of curls, but her worn, pail skin, yellow in the firelight, was stained in patches from blood. “You’re still beautiful, Marta.”

He forced a smile.

“Just forgive me for what I’m going to do.”

David closed his eyes. Marta was dying. And would it be life without her? He sucked the oxygen-thin air into his lungs with shallow breaths as he strained to find the thing that had once come so effortlessly to him, the thing war and foolishness had drained from the world. There was still balance in the earth, he knew, or everyone would be gone, wiped from a lifeless planet. But how much remained?

David relaxed as his mind met a once-familiar touch. The balance felt cold. He didn’t remember it as cold, but nothing was ever cold anymore. David’s fingers grew heavy as the balance rushed into him, a blue glow of energy growing over the hands that once hurled walls of water at his brother.

I can fix everything, ran through David’s head as the energy of the balance took him over.

David bent low over his wife.

“I love you, Marta,” he said, and rested his blue, pulsating hands on her chest.

Marta gasped under his touch, the thick liquid wheeze slowly becoming clean, steady breaths. Her eyes crept open, but David didn’t know if she could see him.

“David,” she whispered in a voice he never thought he’d hear again. The voice was weak, but clear. “What have you done?”

David brushed the hair from her face.

“I’ve made you well, Marta. We can be …”

The small lamp in the cabin flickered as David felt the balance ebb from his fingers. His shoulders slumped. The balance was gone. He’d taken it all and something had to go. He took one last look at Marta as the oxygen slowly left the air and the small flame died, forcing David’s world into darkness again.

“I …” Marta whispered as her weak body sank onto her bed’s stained mattress.

“Marta,” David wheezed, the hot air of the cabin growing thinner. He found her hand and held it gently. “I’m sorry, Marta.”

Her hand grew limp in his and Marta’s life was gone.

Tears welled in David’s spinning eyes as he kissed his bride’s forehead and lay down next to her, waiting for his turn to die.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

When I Was Young

By Jason Offutt

“You do realize what you’re asking, don’t you?” Mr. Halloran asked. Halloran, of course, was not his real name. But as David sat in the man’s office, a bank of security cameras lining one wall, he really didn’t want to know.

Why David was here, in this office harmlessly tucked between a CPA and a Baskin Robbins, was, according to official government reports, crazy. “People go to jail for this,” his friend Frank had said one afternoon drinking beer in David’s living room. “Forever.” But David made an appointment through a guy who knew a guy who knew a guy, and walked into the storefront, its window sign “Daylight Donuts Opening Soon” lying to the world. Yeah, David knew what he was getting into.

“Of course I know what I’m asking,” David said, looking at his hands tightly grasped each other in his lap to keep from shaking. He knew it was dangerous, he knew it was expensive, and, most importantly, he knew it was illegal. Highly illegal. “I know the consequences.”

Mr. Halloran smiled and took a small sheaf of paper from a drawer of his spacious desk. He pulled a gold-tipped pen from his jacket and set it atop the contract.

“Good,” he said, pushing the pen and paper across the desk toward David. “Then, Mr. Donallen, it seems we have an agreement.”

David pulled his hands apart, waiting for them to shake, but they didn’t. He’d never done anything like this before and was he … afraid? Maybe. David picked up the pen, twisting it in his fingers, then he picked up the contract. “Why the risk?” Frank had asked after the game, holding his car keys and a handful of chips for the road. “If it’s because of Karen, don’t throw your life away for a girl. Have you ever seen ‘Carrie’? It doesn’t end well.” Karen? David wondered as he watched Frank walk out to his car, occasionally popping a chip into his mouth. I dated Karen in high school.

“I, of course, expect you to read the contract through,” Mr. Halloran said, leaning forward on the heavy wooden desk. “But it’s pretty straightforward. You pay me $100,000 and I send you into the past to do whatever you want for two days as long as you don’t kill or impregnate anyone. And you can bring anything back with you as long as it’s not living or irreplaceable. But, most importantly …” He paused, staring at David in the way David suspected pythons looked at rats before devouring them whole. “… you’ve never seen me before. You’ve never heard of me and you’ll never request my services again.”

David nodded and signed the contract without reading a word.

“I understand.”

Mr. Halloran smiled again, his teeth shining with a whiteness not achieved through nature.

“Then you will meet me at these coordinates at 5 a.m. tomorrow,” he said, handing David an envelope. “Wear Levis jeans, a white Fruit-of-the-Loom T-shirt and white Converse tennis shoes.”

“Converse? Why?”

“Because where you’re going, they don’t make Nikes – yet.”


The desert was cold as David drove his 4-cylindar Saturn along the desolate road. He followed the road to the “coordinates” Mr. Halloran provided. Normal people called them directions, not coordinates. This guy was government, David thought, wondering what branch he’d worked for before dabbling in back-alley time travel.

Something large ran across the road. David mashed his right foot into the brake pedal, his aluminum and plastic car sliding to a stop in the sand as the animal disappeared into the darkness. He was a nervous driver. And why not? he thought. It’s not like any car today can withstand a collision. David once had a car that could have plowed over that mystery animal without even leaving a smear on the grill. But that was 25 years ago. “You didn’t kill it, did you?” a teenage, sweater-wearing Karen had asked years ago at a thump (Damn Frank for bringing her up), her voice rising to a level only heard by dolphins. The raccoon had shot out of the darkness and David didn’t swerve – he couldn’t; it happened too fast. But he’d scraped the bloody mess into a grocery bag and buried it in the sand because Karen was crying. Karen had screamed when he hit the raccoon. His car hadn’t noticed.

David started back down the dark, desolate road. Four miles later he found Mr. Halloran standing near a black Ford Excursion, looking at the stars through a long, white telescope, an open can of Budweiser in his right hand. Nice cover, David thought, if anyone was watching. He pulled his car to a stop and stepped out wearing Levis jeans, a white Fruit-of-the-Loom T-shirt and white Converse tennis shoes. It was 4:58 a.m.

