Friday, September 30, 2011

Sweet Sacrifice: Touched

I met a young man today, far worse off than I. A tall, dark-skinned chap who reluctantly disclosed that he was homeless. When I greeted him back he was overjoyed that someone would take the time to hear his spiel. I wasn’t one of the vagrants hustling the streets like him, but a workingman—one of those busybodies filing to and from work that usually don’t give him the time of day.

Often I have been that person: hurried and miffed that someone would try to wring another dollar from me. I have my own financial problems to deal with; you don’t see me skulking the streets and asking for a handout. And when one does fork over a buck or two, where does the money go? Booze? Drugs? Hopefully hunger gets the better of them first.

While I’d hate to think that I’m funding their addictions, I cannot entirely blame them for wanting to escape their plight. Besides, where did they come from? How did they become homeless? If I endured the same misfortune, would I also be tempted to drink my problems away? Most of us would never believe that we could become the person standing across from us, but didn’t we say the same thing about our parents when we were younger?

Though I typically resent the position that they put me in, today I felt different. I could see a bit of myself in the young man, even though he towered over me and wore the stench of the alley.

At first he had difficulty making eye contact, and when he did, I realized there was something else at play. I could sense his vision was poor; perhaps he was partially blind. I also noted some mental impairment while our conversation unfolded, further explaining why he seemed a bit distant.

He smiled briefly, showing me his vacant gums. Most likely his teeth had been knocked out, but it was hard to imagine that he wouldn’t yank them out himself if he needed a root canal.

“I was an athlete at AU,” he told me. Not one of the stars that made it to the Olympics or professional leagues, but one of the hopefuls who was good but not great, and now warming our streets.

From his physique, I could tell that he had been a track star, and perhaps even a basketball player. And the letters he blurted out meant something to me, not because I had gone to American University, but because it was the metro stop that I commuted to every morning. I had gotten an education and was now working near AU, while he had gotten an education at AU and had no hope of working, here or otherwise. With both of us staring down different ends of the same spectrum, I found the connection odd, especially since I had done track and field in high school, and could appreciate the steep level of competition at the collegiate level. For some reason I was supposed to talk to this gaunt, impoverished man, and the more I recognized his ailments, the more my heart warmed to him.

But let me clear about one thing: this isn’t a critique of American University or any other school featuring college athletes. As previously stated, I’ve never enrolled there, and believe that everyone must take responsibility for his or her own actions, especially in regard to education. Certainly he had a hand in his own demise; we all do. It’s not always clear how deeply we’re affected when we falter, and it’s important that we don’t use it as an excuse to give up.

For the first time in a long while I decided not to shy away from the problem, and took a good look at the burden he shouldered. At very least he was homeless, jobless, penniless and in need of a bath. In addition, he appeared to be in poor mental and physical health, had limited skills, and most importantly, did not have a family to turn to. Any of these problems can make life unbearable, but what if they hit you all at once? I don’t think I’d last long, either.

“Oh, I’m sorry.” He backed away as a bus pulled up.

“It’s ok,” I assured him. “That’s not my bus. It’ll be another 10 minutes before it comes around.”

“Bless you, sir.” He showed off what few teeth he had. I thought he was going to cry right then, but he held himself together well. “You’re going to have to give me a hug when I get done with you.”

“All right.” I was wary of the thought, but cracked a smile nonetheless. “So what did you want to talk to me about?”

“This is for you.” He handed me a narrow strip of paper with the words ‘D.C. Lotto’ printed on it. Even though I don’t play the Powerball, I thanked him and took it anyways.

“And because you took the time to speak with me, I’m going to give you this as well.” He handed me a set of 10 pens.

Ironically he had no way of knowing that I’m a writer, or that I frequently run out of pens. “Thanks, I can use these. I’m a writer, at least that’s what I aspire to be.”

“Well how about that?” he grinned. “All I ask is that you make a donation. A few dollars…anything will do.”

It was hardly a surprise. I knew where this was leading all along, and appreciated that he was trying to be useful, and more importantly, feel useful. Without hesitation, I reached into my wallet. Typically I do not carry cash on me, not even a dime. “All I have is a twenty. Can you break a twenty?”

