Sunday, June 30, 2013


Mario Razzanelli’s hands trembled. Errant thoughts coursed through his brain like a cyclone. His heart raced each time he considered making a run for the door, but he knew their ways. They would hunt him down like a dog. The entire situation had spun out of control and was threatening to suck him below the surface. He tried to reign himself in. Mario ran his fingers through his hair and drew a deep breath. Something inside snapped. Like an agitated chimp he pounded his fist into to the table, lending emphasis to every syllable.

“You have no fucking clue as to the magnitude of what you’re asking me to do!”

None of the three gentlemen seated at the table as much as flinched. As a matter of deference Fatima and Ali looked to their boss. It would be a cold day in hell before either of them would speak without the approval of their leader, and presently Omar found no cause for words. Arms folded high across his chest spoke volumes.

After allowing ample time to telegraph his sentiment, Omar reached into the front pocket of his suit-pants to retrieve a pearl handled pocket knife.

He held it up to Mario and smirked, “American made.”

Omar turned his hand palm up and curled his fingers to examine the nails. Extending the blade he set about cleaning them while Mario continued to plead his case.

“Look fellas, this is your turf. Things in Afghanistan are significantly different than in Philly. Big city alleys are dark places full of darker deeds and every day I dance on razor’s edge for you. Bellizar is my major distributor. If he even smells a hint of betrayal on me, he’ll have one of his henchmen cut off my nuts with a butter knife. You DO NOT roll over on one of the biggest drug dealers in the city and live to talk about it!”

Omar seemed satisfied with his make-shift manicure and appeared ready to lay down his knife and honor Mario with his full attention. Instead the young Arab leaned forward in his chair, rolled hard left and seized a handful of his hair. When Mario placed his hand down for balance Omar plunged the knife through it pinning him to the table. He pulled Mario’s face until their noses touched.

“My pitiful American friend, you have forgotten who you’re talking to. As a matter of speaking it seems you have lost your head, and in my country figuratively can become literal upon one word from me.”

Omar turned to Fatima and Ali. Like trained puppets they burst into a continuous state of laughter until Omar signaled they should no longer find humor in anything. The raising of his arm instantly wiped their faces expressionless.

“Millions of dollars of opium hit the street daily in the US. My only concern is an uninterrupted flow from this country to yours. As you can imagine there are many Belizar’s and Mario’s, each of them expendable. Belizar uses more than he moves and a scrambled brain is of no value. You WILL begin delivering product to Kaboni Saavage. The complications related to rival drug lords are your own. Figure it out!! ”

Omar shoved his head back with enough force to move his body sideway. Like a dog hits the end of a chain, Mario yelped with his hand still crudely fixed of the table.

Mario nodded and gritted his teeth. In one fluid motion he removed the knife and whipped it across the room. The rotating knife split the distance between Fatima and Ali’s heads and found its mark in the wall behind them. Mario followed his bold move with bolder words.

“I understand you can have me killed by simply saying the word, but what you’re asking me to do amounts to suicide anyway. How about you find someone else to fly your shit to the states? I’m out!”

Mario gathered enough courage to turn for the door. He realized that with each step the odds increased that the next millisecond might see a bullet ripping through his brain separating him from his senses. What little remained. Thinking back Mario was at a loss to explain how a commercial pilot’s salary hadn’t been enough. Greed was the only answer. He was a fool for having ever entered the drug-running scene. Now he was nothing more than a rat trapped in a corner. High-stake, deadly games; where sometimes you find the only control you have left is the terms upon which you will leave the game.

Omar erupted with the ferocity of a lion.

“You ungrateful, son-of-a-bitch! You think you can just walk away from me?”

Mario paused and turned. It took everything he had to squelch the urge to defiantly lift his middle finger. Omar’s face was so contorted only slits remained for eyes. Even through the shadows fire leapt from them.

“Americans and liberty…useless sentiment! You want freedom— I’ll give you your freedom, but it comes with a price tag. Come back here and listen to my proposition.”

Mario returned, but stood outside of arm’s reach. Omar’s tone changed considerably.