“Nice and punctual,” Mr. Halloran said. “Good work.”

“Of course,” David responded, walking toward the man. His stomach hurt. This is stupid, he thought. I can’t go through with it. Damn the $100,000. Damn the consequence. Damn this man with the white teeth. But … what if I didn’t do it? David frowned. This had nothing to do with a girl he hadn’t thought of for 25 years … well, yeah, it did – sort of.

“We’re getting married after high school, right, David?” Karen asked the April before graduation. David smiled at her … she was wearing a great sweater. “Sure, baby,” he said, wondering when he’d get to the base that let him do more than look at that sweater. Then he frowned. “Can we be married in college?” he asked. Karen nodded slowly as she leaned in to kiss David, and he forgot where he was. A month later, they graduated. Two months later, she convinced him to sell his hotrod for something with more doors, to hold all the babies they were going to have. Three months later she dumped him for a guy named Kurt. Kurt had a Camaro. Yeah, David realized, this had to do with fixing something that never should have happened.

Mr. Halloran reached into a cooler in the front seat and pulled out a can of beer.

“Drink it,” he said, handing the beer to David.

“Why?” David asked, feeling the cold, sweaty can shoved into his hand. “It’s 5 o’clock in the morning.”

“Because you need to relax. You look terrible.”

David cracked open the beer and took a drink. Sure, I look terrible, he thought, I might wind up in prison – one of those federal prisons I’ve seen on the late, late movie. David’s host rummaged in the Excursion and pulled out a briefcase and opened it, the spring-loaded latches cracking loudly in the cool morning air. Inside was a stack of money.

“Here’s $5,000 in period cash,” he said, handing it to David. David started to speak, but Mr. Halloran held up a hand. “I don’t want to know what you’re going to do with it.”

David pushed the cash into the pockets of his jeans and untucked his shirt to cover it.

“May I ask you a question?” David asked.

Mr. Halloran nodded and finished his beer.

“How do you know how to do this? Send people back in time? It’s not like building a bomb, the technology’s top secret.”

Mr. Halloran grabbed another beer from the cooler.

“I was one of the physicists who developed this technique before the government stepped in and took it from us and made time travel a felony,” he said, taking a swig of beer. “The money’s nice, but I really do this to give the government the finger.” He stopped and looked at David with tight, suspicious eyes. “Just remember to be back here at exactly 5 a.m. in two days. Now, please close your eyes. I don’t want you to see a thing.”


Then David was in 1976. No bright flash of light. No tunnel to spin him through time. No DeLorean. Nineteen seventy-six was just there when he opened his eyes. At least he assumed it was 1976. He stood in the desert night. Mr. Halloran was gone. His telescope was gone. His Ford Excursion was gone. There were old tire tracks in the dirt, but nothing the size of tires on that Ford behemoth. David’s Saturn was gone. But there were a couple of beer cans in the dust. David bent and picked up a discarded Budweiser can. It had a pull-off tab.

He smiled. Yes, it was 1976.

David screamed and hooted into the night. It was going to happen. It was actually going to happen. The only thing he’d ever regretted losing was here. But he had two days. Two days to relive a dream he’d had at least twice a year for the past 25 years. He was going to town to buy a car.

“You’re breaking up with me?” David asked Karen, his eyes pulled tight, like Dirty Harry’s. “Yes, David,” Karen said. Her hair was different today – it was less like Jan Brady’s and more like Farrah Fawcett’s. “I’ve found a real man. He’s got a job and a tattoo and a Camaro. He treats me like a lady.” David looked at Kurt standing by his deep green Chevy. A cigarette hung out of the corner of Kurt’s mouth, a mouth framed by a dirty blonde thing that wanted to be a mustache. “Hurry up. The races start in an hour,” Kurt said slowly, the cigarette bobbing with each syllable. Karen grinned and ran to Kurt. He slapped her butt and she giggled as she slid into the passenger seat through the window. Yeah, Kurt had welded the Camaro’s doors shut; he was a real racing fan. “But,” David whispered, knowing Karen wouldn’t have cared if she’d heard him. “You made me sell my car.”

The lights of the city shown over the desert hills like a false dawn. David’s drive from the city had been brief, just enough to get him out of the way of prying eyes. But it was 1976 now. The city wasn’t as big as it would be. David figured he had at least 15 miles to walk before he reached the city limits. He hoped to find a telephone before then and call a taxi. Heck, he figured, he had $5,000, he could afford it.


The big box of a taxi picked David up at a Kerr-McGee station he’d found at the end of the dirt road. The station wouldn’t be there 25 years from now, David thought. Not even a shell of a building will be left sitting at the roadside. Maybe he should tell somebody? No, he decided, sitting in the back of the cab. He drank a Coca-Cola from a glass bottle he’d bought at the station. The cola tasted different than David remembered. Better. Not as sweet.

“Where am I taking you?” the cabbie asked.

David burped a soda burp in the back seat, manic giggles taking hold. I’m from the future, he thought. Oh, yeah, I’m here in 1976, too, but I’m in third grade! Where am I taking you? Ha!

“A hotel,” he said, choking back a laugh. “Any hotel, as long as it’s near a Ford dealership.”

“Ford dealership?”

David laughed out loud.


The Howard Johnsons, its orange roof strangely comforting, stood three blocks from Williams Motors, the Ford logo within view of David’s room. He’d requested it – a room with a view of Williams Motors. He knew the desk clerk was watching him as he walked up the stairs toward Room 214, thinking he was nuts and hoping he wasn’t dangerous. By then David couldn’t be sure he wasn’t both.

Room 214 was cold and smelled of cigarettes, but David didn’t care. In 1976, David realized, everywhere was a smoking area. There was a radio in the room and a television, but no HBO, no ESPN, no cable TV to speak of.

David lay on the bed. He’d called in a wake-up ring for noon, then he was going to find a McDonalds to see if the burgers tasted the same. Then he was going to go to a movie theater to see “Carrie.” Then he was going to go to a bar and get drunk on 10 bucks. That was his plan for 1976. That, and the car.