His eyes lit up, and I knew right then that I wouldn’t be seeing much back of it. “Sure, sure. I got fourteen right here. Is it ok if I give you back fourteen?”

“That’s fine.” I nodded.

“Oh, thanks man. And don’t think that I forgot about that hug.” He dug through his pockets, and handed over three crumpled bills and a pocketful of change, well short of $14. Again it was to be expected, and I could sense that he was having trouble counting. “My bad. I’m afraid it’s going to be a little less.”

“It’s ok, my friend. Put it to good use.” I straightened out the dollar bills, and put them in my wallet.

“You really touched me. No so much with the money, but with your words.” He finally scraped together enough courage to look me in the eyes. Before I could say anything, he embraced me, and then joined a female friend hidden among the scaffolding nearby.

Certainly my critics will admonish me for feeding the problem rather than addressing the underlying root causes; but if he weren’t genuinely in need, I wouldn’t have lent him an ear. In the end, the homeless man left me with more than I had begun with:

Words change people.

Your words.

As I peered down 14th street, waiting for the bus to arrive, the homeless man looped back around and handed me a second pack of pens. “Set the world on fire.” He patted me on the shoulder and walked away.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sweet Sacrifice - Writing: A Timeless Celebration

Do you know how it feels
When your spirit soars?
You do?
Then you’ve probably written before

This isn’t some crackpot theory
Or unscrupulous form of chicanery
You can go anywhere
Do anything
Know what it’s like
To be alive
A vibrant dreamscape awaits
This private universe inside

Join me now
Let yourself go
You are always welcome
Always cherished
And your words mean something here

Why would you
Even for a second
Think of going away
Leaving the fruits of your labor
To die on the vine
This kingdom
Built of dreams
Unlike any other
Falling back into the void
From whence it came

Do not cower from destiny
There are no mistakes here
As other creatures have
In this vivid, wondrous land

If you’re worried
About being yourself
Swallow your fear
For you are your words
And your words are you

The world wants to know you
Not some rehashed tale
Or soulless tripe
Churned out
By the ivory towers
And paper mills
Of the northeast

Your readers love you
Because you are you
Someone they can relate to
You are their hope
For better things to come
That the human soul exists

Let your voice
Be heard

This is your world
Share it with others
In turn
They will gladly share theirs
Go forth
But be quick about it
Come back soon
So that we can hear about
All you’ve discovered
And revel
In this timeless celebration
Of the human spirit
Known as writing

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sweet Sacrifice: Never Surrender

Tired? Me too. The story of my life, actually. Seems like I never get enough sleep. Or time off. Not too long ago I took a break—from work, life…everything. A mini-retirement if you will, and what I found disturbed me.

With an ocean of time at my disposal, I soon realized that I wasn’t doing much of anything. I continued depriving myself of sleep, and grumbled every time my son woke me in the morning. I was decaying right in front of my eyes, and I knew it. I now understand what people mean when they talk about the need to stay active and “will to live.”

In the end, going back to work was the best thing for me. I wasn’t making good use of the time, and was surprised at how much I had left over after working an 8-hour workday. I could even squeeze in a little writing during my lunch break, who would have thought? There were plenty of opportunities to write if I had just opened my mind.

Later I compared my productivity during my hiatus to my new working life and was stunned. The results were roughly the same. How could this be? When you have less time, you make better use of it. The time at work also gives you a much-needed break from writing, and in addition, new social experiences to draw upon.

When focusing exclusively on writing, I find that I work really hard for a few weeks, promptly run myself into the ground, and then stop. By stop, I mean a dead stop, as in no writing at all. A few weeks of intense writing is typically followed by weeks (or even months) of inactivity, resulting in an output that is equivalent to part-time status.

The moral of the story is that I was wrong to stop, even though I convinced myself otherwise. We can deceive ourselves into believing just about anything as long as we get what we want. But in the end what I truly needed was a break. “I’m sick of this”, “I don’t want to do this anymore”, “I never finish anything”, and the infamous “What I really want to do is…” are all justifications for giving up, a recipe for failure which adds even more distance between you and your work.