“There is a monster shipment scheduled to leave for the US, much too large for one aircraft. We have arranged additional pilots, but they are not as skilled as you, Mario. You are a true professional, well-versed in the art of avoiding detection. You, my good friend, have never lost even one ounce in transport and Omar respects you greatly. If you take the lead and all three aircraft land safely at their destination you will have earned your freedom, as well as a $250,000 for work well done. ”

A refusal almost ensured his beheading by nightfall, and a quarter of a million dollars would cover changing his identity and moving his family to some tiny town on the other side of the country. Mario was ready to have his life back.

Mario extended his good hand to Omar and shook.

“I better get some rest if I’m flying tonight.”

As Mario left the room Omar returned to the table. He spoke to his cohorts in a hushed voice.

“Mario is the typical American fool; he knows too many names, faces, and location details. It is your job to make sure that his plane never arrives—explosion, navigational difficulties, mechanical failure—use your imagination. Surprise me, but don’t disappoint me!!”


Normally there were three cargo planes available, but with one undergoing an engine overhaul and the larger shipment Mario was in for a new experience. Climbing into the cockpit of an old F-14 fighter took him back to the jungles of Vietnam. He had no doubt the feel of a fighter would come back quickly. Omar arranged for Geary to do the pre-flight checks as he was better suited; an ex-Canadian fighter pilot for the Royal Air Force. Although it was their first meeting, Geary seemed capable of handling the C-23 Sherpa and generally a nice enough guy.

All of the aircraft used to transport were American made. Mario was uncertain of who was involved militarily and how high up the chain the corruption rose, but their final destination was the same landing strip on an Air Force base in the Nevada desert. Things of such magnitude didn’t happen without a good number of brass being actively involved or turning a blind eye. Rarely did an aircraft return empty; Opium came in by the ton and crates of weapons went back. Mario found it easier not to get mixed up in the details.

Nothing compared to the adrenaline rush that accompanies being pinned to the seat by such a powerful and awesome piece of weaponry. During the climb Mario glanced to the wings. The rails designed for bombs and missiles were empty. With the ascent now complete, he eased the stick forward and leveled out the aircraft, allowing time for the larger and slower C-23’s to catch up. It pleased him to see them find similar altitude and fall in line. Even on the first leg of the flight, the sheer amount of time spent airborne was mind-numbing.

Mario drifted back through the decades to the wheat fields of Kansas. As a young boy he never analyzed the nature of what called him, only that he must answer. With the rising sun as his witness he would sneak from his bedroom window still in pajamas. Specific destinations were not part of the equation. Mario would amble across the harvested fields until he felt the energy building beneath his feet. There he would stand until his soul filled up. With eyes closed, head tilted skyward, he would lift his arms like wings and spin in circles. There was a great degree of peace and freedom found in the lining of the sky—something that only a pilot, or perhaps an eagle, could fully comprehend. Mario lost himself, for hours he supposed, but the portal where he slipped into the heavens knew nothing of time and boundaries. He floated back to earth only when his mother stood in the distance calling his name. She was a precious and loving soul that passed too soon and Mario’s heart ached every time he thought of her. She never questioned what he was doing. He supposed a mother always knew her own boys heart. The sweetness of her voice sounded if she were very near.

“Mario, Mario, Mario, come with me.”

As if a hypnotist snapped his fingers sharply, Mario found himself in the here and now. A shiver climbed the length of his spine and he broke into a cold sweat. Eeriness filled the cockpit like poison gas—he sensed something very wrong. Mario stared long and hard at the panel of lights and gauges. During the few seconds he observed, the fuel pressure gauge dropped dramatically. The bottom of his stomach fell out. He banked the aircraft left then right and observed a trail of unspent fuel spraying from the right engine.

Mario screamed uselessly into the oxygen mask.

“Omar you heartless, sabotaging, son-of-a-bitch!”

The right engine sputtered twice before flaming out. Mario wrestled with the stick to stabilize the aircraft. It fluttered from side to side like a wounded bird, but was manageable. There wasn’t enough fuel to turn back and the image of slamming into the side of a mountain made his skin crawl. He’d take his chances punching out. Mario reached for the ejection lever, took a deep breath, and yanked upward—but nothing. Omar had closed off the obvious means of escape.