The car.

David’s life had changed in 1981. Summer jobs filled his pockets with money he couldn’t spend on movies, pizza, dates or beer. He saved his money for his 16th birthday and the car. The car was beautiful. Dark, forest green, two-door, with dual exhaust that made the engine sound like an Army caravan driving to the front. But the stereo could drown out that noise, the memory of how “Highway to Hell” and a joint could make life outside the cab go far, far away.

Then came Karen. Then it was gone. It was my own fault, David thought lying on the bed at the Howard Johnsons, the hum of an inefficient air conditioner coaxing him into sleep. I’ve never been in charge … until now.


“Have you ever had a dream that was so vivid,” David asked the graying bartender at the Desert Crossing after he’d eaten his fill at McDonalds for a dollar and seen a movie that he’d seen before for the first time. The bartender looked like he probably didn’t want to have this conversation. “That you thought it was real?”

“It’s called lucid dreaming,” the bartender said, putting another squat, brown bottle of Budweiser amongst the wall of empty ones in front of David.

David stopped in mid-thought. “What?”

“A dream that’s so vivid you think it’s real is lucid dreaming,” the bartender said. “That’s what it’s called.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’ve got a Ph.D. in psychology.”

“Then what are you doing here?”

The bartender shrugged. “Better tips.”

David knocked over an empty bottle as he reached for the full one. He wasn’t just getting drunk anymore, he was fine tuning his logic circuits.

“But that’s not what I mean. I mean a hope, a goal of such proportions it’d be a Bible story if any of those guys were still alive to write it. And you made it real.”

The bartender shrugged, looking around the bar. The joint was empty except old Lonnie at the corner table who was afraid to go home to his wife. He’d bought a bucket of beer a half-hour ago, so he was set for a while.

“Yeah,” he said. “I guess so.”

“And say,” David went on. “That in order to make that dream come true, you had to do something that sounds impossible. No, no, more than that. Crazy. It sounds crazy.”

The bartender picked up an ashtray and shook the cigarette butts into the trash. He wiped it methodically with a bar towel like he had no intention of actually cleaning it.

“Such as?” he asked.

“Well, say you could only accomplish this goal if you traveled backward in time.”

The bartender stopped wiping the ashtray.

“Backward … in time?”

“Yes,” David said, taking another drink from the short, brown bottle. “Because all you longed for, all that was with you during the years of your life when you were actually happy, doesn’t exist the way you remember it. You can only find it in the past.”

“Like an old girlfriend?” the bartender asked. “Or the way Ike ran the country?”

“Yeah, something like that,” David said.

“Well,” the bartender said, putting the still dirty ashtray back on the bar. “I’d go back for my eighth grade history teacher, Miss Desmona. She was young, funny, and the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. Too bad I was 14. How about you?”

David grinned from behind the lip of the bottle.

“A Gran Torino.”

The bartender stared at David like he’d told him he didn’t have enough money to pay the bill.

“A Gran Torino?”

David nodded. “Yes.”

“A car?” the bartender asked. “The Gran Tornio model’s only four years old. Why couldn’t you just buy one used and wash it?”

David shook his head. Frank had suggested the same thing, although 25 years in the future, Frank had used “restore” instead of “wash,” then he’d called David a dumb ass. “You’re risking everything for a car,” Frank said from the rolled down driver’s window of his Lexus, still chewing the last chip. “Don’t do it. It won’t turn out well.” David nodded. If Frank didn’t understand, no one would. It wasn’t about the car; it was about David before life crept up and smothered him. It was about the last time David really smiled – he was inside that car.

“But that’s not what I want,” David said to the bartender. “I want a new one. A brand new one. One with paper dealer floor mats to keep mechanic’s oily feet off the real floor mats. One without any preset radio stations. One with that new car smell. One that’s mine, and has only been mine,” David paused, taking a deep breath. “I’m talking about a first love.”

The bartender pressed his elbows into the bar and frowned.

“So, what you’re saying is if you were able to travel back in time, you wouldn’t tell your younger self to avoid doing some of the stupid things you’ve done in your life?”


“You wouldn’t buy stock in a company you know will make you millions or bet on the World Series even though you already know who wins?”


“You wouldn’t kill Hitler somewhere around 1936?”

David frowned. “Well, I hadn’t thought about that …”

“You’re telling me instead of all these things, you’d buy a car?”

David took a long pull from his beer. “Well,” he said, putting the bottle down on the bar hard enough to shoot foam out the top. “Yeah.”

The bartender handed David his tab and took his beer.

“Then you’d better settle up,” he said. “I think you’ve had plenty.”


David awoke with a headache. Not that he cared. It would be gone soon enough. Besides, nothing was going to get in the way of today – nothing. He got out of bed, showered, and dressed in the brand new bellbottom jeans and Gilligan shirt he’d bought at J.C. Penney’s the day before. Pulling back the curtains and looking down at Williams Motors, David wished he had a friend here to share in this. Frank had been his friend since high school. Frank had ridden in David’s Gran Torino, he’d driven David’s Gran Torino, and he’d barfed in the passenger floorboard after a night of tequila shooters their senior year of high school. “You’re actually going through with this,” Frank said, drinking coffee in David’s kitchen the Saturday morning David drove to Daylight Donuts Opening Soon. “Is there any way I can talk you out of it?” David shook his head. “Well,” Frank said, pushing away from the table. “Don’t expect me to chip in for your lawyer. The government investigates friends, too.”

David scanned the Williams Motors lot. A bright red, two-door 1976 Gran Torino sat in front. He’d walked by it yesterday, its smooth curves prettier than a Playboy Bunny’s, its long hood hiding a 351-cubic inch engine that roared like a beast the ancients would have written into mythology. A salesman had asked David if he needed help. David nodded. “Tomorrow,” he said.

The bedside clock – with a face and hands, no angry red digital numbers here – read 8:52 a.m. It was time.