In hindsight, I should have scaled back. Instead of writing ten pages a day, five would have sufficed. I should have broken things up, given myself frequent breaks, and written periodically throughout the day. If I had done this for a few weeks, I would have sufficiently recovered without sacrificing quality.

For those times when I have had to produce in a very short period of time, I’m often surprised with the results. At first it’s difficult to get into; my energy is low, writing poor and attention fleeting. Then around the thirty-minute mark something just clicks. I stop listening to all those self-defeating thoughts, get past myself, and dive in. Fatigue subsides, a light goes on, and then suddenly I begin producing. All this despite convincing myself that I did not have the enthusiasm or the interest to write a whit more.

Before you fall into this downward spiral, silence your mind. You’ll never get enough sleep anyways, and there’s always something better that you could be doing. Don’t pay your fickle emotions any heed. Open up your heart and mind to the words flowing through you.

Though it’s true that you can be your own worst enemy, you can also be your greatest ally. Keep your emotions in check and schedule time to do the things that you really want rather than what grabs you at any particular moment. It’s easy to find yourself stumbling down the wrong path (and occasionally right off the cliff) if not careful. You know better, listen to yourself. If it requires planning and sacrifice then it’s probably worth it, otherwise you wouldn’t bother.

Whatever you decide, make sure that it’s obtainable and repeatable. If you’re planning to write 16 hours a day for the foreseeable future, think again. Give yourself a chance to come up for oxygen, and don’t forget to get up and walk around every once in awhile; blot clots have a funny way of messing up your merry day.

Even while you’re away from your work, your mind will continue chopping away at the problem at hand. You don’t have to be at your desk to come up with brilliant ideas, and inspiration will often strike at the most inconvenient of times. Some of my greatest insights have come during breaks, propelling me forward with a new energy and conviction that would not have been possible if I had forced myself through. Be judicious with your breaks, and you will find that you are more productive, not less.

Most importantly, see your project through to the end; you owe it to yourself. Despite all the blood, sweat and tears (or I shall I say, the chocolate, cheeseburgers and Pop Tarts) it’s definitely worth it. You didn’t come all this way just to give up, did you? And what will you have if you do give up? That’s right, nothing. Without publishing your work, how can anyone know for sure that it really exists? You have little more than a promise. And what advantage do you have over the person who cannot write? If you never finish anything, none.

Adopt a policy of never giving up on any project. You must have had a good reason when you started, and at some point, envisioned it working despite your troubles. Don’t delay; finish it. There’s no telling if this project or the next is the one that gives you your big break. Editors and publishers have been trying to do this for years and still pass over such gems as A Time To Kill and Harry Potter. The truth is nobody knows, so what do you have to lose?

Regardless of the odds or how little time you have to write, if you follow through you will always win and never have to second-guess yourself. It’s your duty as an author to believe in your work, fight every step of the way, and to never surrender. Ever.

Cover for Sweet Sacrifice, My Self-Help Book for Writers

Monday, September 26, 2011

Sweet Sacrifice: Choose To Win

Did you win today?
Did you conquer the day?

Then ask yourself:

What are you doing?
Where has your time gone?
Do you have anything to show for it?

If it’s worth the fight
Do it right
Put your butt in the chair
Take a breath of fresh air
And write

Peck away at the keys
Tell us about the girl and the fire
And that faint summer breeze
For you are a writer
If you choose to be

Begin again
You know how
Choose to win
Right here and now

--S.E. Gordon

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sweet Sacrifice: The Meaning of the Page

Writing. What is it really? The study of the human mind? A form of reverse psychology where elements of our personal experiences are woven into an alternate reality? Is it our inner fabric, reconstituted? Our own tall tale, our little lie, dwelling in the mind space of others?

There’s more of ourselves that resides in our work than we can possibly imagine. Voices from our life experience are merged with fictitious ones until they begin whispering their own story. From the dead skin of pulp their personalities rise, flesh and fantasy rethreaded into our own unique vision. Perhaps they're elements of a larger structure, where the persona being portrayed is the system itself.