As quickly as fuel leaked from the aircraft a toxic combination of rage, fear, and regret was filling Mario. Of the millions of thoughts that might flash through a man’s mind when death is waiting around the next corner, Mario’s returned to his thoughts earlier that morning. Sometimes your decisions are so poor that the only control you’ve left yourself is to choose the terms in which you will leave the game. Mario knew what he had to do.

He banked right in a sweeping arc and came in from behind the Sherpa’s at a slightly higher altitude. Mario pulled just ahead of rear cargo plane and attempted to match its speed. He shadowed each of them as long as he could maintain stable. He forced the F-14 downward, back into the lead position, with no more than a hundred feet separating his tail and the nose of the Sherpa. Mario reached for the ignition switch for the right engine and flipped it forward. After the engine re-lit he kicked in the after-burner which sent his aircraft into an unmanageable state of chaos. Mario felt the repercussion of the first cargo plane’s exploding, and supposed the fiery shrapnel racing toward the second plane was more than the pilot could avoid as the second shockwave rattled the canopy.

A certain sense of satisfaction and peace washed over him, so much that he turned loose of the controls. The steel gray of his aircraft became only a blur of spins and tumbling as it hurdled toward the jagged mountainside. The ensuing ball of fire appeared like a firefly lost in a sea of night. But there was a sense of peace and freedom folded in the breeze—an image of a young boy twirling in a Kansas wheat field while his mother calls him home.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Thought of the Day

“Humility is life’s great equalizer, a brutal reminder we are only renters in this world. Continuing to wrestle with things beyond our control exposes the flaws of the human mind and spirit.”

Sunday, June 23, 2013


I think most of us can recall at least one strange notion or idea that burrowed itself into our brain during the naiveté of childhood. Something we allowed to take up residence in a dark corner and even in the face of contradictory evidence we refuse to let it go without a fight. At the age of ten I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that if I failed to hold my breath the entire length of a cemetery that something awful would happen. I didn’t know exactly what it would look like, only that it would be an unbelievably ugly and gruesome scenario. My father tried to convince me that if I subjected the idea to logical analysis it would crumble like day-old bread. Problem being not even one-tenth of a young boy’s thoughts and actions can be loosely interpreted as logical. The way I saw things, an average graveyard in a rural community had no less than two-hundred stones. At least ten percent of the spirits were crafty enough to have broken free from the chains that tether those wandering the after-world—you’ve seen the movies, right? That leaves a bare minimum twenty spirits roaming free, of which as a general rule, roughly thirty percent are inherently evil because mom said one in three boys is a born hoodlum and bound for prison. So lurking somewhere in every ‘valley of the dead’ are 6.67 renegade spirits lying in wait for a fresh body to throw themselves into. No kid wanted to be the cause of subjecting his family to neighborhood ridicule if a priest had to be called in to perform a full-blown exorcising for a measly .67 parts of a demon.

Holding the breath equalized internal pressure and prevented a breach of any and all orifices; an invisible force-field if you will. But all good battle plans require a secondary line of defense and since everyone knows the eyes are the window to your soul you must be diligent.

My older sister, Maggie, was thirteen and jumped on every opportunity to tease me about the childishness of my ritual. She’d often make stupid noises or tickle me in an attempt to break my resolve. Even the time I became so infuriated that I doubled up my fists and blindly bloodied her nose did little more than deter her temporarily. However, Pop reaching in the back seat and eventually finding a fist-full of my hair, which he used for leverage to head butt me against the back of his headrest, rather permanently cured me of losing control of my emotions when in his presence.

I suppose I liked my sister as much any little brother will admit. In fact on that eerie night the dreaded and unretractable words, “I love you” rolled off of my tongue like I meant it. In my own defense I was simply a victim of circumstance. What was a kid brother supposed to do with his own flesh and blood lying in the middle of the road, face a pale shade of blue, gasping for what I knew to be a final breath?

It was Halloween night, and because of such everything appeared creepier than usual. The moon nearly filled the drivers-side rear window, and it seemed no matter which direction Mom turned the car it hurdled across the sky to stay on my side. It was much bigger than I had ever seen; orange and angry, as if toxic air from an apocalyptic night had over-inflated it. Near the top of the bloated orb were black slashes for eyes, and their gaze bore through me like lasers. My insides shifted as I tried to stare past it, but it wouldn’t let go of me. Suddenly the moon morphed into something ten times worse. A mangy werewolf, mouth bloody from a fresh kill, appeared at my window and lunged at me. I jerked back to avoid the slash of his razor sharp teeth and collided with my sister.