Williams Motors was quiet when David walked onto the lot. He figured he was the first one there. How many people buy cars at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday? He stood in front of the Gran Torino, the same model Starsky and Hutch screamed around corners in as they chased TV criminal stereotypes through town. But Starsky and Hutch didn’t belong in this car – David did. The car was exactly like David’s high school beast – almost. David’s was green, but he didn’t care about the color. He pictured his young self behind the wheel, his long hair parted in the middle blown back by the wind rushing in the open window, an AC/DC tape in the 8-track player, and a can filched from Dad’s beer fridge wedged between his legs. Was it his car? No, but it was close enough.

“May I help you find something?” a salesman asked. David stood numb, like a man in line at the DMV. A tear ran down his face.

“Are you OK?”

“Yeah,” David said. “I want to buy this car.”

“Great,” the salesman said. “This model has a 351 cu…”

“I know everything about the car,” David interrupted. “I don’t want to haggle.” He pulled from his pocket the wad of bills Mr. Halloran had supplied him. The salesman didn’t flinch. In this era it wasn’t weird to pay for things with cash. “I just want to drive. I’ll pay the sticker price. I just want to do it now.”


The 1976 Gran Tornio came equipped with air conditioning. It was warm enough to ask the heavy Freon to whisk away the heat, but David wasn’t having it. He wanted the wind to whip his hair, he wanted the roar of air to battle the music from the stereo, he wanted to be open to the world. His first stop was a record store down the street. His new car – his brand new car driven 4.1 miles – came to a rest smoothly by the curb outside Penny Lane Music. David was dizzy when he went in, and the incense in the store didn’t help. He bought AC/DC’s TNT, Led Zeppelin III, and as much Uriah Heep as he could find – just like high school.

And David drove, and drove, and drove. At 59 cents for a gallon of gasoline, David pushed the V-8 engine like it ran on air. He laughed as the lyrics of “old” songs blared from the stereo. When the round dash speedometer hit 70, David didn’t realize it, the car ran so smoothly. He felt 18 again – like he should have always felt. He pulled into a gas station on the highway and bought a case of beer for the price of a gallon of milk back home.


He was supposed to be back in the desert by 5 a.m. It was 12:30 a.m. David pulled out of the gas station’s gravel parking lot, thumping the dash with his thumbs to AC/DC’s “It’s A Long Way To The Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll)” and drove like a teenager.

David didn’t want to go home, but he …

He pointed his red beauty toward the desert and drove like a demon.


“Mr. Donallen?”

The voice came at him from a tunnel. David cracked open an eye. It was still dark. He felt around him. He was sitting in a car – the car.

“Where am I?”

“You’re home.”

Mr. Halloran stood by the window of David’s Gran Torino. He was dressed as he was when David left.

“You’ve been gone … our time … about five minutes,” Mr. Halloran said. “I see you’ve been successful, so our contract is fulfilled. It’s been nice working with you.”

“Oh …” David started, but his host had already slipped into the driver’s seat of the Ford Excursion. The ridiculously huge vehicle pulled away from David, its black hulk blending in with the desert night.

I did it, David thought, rubbing his hands over the Torino’s seats, drinking in the 1976 new car smell like spiked Homecoming punch. I did it.

The car. The wonderful car. The car where he’d first kissed a girl … Karen. The car was his. His youth, his music, his world of Donkey Kong, baseball games and Judas Priest was his again. David looked into the rearview mirror. Was his hair thicker? He hooted and grabbed a pull-tab beer from the back seat. The engine roared with the turn of a key. David fired the Gran Torino’s headlights, clicked the floorboard bright-beam switch with his foot and slipped the transmission into drive. He drove past the spot where a Kerr-McGee once stood. He drove into the city. He drove to his neighborhood, and the drive was as good as a first kiss. No. It was better. His cubicle-and-computer job, his 134 bowling league average and his blood pressure pills were never allowed in here. Here David was content. He smiled.

David pulled the brand new 30-year-old car onto his street. He pictured pulling his beauty into the driveway, turning the key and the Gran Torino’s engine dying in Mel Torme tones. Then he’d walk into his house, fall into bed and forget everything that happened until morning when he could relive it all over again.

But he couldn’t.

Black SUVs, almost like Mr. Halloran’s dotted the neighborhood. But these trucks weren’t driven by anyone friendly. They were sinister. “Is there any way I could talk you out of it?” Frank had asked. “Nothing’s worth throwing your freedom away, man.” Damn it, Frank, they got to you. You turned me in, David realized. Sweat began rolling down his back as he sat at the stop sign to his street. His fingers bit into the hard plastic steering wheel. Right to go home, ran through his head as he glanced down to the arm that would activate the turn signal. Right to go home. Good God, I’m going to prison.

“Thump, thump, thump, thump, thump, thump …” slowly grew through his speakers as AC/DC’s “TNT” flooded the cab of the car and David smiled. He casually flipped on his left turn signal, turned onto a side street and kept driving. David thumped the steering wheel with his thumbs as he drove, burning the 59-cent a gallon gas, leaving the black trucks in his driveway, leaving his house, and his grown-up memories.

The penalty for time travel was life in prison. Young David wasn’t ready for that. He drove to the highway, then kept going. The world would probably catch up to him, he figured, but not today.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Just Whisper in Santa’s Ear

The below short story is under copyright. Don't do anything silly.

By Jason Offutt

We went to the mall the day Dad saved Christmas. Technically, it wasn’t Christmas Day he saved, it was Christmas Eve, but I figure anything that falls within 12 days of Dec. 25 is still Christmas. He didn’t do anything noble. He just saved his family from evil, that's all. He could have saved us on Arbor Day, or Presidents Day, or even July 12, but what happened to us picked Christmas Eve, so when I say he saved Christmas, I mean he saved Christmas for us.