However we frame it, it's curious that the human creature continues to write regardless of social status. Even if words are not intended for economic stimulus, one can still reap the benefits of their cathartic release.

But it’s so much more than that.

Characters fulfill us; when they succeed, we succeed. In their skin we can do anything, limited only by our imagination. The world of possibilities is tempting, infinite and deeply satisfying.

Besides acting out our fantasies, writing is also used to cope with problems in our personal lives. Do you see just as much of yourself in the protagonist as you do the antagonist? Perhaps it’s time to make a change. Are you struggling with your fears, dissatisfaction from past experiences or the death of a loved one? Writing can help heal these wounds, and offer perspective once you’ve determine what ails you.

So ask yourself: Why do you really write?

Is it to make a quick buck? Build a name? To become the next James Patterson or Stephen King?

Or is much more primitive than that?

Do you find that no matter how hard you try, you cannot simply turn it off? Do ideas flow like a faucet with no end in sight?

In essence, that’s my story. Since I was a child I’ve dreamed up stories that often did not make it to the page. All this time these ideas have lingered, growing more and more profound rather than going away. They dwell in my subconscious, waiting for release, and will not be denied. Deep down inside I know that I will succeed. It’s just a matter of getting it all out.

There are just as many reasons to write as there are leaves on trees, and to understand what truly motivates us is the first step towards self-fulfillment.

So I ask you again: What compels you to write?

If you are genuine and sincere, there is no amount of criticism that can deter you on your quest to becoming an author. And you may find, just as I have, that once you get started it’s hard to stop. I write because I must—I no longer have a choice in the matter—and I hope you feel the same way too.

If you believe in yourself, and strive to improve yourself every day, you will succeed. It’s only a matter of time.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Do Androids Dream of Thermonuclear Fish? (Teaser)

Chief Halihan emptied the entire clip, enough to take out a city block. Gun blazing, he tried to laugh it off, and show that he was in complete control.

But I could see the fear in his eyes.

It would not be long now.

And he knew it.

“Thought you could sneak up on me, skin job?” Halihan cocked his R-7 Pulse Cannon and tore up the multi-million-credit penthouse. “You’re in my world now…and it’s a world of hurt.”

With all the racket, you’d figure that someone would call the police. But he was the police, or what was left of them.

“You’ve got your wires crossed, Deckard, or perhaps you forgot that I hunt Replicants for a living?” He shot up the hall closet and then opened it.

“I’m not Deckard,” I replied.

He turned and ran down the hallway, skipping over Natasha Barnes, his companion for all of two years, by far the longest relationship he’d been in. Lying face down in a pool of her own iridescent blood, she knew better than to move an inch. Surely he could patch up her ruptured extremities and add some sinful enhancements if he desired; but even the droid knew that he wouldn’t shell out a dime. He’d ditch her for a newer model, faster than he could say…

“Die, motherfucker!” he screamed, and redecorated the master bedroom.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Vampire Hunters: Calamity - Chapter 1: Captivé

“Another dress? No thanks, ma,” I told her on my fourteenth birthday. “I’d like a hunting knife instead.”

She eyed me curiously, as if I had just told her that I was no longer a virgin. “And what do you need a knife for, Cailan?”

“To kill vampires, of course.”

“It takes a lot more than a knife to kill a vampire.” She rubbed the scar above her ear.

“A toothpick can be lethal if you know how to use it. At least, that’s what the old man told me,” I replied.

Momma pursed her lips, and began knitting again, but I was smitten with my new occupation. At first I thought I would be angry when she started seeing the stranger a few months ago, but my heart warmed every time he passed by.

Initially I thought he was a dork…all right, perhaps he is a dork; but when I caught him throwing knives into an old post I was captivated. I hid behind a bush and watched for a while, certain he could not see me. Knife after knife he buried into the pillar, each the same distance apart. After tossing his three knives, he yanked them out and began again.

Mesmerized by his accuracy, I could not take my eyes off him. He seemed more like a machine than a man. When I edged forward to get a better look, he turned and asked, “Would you like to try?”