“Hey, stupid, it’s only a reflection of the mask you’re wearing! Ha…ha, you’re such a scaredy-cat. Now get off of me before you smash my princess costume!”

Being cast back to my side of the seat rather forcefully, I decided to use my flashlight to examine the floorboard. Not one shard of glass where only moments earlier a hairy arm plunged through the window in search of my jugular. My sister was right about the reflection. I hated when she was right about anything. A combination of anger and embarrassment welled up in me, boiling until it spilled out my mouth.

“Bet you just love Halloween, don’t do? The one night of the year a witch can play a princess. Well, you’re still a mean, ugly, hag on the inside and only a heart transplant can fix that!!”

Her punch landed squarely in the ear-hole of my werewolf mask. Despite the ringing in my head I slugged her back. Certain areas on girls are off limits so I aimed just below her boobs. I smiled as I heard the ‘uuumph’ and the air temporarily leave her lungs.

“What’s a matter with you two back there? Stop it, or I’m going to turn this car around!”

Mom was not nearly as adept as dad at launching the heat-seeking arm into the back seat, and I was pretty sure she’d never considered head-butting me into anything to make a point. As a precautionary measure I pressed back into the seat.

Using the sweetest fake voices we could muster, my sister and I responded in unison.

“Nothing, mother, we’ll behave.”

With mom’s radar tripped and on high alert Maggie knew better than to continue pushing buttons. She leaned over and whispered to me.

“Hey, Sammy, Wilson cemetery is just up the road. Better close your eyes and hold your breath. Don’t wanna let an evil spirit in do ya? Well do ya—you stupid little wart!”

I wanted to grab her face, pry those smug lips apart, and rip out her tongue so I didn’t have to listen to her annoying voice ever again. Each moment that passed anger consumed another chunk of me until I had nearly forgotten the situation at hand. I lifted my head just in time to see the hood ornament of the car even with the first row of stones. I drew an exaggerated deep breath and pressed my eyes closed hard enough to make the skin crumple around them.

Wilson cemetery struck fear in my heart. Nearly a half mile challenged the capacity of my lungs, but Halloween night was certainly not the time to slip up. As I went inside my head to prepare for battle I felt my sister’s fingers slitter around my rib cage, searching for the secret spot that would break me. I slapped her hand away gently the first time. Knowing her persistent nature I figured to be more forcefully the second and show her I wasn’t playing. I waited and waited for what seems like forever, but nothing. Then I heard an ugly gasp followed closely by a tapping on my arm. I pretended to feel nothing. The annoyance increased in frequency and urgency as did the realistic gurgling noises coming from the other side of the car. Maggie was putting on quite a performance, but if she thought I was folding that easily she had underestimated my tenacity. As if she intercepted my thoughts and heard the resolve and stubbornness, my sister buried the nails of her left hand deep into the flesh of my forearm. The pain threshold quickly superseded that of logical thinking. My eyelids slammed open and I wheeled on her. Immediately I wanted to close them again. Not because of the ritual but because my young eyes had seen too much.

“Stop the car, Mom, NOW! Maggie’s dying!”

Most if not all of the evil thoughts I’d considered were playing out. My sister had swallowed a demon on Halloween night and it lodged in her throat. I was ashamed that part of me wanted to smile and say I told you so, but the look of horror etched on my sister’s face washed away any and all animosity. Her eyes bulged like a bull-frog squeezed too tight in the middle, and the way she clutched at her own throat screamed desperation. She needed help in a bad way.

The car came to a screeching stop and mom and I nearly collided in a head-long rush to reach Maggie’s door. Each of us grabbed an arm and dragged her from the vehicle onto the road. I glanced to see if there might be a softer resting spot in the grass, but instead saw a tombstone barely twenty yard away. For the love of God….mom stopped the car too soon and now we weren’t just playing on the fridges of hell; her error in judgment had cast us right into the middle of a bubbling cauldron. My knees buckled, head started spinning, and everything went into slow motion. I was overcome by a near catatonic state and only vaguely aware of the words dribbling from my mouth.

“Hail Mary full of grace….”