I grinned as I sat at the breakfast table, milk dripping from my chin and back into my cereal bowl. I grinned because I’d figured out Dad’s plan. Sure, last night he’d only said, “we’re going to the mall in the morning,” as he scratched his belly in my doorway. “And if you don’t get to bed, Stu, Santa will put your hand in a bowl of warm water while you sleep.” But I could tell he was hiding something. We had to be going to the mall for a reason, and that reason was to buy me the new Mega GameStation with “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4.” I’d only asked him for this new video game system 472 times since Christmas Present Begging Season began after Halloween. Besides, I was 10 years old. I didn’t believe in Santa.

“I made poopy,” Bennie said. His face popped above the tabletop and disappeared again. Bennie was my brother and he was three. But Bennie wasn’t important right then, at breakfast, on the eve of me getting me the most prized Christmas toy of my life. Bennie was fun, but he wasn’t Mega GameStation with “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4” fun.

“You’re not getting a Mega GameStation,” Dad said as he cut a bite off his eggs and crammed it into his mouth, the yellow bit all drippy and gross. “You’ve got an Ultra GameStation. What’s wrong with it?”

“Poopy,” Bennie said. His head popped up on the other side of the table.

I looked up from my Sugary Chocolate Puffs, the milk dark brown after only half a bowl. Sugary Chocolate Puffs is the best cereal on the planet. “It’s chocolate chocolaty madness,” the guy on the commercial screams while doctors tie him into a straight jacket. “Now with a Surgeon General warning. Who loves Sugary Chocolate Puffs cereal?” I do.

“‘Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4’ won’t play on the Ultra GameStation,” I said as I poured more Sugary Chocolate Puffs into my bowl. There was a two dollars-off coupon for the game “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4” in that box, and I had to eat my way down to it before we left for the mall.

Dad's fork clanked on his plate, the sound loud even with Bennie yelling “poopy.” Dad was the kind of dad who brought home comic books for me sometimes when I didn't even expect them. He’d take me to a really cool movie up to three times before saying no. But that was it when it came to spending money. He and Mom bought me an Ultra GameStation last year after my Super GameStation caught fire. Maybe he was serious. No, no, he couldn’t be. He was a kid once. He had to know when I went back to school after break, everybody in my grade would have played “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4” but me, and I’d be an outcast like that kid who still sucks his thumb. Then the real horror struck me; the kid who still sucks his thumb will have probably played “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4,” too. Then where would I be? Yeah, Dad had to buy me a Mega GameStation. How could he not?

“Then why are we going to the mall on Christmas Eve?” I asked, in a surprising display of bravery in the face of Dad dropping his fork.

“Because we’re taking Bennie to see Santa,” he said.

“Santa,” Bennie yelled. “Poopy. Santa. Poopy. Santa. Poopy.”

Sure we were. After breakfast, Mom and Dad changed Bennie’s pants and loaded us into the minivan. The traffic guy on the radio warned us to stay home. “You’ll die if you leave your house,” he said. Heck, Dad probably shouldn’t have taken us to the mall that day at all. It started to snow and, unless I heard “Bill Nasty in the Sky” wrong, there was some problem with syrup and a chicken truck. But Dad was taking us to the mall for something really important and Christmas-related and it was all because of me. I was sure of it.


Snow covered the road by the time we pulled into the mall parking lot; the traffic guy on the radio screamed something about mass chaos and the end being near. The only spot available was way back near the Burger King, so Dad took it.

“You know, they hire people to sit in the empty seats at awards shows on TV,” Dad said as we got out of the car. “Malls do that, too. They hire people to park in their parking lot, then bus them back home for the day.”

“Why would they do that?” I asked, although I should have known better. Dad always had an answer. The whole class laughed when I read my history paper on the ancient Sumerians who invented mathematics just to figure out how many lawyers it took to screw in a light bulb. The teacher gave me an F.

“Business, my boy,” Dad said, and dropped a hand on my shoulder to start our alpine hike to the mall doors. “If the parking lot is full, people driving by think they’re missing out on something like a sale, or a soap opera star signing autographs, or looting. So they’ll want some, too. In Third World cultures, entire economies are based on the number of spots not available at mall parking lots.”

“Don’t listen to your father, boys,” Mom said, pushing us to walk faster in the cold. “He’s just confused by the fact that the parking lot is full on Christmas Eve.”

Big fluffy flakes fell slowly to earth as we walked toward the building. Mom held onto Bennie’s hand so hard he squealed, and occasionally dropped into The Noodle so she had to drag him. Mom didn’t hold my hand when we went anywhere in public anymore. She either figured I was big enough to take care of myself, or if gypsies were going to snatch me, they’d have done it by now. Bennie wasn’t so lucky.

Dad pulled open one of the doors at the front of the mall, a blast of heat and the mixed smell of Americanized ethnic cooking from the food court enveloped us. Dad hated to go to the mall. I loved it.

“Well,” I said, pulling off my gloves to shove them into my coat pocket. My coat was big and brown and looked like something Daniel Boone wore when he felt like killing bears, which was all the time. We were at the mall, and it was time to call Dad’s bluff. “I think the game store is this way.”

“And why,” Dad began, grabbing my arm and pointing me in the opposite direction. “Would we be going that way, when we’re going this way?”

He was only teasing me. We came to the mall for a Mega GameStation with “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4,” but that would be the last thing we did. Of course. Why would we go see Santa with the biggest, best present of the year already tucked under Dad’s arm?

“And don’t fool yourself into thinking we’re here to buy a video game,” he said, steering me toward the food court. Santa’s throne was always at the end of the line of booths, next to Mr. Wok’s Egg Noodle Emporium. “You’re not getting a new one until the one you have catches fire again. And don’t get any ideas.”

At that point it hit me. I don’t know why the thought waited until that moment in the mall, right next to the condiment table in front of Dave’s MasterBurger. Maybe it was the tone of Dad’s voice. Maybe it was his 474th denial. But there it was, doubt creeping into my head. Would Dad really not get me the Mega GameStation with “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4?” Would I have to spend another year playing “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 3” on my lousy Ultra GameStation? Was my life already over at 10?