A man of few words, I could not believe he was speaking to me. “Sure.” I rose and brushed off leaves from my hair and dress.

He had been kind to my mother, always implying a respectable distance, and never trying to place a kiss on her lips. Although he rarely revealed his feelings, especially around me, I could sense that he enjoyed being here. Perhaps I reminded him of someone he knew who also had lost her father. Hopefully one day he would open up and share this.

“Take the blade with both hands. It is the easiest throw to make.” He positioned my hands above my head, and placed a knife in them. “Imagine what you hate the most. Do you see it there in the post?” he whispered. “Now kill it. Eradicate it from your life!”

The knife slipped from my hands as I tossed it, veering off course, and falling into a pile of leaves.

“Did I not make myself clear? Kill it before it kills you.” He handed me another knife. “Again.”

I gripped the handle tight, and flung it with all my might. It flew straighter this time, but well short of the post.

“Better.” He stepped closer, his dark coat blocking out the sun. “Imagine not your own mortality, but one that you hold dear. Someone whose life will be snuffed out if you do not hit the mark. Like your mother,” his voice sharpened.

My eyes began to well with tears, for indeed that was exactly what happened. Gazing up from under the bed I was helpless to do anything when the shadow burst through my bedroom door and seized her. If I were skilled like the old man, perhaps my father would still be with us.

“Die, you bastard!” The knife flew straight and true, streaking through the air, and thrusting into the top of the post.

“Well done. You are a natural.” He patted me on the shoulder.

How magnificent it felt to be touched by another man, even though he was not my father.

“Most likely you would have only nicked his ear.” He stepped away and collected the knives. “Vampires are quick and crafty. It takes precision and a fair amount of good luck to kill them.” He rejoined me and tossed the knives into the post once more.

He knelt to one knee, and looked into me with his gray eyes. “I am sorry that I did not know you sooner.”

The connection that I now felt with him combined with the loss of my father elicited a storm of emotion from me. He held me close as I wept, the first man to do so since that fateful night when my father came home early to celebrate my thirteenth birthday.

I could barely hide my disappointment when he collected his things and left the following morning.

“He will be back, just as he has in times past.” My mother ran her fingers through my long, brown hair.

“How can you be certain?” I found myself in tears again.

“Because there is a fire in him that cannot be so easily quelled. Besides, he purchased the old shed out back. He said that he would like to make his new home here.”

“With you?” I wiped the tears from my eyes.

“With us.” She pulled me closer.

I slipped from her grasp and walked over to a knife buried in the old post.

“What is it, dear?” Ma stayed on the porch.

I extracted the silver blade and held it close. “I think I love you, Lawson,” I murmured.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Tell Tale Signs - Chapter 1: 2 December

Yesterday a man approached me about a game. It would be fun, he promised. He would show me that my reluctance was misplaced, and perhaps, even a bit childish. I am not a man for games; I simply do not have the time. There are much better ways to pass the day, and the thought of dragging metal toys across a slab of fold out cardboard nauseates me.

“You win,” I told him. I was even willing to kick in a few bucks just so he would leave me alone.

“It’s one of a kind,” he promised.

Cognizant of the eyes upon me, I relented, and took a seat opposite him. Since I was new in town, I did not want to make myself out to be more of a prick than was already suspected, so I entertained the old geezer and his endless prattle.

“I could be home right now,” I thought to myself as we took turns dividing up our armies and placing them on the board. When not composing I can be found pouring over my archives, or acquiring a new skill. The thought of playing a board game was absurd at best, yet here I found myself.

My mind wandered from the game at hand to the sandy white beaches of my vacation home in Napili. I had made an investment years ago for a condo overlooking the ocean for the astronomical price of $195,000 in the late ‘80s. I had only purchased it because I knew I could rent it out the other fifty weeks of the year while I was away. After the first six months the condo began paying for itself and providing extra cash for my annual visit. Twelve years later property values skyrocketed and my humble two-bedroom two-bath condo with lanai peaked at $1.2 million.