To this day my mother denies such words of sacrilege every crossed the threshold of her lips, but a young boy remembers such trespasses. Her words hung in the air like the stench of a double-bean burrito fart.

“Screw Mother Mary. Screw her!! Help me get your sister on her feet”

I was uncertain whether the voice was completely her own or some morphing mixed with a gravelly voice of possession. Drool oozing from my sister’s mouth found its way to her arms making mother’s request a slippery proposition. I stood directly in front of them helplessly waiting for mom to work her magic on the limp and lifeless shell of my sister. Hanging over mom’s right shoulder laid that awful orange moon, pouring his sinister smile down upon us. I watched intently as mom drew her fists into my sister’s gut.

The sheer ugliness lying ahead was inescapable, the lesser of two evils. If my sister was to live the demon must be expelled, but I could only imagine the agitation of a spirit settling into his home only to be puked onto the ground in a chunky stream of Skittles and Milky Way. My sister was responding now. She moaned from time to time and her gut wrenched back and forth like a cat ratcheting up a hairball. I broke into a cold sweat at the prospect of meeting a demon head on. I had no idea if I possessed the intestinal fortitude to stare long and hard into those fiery red eyes and live to tell about it. The moment had arrived; that split second when you finally find out if your guts are made of steel or Laffy Taffy. Maggie heaved a final hurl and I saw the pinkish hue of a rotten demon’s soul emerging from her mouth. Then at the speed of sound it launched itself directly at me, striking me squarely between the eyes.

Mom loosed a blood curdling scream, “There it is!!” she exclaimed.

After touching my face to make sure it hadn't been completely melted off and I had eyes left to see, I looked on the ground. Just as mom said…there it was, indeed…a half-chewed chunk of Hubba Bubba! Seriously.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Thought of the Day

“A reflection knows nothing of depth. Whether in a puddle or the ocean it always appears perfect, but it is the obligation of every man to himself to dive beneath the surface and explore the integrity of what it is he projects.”

Monday, June 10, 2013

Thought of the Day

In a world that promotes and recognizes success based solely upon the harried pace with which one speeds through life, it burdens my heart in unspeakable ways that we neither encourage nor place significant value on setting aside time in our day for considering the abstract. It seems reflection and introspection have become such anomalies that no one misses them.    

Sunday, June 9, 2013


Dalton Fiori’s hopes of hitching a ride were fading faster than another set of taillights melting into the horizon. He stood hopeful with thumb extended as an old pickup topped the hill. For a brief moment the vehicle appeared to slow, but swerved into the passing lane and continued on. He kicked at the gravel along the shoulder, sending a spray of pebbles tumbling onto the blacktop. Before the last spinning rock settled a metal on metal screech pierced the air. Dalton lifted his head to see the welcomed sight of brake lamps, followed closely by the whining sound of a transmission in reverse.

As he closed the distance his olfactory senses were assaulted by the unmistakable stench of chickens. Not one or two of the filthy creatures, but an entire pick-up bed full. The cages were stacked three high, front to back, cinched across the middle by a frazzled section of rope. It was late afternoon, his calves were in knots, and in the last four hours the beat-up old Ford was the only offering. The creaking of a passenger door swinging wide was all the invitation he needed.

Dalton ducked his head into the cab to discover a grizzled, grubby looking fellow. Despite his outward appearance he sported a grin that spanned ear-to-ear. The kind that indicated he was neither bothered nor embarrassed by the unfortunate circumstance that left two lower teeth searching for companionship. His left arm rested on the steering wheel like it was welded there the day the truck rolled off the assembly line. Stained fingers dangled from his wrist, inches from an open bag of chew lying on the dash—if indeed there was a dash lurking somewhere beneath a smorgasbord of trinkets that stretched the breadth of the cab. Dalton scanned the contents looking for any sharp object that might be plunged repeatedly into a hitchhiker’s eye. He discovered nothing to support the nervous churning of his insides, but could feel the heaviness of the old man’s stare dissecting him. As Dalton confirmed the gaze he found the man’s right eye settled squarely upon him. The right eye obeyed his master completely, but the left wandered away as if had better things to do. The driver leaned close, draping his right arm over a chicken cage sitting beside him.

“I’m Earl, this here’s Penny Sue.”