I walked with my family through the food court in silence, except when Bennie occasionally laughed for no reason. At that moment, I wished I was three, then the highlight of my day wouldn’t be over.

The line for Santa started at Pandora’s Pizza. It usually started as far back as Jolly’s Cracker Hut, but this year it was at Pandora’s, just two booths away from Mr. Wok’s.

“None of these kids seem very excited,” Dad said softly, leaning close to Mom. He nodded toward a boy walking away from Santa’s throne with his parents, the boy’s eyes big and blank, like he was in a Japanese cartoon. “They’re pretty quiet.”

“Yeah,” Mom whispered. “Usually they’re like …”

“Satan,” Bennie screamed.

“Bennie," she hissed.

“Satan, Satan,” Bennie yelled. He’d leaned way out of line and spotted Santa on the throne, a little girl on Santa’s big, red lap.

“Bennie,” Mom said, picking him up. “It’s Santa. San-ta.”

“Sa-ten,” Bennie slowly enunciated, then giggled.

I leaned out of line, too. Maybe Dad wasn’t fooling around. Maybe I wasn’t going to get a Mega GameStation at all. Maybe… . The little girl who had been on Santa’s lap walked by holding her mom’s hand. She stared at something, but I couldn’t tell what, unless it was at the guy at Potato Heaven’s fixins bar who had his right pinky up one nostril to the second knuckle. I looked around. Nope, she wasn’t staring at him. I turned back toward Santa. It was Christmas Eve, so the guy in the red suit might just be my last hope. I was going to have to do it. I was going to sit on Santa’s lap.

“Mommy,” Bennie said, Mom's hand still holding his in a death grip. “Why I’m gonna sit on Satan’s lap?”

“His name is Santa, Bennie,” she said. “And you’re going to sit on Santa’s lap to tell him what you want for Christmas. Then tonight, he’s going to come to our house and put your presents under our Christmas tree.”

“Satan’s comin’ to my house?” Bennie screamed. Bennie had only two volume settings, loud and off. And he wasn’t off enough.

I didn’t listen to any more. The whole Santa thing was silly. I knew that. I mean, it wasn’t like he was real, like vampires or killer robots from the future. He was something grownups invented to keep us from doing anything stupid for an entire month. So why was I going to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him I had to have a Mega GameStation with “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4?” For the same reason people on death row pray – they’ve run out of options.

The line moved and we stepped even with Mr. Wok’s Egg Noodle Emporium. There were two more kids ahead of us. The others had sat on Santa’s lap and filed soundlessly by, holding at least one parent’s hand – sometimes two. I took a deep breath; my mind was set. This was my lowest moment. Well, if that’s the way things had to be.

“I’m going to do it, too,” I snapped to Mom and Dad, not looking at either. A warm feeling rushed over my face. “I’m going to sit on Santa’s lap.”


“What?” Mom asked. I could hear the grin in her voice. Her little boy wasn’t growing up after all. For one more Christmas, I was still her iddle, widdle man. “Since when?”

“Since Dad told me I wasn’t getting a Mega GameStation for Christmas.”

“Yes,” slid from Dad’s mouth in a stifled hiss. He wanted to scream it, I could tell. He’d beaten me and he wanted to gloat. I wish he had. “Remember this moment in a few years when you ask for a car,” he said.

I let my head hang, my chin hitting the zipper of my Daniel Boone coat. I’d have a zipper dent on my chin when I got to Santa, but that was okay because my folks didn’t bring a camera so there’d be no photographic evidence of my moment of shame. I just hoped none of my friends were here or I wouldn’t have to worry about being an outcast for not playing “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4.” I’d be an outcast for something much worse.

Another family walked by, the little boy quiet as the rest.

“Geez, that kid looks like a zombie,” Dad whispered to Mom.

Pfft. What did Dad know about zombies? Zombies were all green and smelly and made ‘Uuuhhh’ sounds. That kid didn’t look anything like a zombie. Then the next family was finished. We were next. In just a few minutes, it would be over with. I looked at the boy who’d just told Santa his secret wishes. He shuffled by, holding each parent’s hand. His face was slack, like his muscles were controlled by a puppet master who’d dropped all the string. That was the third …

“Ho, ho, ho,” a voice bellowed. I looked away from the boy who walked lifelessly by, and into the eyes of Santa. The blue, blue eyes of Santa. Ohmagod. We were it. We were next. Mom nudged me in the back, but I couldn’t move.

Hey, kid, a voice said, but didn’t say. It wasn’t really a voice because I hadn’t heard anything. Come on over. Santa wants to see you. I tried to open my mouth, to ask, to beg Dad to get me out of here, out of the mall. I wouldn’t ask for a Mega GameStation again – ever again. Just take me home. But I was lost, Santa’s eyes were …

“Hey kid,” the same voice said, but this time the words came through my ears. Santa’s elf stepped into my line of vision. The elf was dressed like an elf was supposed to be dressed; green tights, pointy hat with a bell on the end, and a big red belt. He was my size, but he wasn’t a dwarf. He was just a little man, and old, really old. He smiled at me; his smile stretched too wide for his pointy little face. “Come on over. Santa wants you.”

The elf touched my hand with long, spindly fingers, and I screamed.

“What’s wrong with you?” Dad said, pressing his hand in my back and pushing me toward the elf – the evil, evil elf. “You said you wanted to sit on Santa’s lap, so sit on Santa’s lap.”

Yeah, what’s wrong with you? The grinning elf told my head. Santa just wants to know your secrets. Your deep, deep secrets. Come on over. Everything will be better after you talk to Santa. The elf took my arm and led me away from Dad, his little fingers like vice grips in my flesh. I knew I was going to die. The elf pulled me toward the big, red suit and lifted me up to Santa. Santa wants you.

“Ho, ho, ho,” Santa said in loud, booming voice. Mom and Dad were smiling, and I was there, stuck on his lap. “Whisper in Santa’s ear what you want for Christmas.”