I had not planned on selling the unit until a gentleman approached me much like this balding, old prune. Determined to wait it out, I could not wait until the property value soared past two million.

“How long will that be? Another ten years?” he asked. “Surges like this are rare. It won’t be long before the market corrects itself and inflation cuts your profits in half.”

“But I have a place to live, in case something happens,” I argued.

“In an expensive location with few jobs,” he replied. “You seem like a smart guy. No doubt you’ve already paid it off.”

“Actually, I purchased it outright,” I corrected.

“So why are you concerned about the free vacation that comes with your investment property? If you were to cash in, and put the money in the bank, you could retire right now.”

“Sorry, what was that?” I shook my head.

“Which will it be?” The old man replied.  “I’ll take the old shoe. Worn down by the passage of time, so many miles I have treaded in it, and so many more to go. Always useful and reliable, this old shoe. The name’s Travis, Travis Shoemaker.” He picked up the silver trinket and smiled.

Certainly I could pick one out if I were so inclined, but with my attention waning, and frustration painting a red cast to my face, I had to force myself to swallow my words and shake off my wretched demeanor. “The lightening bolt.” I pointed. “Seems to suit me well, Mr. Shoemaker.”

“All right, you go first.” He took a sip of coffee.

I rolled the dice, and moved the silver bolt along the outer band of squares. The interior featured fictitious landmasses that we had already divided up and fortified. I drew a card, and it read: “Transfer up to 5 units between any territories.” Alarmed at the burgeoning mass on my southern border, I decided to move my forces there. He chuckled, attacked my weakened frontier, rolled the dice, and then attacked again. The crusty old bastard was determined to teach me a lesson or two about stratagem, clever inroads that he was sure I had not traveled.

But if had known me, he would not have invited me to his table. When provoked, I am ruthless and unscrupulous. A wolf among sheep, always poised to strike. This is how I carved out my niche in the world: when backed into a corner, sometimes the best way out is through the corner. And if he wanted to place a wager on his boasts, I would gladly take his money, rip out his heart, and toss it into the fire along with his petty game. “You shouldn’t play games,” I warned.

“Life’s a game. You just didn’t realize that you were a player.” The gray-haired man with a neatly-trimmed goatee and pineapple shirt smiled. “I’ll write you a check now, and you can have the money free and clear. You can buy yourself another home back in the states, perhaps a four-bedroom house overlooking the ocean. You’ll still have enough money from the remaining balance to go on vacations for the rest of your life.”

I scratched my chin. “Or I could do nothing and continue accumulating wealth.”

“And continue working.” The old man shook his head. “What is it worth to you? How much do you clear each month? $1,000? At the most, $3,000?”

“Less than $3,000,” I replied. In fact, it was much less.

“What if I gave you the next ten years of profit right here and now? The sum of $360,000 can be withdrawn from a bank in Lahaina, broken up as you see fit, and added to your luggage as an extra carry-on. Tax-free. No one would have to know about it, just you and I. This, on top of the $1.2 million.”

I remembered the sound of waves crashing against the rocks below, and how I could barely breathe. “Why are you doing this? Why me?” I managed.

“Sorry?” Travis adjusted his glasses, and polished off his cup of coffee.

“Why me? The other patrons hang around and play all day.” I spied a pair of men playing a game of chess a few tables over. “They’re the experts, not me.”

“I am an inventor at heart. This is what I live for; I just haven’t been able to make a living at it yet. I love challenges, so I decided to design a board game this time round, and need feedback that is objective and untainted. The men that frequent these coffee shops are already locked into a particular mindset: predictable rules, wealth that is easily accumulated and maintained, the ability to dominate their peers…never concerned about acquiring insight or unique experiences when sitting down to play, where cooperation can breed surprising results. Every time I’ve asked for their help, they keep trying to get me to change my system to mirror their favorites. They are miraculously dim and unimaginative; besides, no one wants another knock off.

“I guess that’s the trouble with asking an expert. Familiarity stifles the adventurous spirit. They bemoan how the game is played, not judging it on its own merits, and grumbling when I do not heed their advice.” He gestured to a waitress to bring more coffee. “I’d rather an unbiased novice with a clear perspective who reacts genuinely so that I can see the flaws in the design.”