Then the stench hit my nostrils. Santa smelled funny. Not Grandma after a few too many ‘special Pepsis’ funny, but old, wet trash funny; and not just old, wet trash. It was something else. Santa’s blue eyes, as blue as a summer sky, burned into mine. I couldn’t look away from him. His skin changed as he drew me toward him. The soft pink hue spread away like a drop of dishwashing liquid hitting a greasy pan. His face grew slick and green, and his beard, big, white and fluffy, was different up close. It was alive – infested. The beard crawled over itself as he leaned closer to me.

“What are your fears?” Santa whispered, his breath scrambled across my face like ants looking for a place to crawl inside my head. “What makes you stay awake at night?”

I felt weak, dizzy, like I was going to sleep, but the smell. The smell. It was ... it was something familiar. Something that churned my stomach. “Poopy Satan,” I heard Bennie say from what sounded like miles away. That was it. Santa smelled like Bennie’s diaper pail. Bennie’s wet, sweet-sour smelling poop-filled diaper pail. My stomach lurched and I heaved; a brown, milky Sugary Chocolate Puffs goo splattered across Santa’s bright red shirt.

Hhhhiiissssss, shot through my head as Santa dumped me off his lap. I hit the hard mall floor in front of Mr. Wok’s, the breath shot from my lungs.

“Hey, are you okay?” Dad asked. He lifted me off the floor in front of Santa’s throne and held me like a toddler. Then he turned to Santa. “I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not the first time,” Santa said to Dad, smiling, his voice different than the voice he’d used on me. It was soft, low and jolly. “Or the worst.” Santa wiped his shirt with a rag the elf put in his hand, and waved at the next kid. But Santa was just Santa again. Pink skinned, cotton-bearded Santa.

“We lost our place in line,” Dad said, cradling me against his shoulder. “Bennie won’t get to …”

“Bennie won’t care,” Mom interrupted. “Let’s just go home.”

I leaned into Dad’s ear.

“Santa’s a monster,” I whispered.

Dad looked at Santa, another unsuspecting kid on his lap, telling him her secret hopes and dreams, and fears. The elf stared at me and grinned.

“Yeah, he’s a big one,” Dad said as we started our long walk back toward the mall doors and away from any store that carried the Mega GameStation with ‘Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4.’ “But I wouldn’t call him a monster. Your Mom’s brother Albert’s a monster. The fire department had to cut through a wall just to get him out of the house.”

“Hey …” Mom started, and we went home.


“You sure you’re okay, honey?” Mom asked, looking at the thermometer she’d slid out of my mouth. It wasn’t one of those fancy electronic ones Mom could have just wiped across my forehead; it was one of the old-fashioned mercury thermometers I had to hold under my tongue for 10 minutes. I sat there, listening to the motorized angel next to our tree, clicking as it moved back and forth, spreading joy and goodwill to all who weren’t trapped on the couch listening to it click, click, click.

“I’m fine, Mom,” I said. We’d driven straight home in the snow as the guy on the radio recited Bible verses from Revelation. Somebody in the background beat on the studio door and shouted words I’m not sure were supposed to be on the air. When we got home, Mom had me put on my pajamas and lie on the couch while Dad took Bennie to the hardware store. Dad said he’d seen a guy in a Santa suit ringing a bell in front of the store by the snow blowers and he wanted Bennie to sit on some Santa’s lap. “I told you why I threw up.”

Mom frowned. “Because the mall Santa was a zombie lord and he was trying to devour your soul.”

What part of that didn’t she get? “Yes, yes,” I howled. “I saw him change right in front of me. His skin turned green, his beard moved like it was full of bugs, and you saw all those quiet kids. Dad even called them zombies.”

“You want ‘Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4’ so badly,” she said, and crossed her arms, signaling the conversation, to her, was over. “You’ll be lucky if I don’t take away your ‘Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 3.’”

I shut up. Mom wasn’t listening to me. She hadn’t seen the Santa monster. The grown ups hadn’t seen a thing.

Dad and Bennie got home after dark, supper already cold. “I saw Santa,” Bennie screamed at Mom as he jumped out of Dad’s arms and ran through the living room, throwing his coat, gloves and hat wherever they landed – on the floor, the Christmas tree, the ‘click-click’ angel.

“What took you so long?” Mom asked.

“The Santa at the hardware store wouldn’t let Bennie sit on his lap unless I had a receipt,” Dad said, holding up a box. “So I bought a nail gun.”

“What are you going to do with a nail gun?”

Dad shrugged, taking the heavy tool from the box, a box decorated with a big red bow Dad peeled off and stuck to Bennie’s head as he screamed by. “I don’t know yet. I might build the boys a tree house, or a trebuchet.”

“Tree Boo shay,” Bennie squealed, jumping over the couch arm and landing on my feet. “Daddy gonna build a boo shay in our tree.”

“You feeling okay, champ?” Dad said, leaning over the couch, snow still in his hair.

I nodded.

“Still think the mall Santa is a monster?”

I nodded again. Dad didn’t believe me either, I could tell by the way he was grinning. It was the same grin he gets before he asks Bennie to pull his finger.

“You’re telling me you bought yourself a nail gun on Christmas Eve?” Mom asked, appearing over the couch next to Dad. Her arms were still crossed. Oh, yeah, she was pretty mad. Mom had more hand signals than a third base coach.

“Well …” he started, then a knock sounded on the door. A loud, slow knock. Thump. Thump. Thump. Dad smiled. “Hey, I’ll get the door.”

I sat up, Bennie still on my feet, and watched Dad walk to the front door. Who’d be at our house on Christmas Eve? Dad opened the door, our holly wreath swung freely on its nail. I screamed. Standing at my front door, in the snow on top of our “The Fredericks” welcome mat, was the mall Santa and his bad elf.

“May I help you?” Dad asked.