“Listen, I don’t mean to offend you, but I really just came for the coffee.” I slid my untouched cup aside.

“Bear with me a moment longer, I promise that it will be worthwhile.”

I stood there for a long moment, gazing at the neighboring island of Molokai, a short distance away. Surely if I sold off the condo I would never return. But the old man was right. What business did I have investing in such a venture where taxes and inflation were skyrocketing? A fool I was to think that I could find comfort in an economy where the cheapest burger was a dollar more than what I could purchase on the mainland, the local supermarkets included. Certainly I am a man of the islands; isolation doesn’t bother me in the least because there is no one left to be isolated from.

I could not believe how quickly the idea seized my imagination. Retire now: two words I would have never considered, especially at this stage of my life. I could take the money, board a plane, and start my new life immediately. Of course, what fun would it be without haggling?

“Then take her, she’s yours. Let me go inside and grab my things,” I said, watching a grin creep onto the old man’s face. “There’s just one condition.”

“Name it.” He could not hold back the smile any longer.

“Carrying a suitcase full of cash through airport security isn’t the brightest idea. It will arouse suspicion if not declared, and they might consider it drug money, locking it up in their evidence room, and forcing me through a long, protracted process to get it back.”

“So what do you have in mind?” He squirmed, sensing the wheels were just about to fall off the deal.

“Fly with me to LAX, and withdrawal the money there. That way I can drive away with the money ‘free and clear,’ just as you said. Though I live in Connecticut, I will not trouble you to make the journey. Surely you’ll want to get back to your new property immediately,” I said.

“That would be nice.” He scratched the stubble on his chin.

“All I ask is that you pay for my rental car. Besides the Northeast, I haven’t seen much of the U.S., and since I’ll be retired tomorrow, it would be a good time to catch up.”

“I can do better than that. I’ll buy you a car.  And judging by how well you’ve taken care of your condo, it’ll be the last car you’ll ever need. Deal?” He held out his hand.

“Deal.” I nodded my head, not wanting to touch his sweaty palm.

“Great.” Mr. Shoemaker sat back in his chair. “Your move. You can either roll the dice or pick up a card.”

I sat there a moment, marveling at the mountain of good luck that had befallen me over the past few days: meeting the entrepreneur in Maui, retiring the very next day, and purposefully getting myself lost as I made my way through El Paso, then up to Dallas and eastward to this funny little town called Mena. Finally I realized that it was time to stop relying on chance, so I avoided the dice, and I picked up a card instead.

I looked at it and choked. “Is this some kind of joke?” I showed the old man.

“What? What’s wrong?” Travis sat up.

“‘You just sold your vacation home in Maui for a loss?’ How did you know that I had a home in Maui?” I snapped.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” He threw up his hands. “If you don’t like what it says, pick another.”

“No, that’s it. I’m done.” I stood. I slammed down the coffee in one gulp, and wiped the corners of my mouth with my napkin. “This should cover it.” I whipped out a hundred dollar bill, and tucked it between the salt and pepper shakers. Although it pained me to overpay a hundred times over, it was the smallest bill that I had. And I needed to get out of there as soon as possible before he began prodding me for more information. He seemed to have a knack for it, I had already disclosed more than intended. “Have a nice day.” I walked towards the door.

“Must have been the badge.” The old man grumbled behind me.

I glanced back, catching sight of the Travis’ shield as he tossed it onto the table. I had no reason to get excited; it wasn’t as if I had a dead body in the trunk of my car. Nonetheless, I found myself scampering towards the front door, afraid that the next thing I would see was the barrel of his gun.

I approached the door just as a family came in. Under normal circumstances I would have displayed more tact and let them pass first; but since I was in such a hurry, I pushed my way through them, an act that I would later regret. I paid their puzzled looks no heed as I got into my Jeep Grand Cherokee, and threw it into gear.

“Get me out of this hell hole.” I mumbled to myself, but God had other plans for me.