We’ve come for you, Stu, the bad elf’s voice rang in my head, his evil little face demonic in the flashing red Christmas lights that framed our front door. You got away today, and nobody gets away from Santa.

I screamed again.

Shut the door, Dad, I thought, but the words wouldn't leave my throat. Shut the door, Dad. Shut the door, Dad. Shut the door, Dad.

“Momma,” Bennie said. “You said Satan’s gonna come to my house. You said it. You did.”

“How did you find our house?” Dad asked mall Santa, my brown puke stain still on the big, red shirt. “You trying to get us to pay for dry cleaning, or something?”

He’s going to eat you, Stu, the bad elf said in my head. He’s going to eat you all up. The elf grinned, the points of his teeth slid over his slug-like lips.

“You may find this funny,” Mom said, turning toward the door, toward the thing that was there to eat me. “Our son thinks you’re a zombie lord who works undercover as Santa to secretly devour the souls of children.”

“Yes, I do find it funny,” the mall Santa said, the red flashing lights making him look like he stood at the Gates of Heck. “Because it’s true.”

I screamed again.

“Ho, ho, ho,” boomed from mall Santa’s mouth, his voice faded more into a hiss with each ho. Mall Santa’s skin started to waver, just like it did in front of Mr. Wok’s; the pink rushed away in a flood of oily green. A centipede, or something like a centipede, dropped from Santa’s beard and into the snow on our front step.

“Holy crap,” Dad spat and slammed the door, the doorknob caught the bad elf in the face. The door rattled shut, our holly wreath dropped to the floor. Dad slapped the deadbolt locked, then locked the knob. “Call 9-1-1,” he screamed at Mom.

He’d seen it, too. He believed me now, because he’d seen mall Santa’s flesh crawl. Dad turned toward Mom, then the door exploded, throwing Dad across the room with a pile of splintered, white wood. He landed on the coffee table and slid off onto the floor, a jagged splinter of our front door stuck from his leg. I stared at him for a second – only a second. He didn’t move.

“Merry Christmas,” the bad elf cackled, and stepped into our house.

“Run,” I screamed at Mom and I grabbed Bennie’s hand.

“Dennis,” she whispered at my Dad’s body that lie in a lump on the floor next to the clicky angel, the phone fell from her fingers.

“Ho, ho, ho,” mall Santa hissed and stepped into my house. My house. Run, little man, run, the bad elf said to my head. You taste better when you’re scared.

I pulled Mom and Bennie down the hallway.

“Ho, ho, ho,” mall Santa thundered behind us. I could hear his heavy boots thump like cinder blocks on our hardwood floors. “Ho, ho, ho.”

He’s getting closer, the bad elf cackled. Closer and closer. Have you been naughty? Have you been … Then the bad elf was gone. He was there, in my head, then he just wasn’t anymore.

“Ho, ho, ho.”

I ran through the hallway, the hallway that led to all the bedrooms, montage picture frames showing the evolution of our family, from Mom and Dad looking gangly and teenage-dumb, to Bennie’s first haircut when he kicked the barber in the groin. My family history flew in a blur as I dragged Mom and Bennie to my room. I was 10, where else would I go? Where else in this house was my castle, my fortress?

“Satan’s at my house,” Bennie screamed. Mom was crying.

“Help me push the bed in front of the door,” I wheezed at Mom as I yanked at my big wooden bed, my NFL blanket advertising to the world what a big boy I was. “Then we can climb out the window. Then, then …” then I smelled Bennie’s sour diaper pail. Mall Santa was there. He was at my door, and I was too late. My bright white bedroom door, a poster of “Gloriana, Zombie Killer” taped to the back, crashed against the wall, my shelf of Zombie Hunter action figures (not dolls, action figures) slammed to the floor.

Mall Santa stood in my doorway not looking like Santa any more at all. Its face, once round and rosy, was pointed and green. Centipedes danced around its chin, some fell to the floor and skittered under my bed. It grinned, showing two rows of sharp, pointed teeth. “Uuuhhh,” it said, smiling at me. “That’s what I’m supposed to say, right?” Bennie started crying and mall Santa laughed, the sound spewed from his pointy mouth like he was eating a cat.

Mom stepped in front of me, and threw her arms across me and Bennie. “Stay away from my babies,” she whispered.

“Noble,” mall Santa hissed. “But I’ve come for Stu’s soul.”

It pushed Mom noiselessly away from me and Bennie. She just fell to the floor and didn’t move. “What are your fears, Stu?” Santa said, his voice pounded in my head. No need to whisper now. “What makes you stay awake at night?”

Mall Santa sniffed the air and grinned. I was scared, and he could smell it.

“I’m going to enjoy you,” he said as he loomed closer to me, close enough to swallow my soul. Then Dad was there, behind mall Santa, blood splatter dotting his face. Dad grabbed a black, plastic box off the top of my TV and swung it in a wide arc, bringing it down corner-first on top of mall Santa’s pointy head. The black box – holy crap. My Ultra GameStation – exploded in a shower of plastic shards. Mall Santa’s scream bit into my head as the big, green thing collapsed on my floor; the system motherboard and my game CD of “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 3” stuck from its ruined skull. Dad stood there for a moment, looking down at the body like he might give some Tarzan scream, then he collapsed onto my bed.

“Dad,” I whispered.

He opened an eye. “Call an ambulance,” he said. “I’m hurt real bad.”

Ohmygod. “What happened to the elf?”

“My nail gun works great as a hammer,” he whispered.

And that’s how Dad saved Christmas. The police had a lot of questions, but since it was a home invasion, and the invaders were a green zombie lord and his minion, there were no charges. Bennie screams a lot at night now, and Mom started taking prescription medications with vodka. Dad got out of the hospital on Dec. 30, and the first thing he did was buy me a Mega GameStation with “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 4.” He bought it for me within 12 days, so it still counted as Christmas. And me? Mom and Dad believe everything I say now, and maybe when the Extreme GameStation with “Blood Oozing Zombies of Dread 5” comes out next year, a little trust will count for something.