His eyes gleamed when he nodded at the cage.

“Ole Penny Sue’s a blue-ribbon winner, four years runnin’. Wouldn’t think of fryin’ her up, but the rest of ‘em won’t go nowhere without her. Climb on in if you don’t mind sharin’ space. I’m sure ole Penny Sue don’t give a cluck. Get it? The chicken don’t give a cluck!”

The old man chuckled until he ran out of breath, and when he did inhale it came with such force the wad of tobacco lodged crossways in his throat. The blockage spurred a coughing spell lasting nearer a minute than not; a body-wrenching, head to foot thrusting that culminated in a brown spray of spittle against the windshield. Earl composed himself enough to flash Dalton a gummy-grin, then used the back of his hand to clear the drool swinging from his chin. By now Dalton was giggling, not at the joke as the old man supposed, but how the coughing spell appeared to have fixed his bad eye. Briefly both of them tracked in unison, before the left rolled lazily away.

“If’n you’re aridin’ then toss that backpack in the bed of the truck and climb in. Whatcha name?”

“Dalton Fiori, and I’d prefer to hold the bag on my lap.”

“Suit yourself. Where ya headed?”

“As far as you’re going.”

The old man eased the clutch until the truck lurched forward. After the tailpipe belched two puffs of black smoke the size of cannonballs the engine smoothed out. With pleasantries out of the way there appeared to be little to talk about. For several miles the only sound present was that of a laboring motor, what leaked back through the firewall and reverberated around the cab. Then with a smack of his lips, Earl jumped to the heart of the matter that had been rolling around in his head for some time.

“Don’t suppose you runnin’ from the law are ya?”

The hitchhiker’s posture morphed quickly to one of defense.

“No, Sir—why would you ask such a thing?”

The old man drew his index finger and thumb along the length of his jaw, making his whiskers whisper like 60-grit sandpaper against a slab of red oak.

“You mean somethin’ outside of the fact you done checked the mirror ‘bout twenty-three times in the last mile?”

Dalton wanted to dismiss Earl’s comment as an exaggeration, but he couldn’t. He turned his focus to the mirror again and observed a black sedan cresting the top of a hill. Although a couple of rises separated them the sedan appeared to hover just above the roadway and was eating up pavement at an alarming rate. With little to no processing Dalton’s thought turned to action as he reached for Earl’s right knee and pushed downward forcefully.

“Earl, you gotta get this piece of shit movin’ or we’re both in a boatload of trouble!”

The pinning of the accelerator caused the engine to surge and speedometer to flutter, but the speed remained the same. With a jerk of his head Earl glared sideways at Dalton and slapped his hand away.

“Boy, you musta been born crazier than a shit-house rat! If you keep givin’ into spells of stupidness like that, you’re gonna roll us over the side of the mountain!”

No sooner had Earl finished his last word both of their heads snapped forward as the sedan slammed squarely into the bumper. The rear window burst and a shower of glass rained down like hailstones. Dalton wheeled around in time to see the fragile section of rope separate. Void of restraint the cages danced and swayed. He held his breathe as Earl negotiated a particularly long sweeping curve, but the cages leaned beyond the point of return and section by section they rolled off the truck. The nose of the sedan dove sharply as the driver jammed the brakes and swerved to avoid the landmines striking the highway. Each container exploded into a flurry of chicken feathers and debris, but as the whirlwind settled the sedan was still charging forward. Instead of making contact again the car swerved into the passenger lane and quickly pulled even with the truck. Earl hands were trembling, but he composed himself long enough to shake a clinched fist out the window. The tinted glass of the sedan window lowered and the passenger flashed a handgun and motioned for the truck to pull over.

“Earl, we’re short on horsepower and definitely out-gunned. Just pull the truck over. It’s me they want—they’ll let you go.”

Dalton expected the old man to be so rattled he would surely comply. Instead Earl’s voice erupted in angry spurts like lava spewing from a volcano.

“Save it Dalton! These here boys’ kilt my chickens…’nuff is a ‘nuff!”

Earl gripped the wheel; knuckles shiny, white, and determined. Yet when the time was right he spoke calmly and matter of fact.

“Good night, Irene!”

Earl leaned his entire body hard left until the truck made contact with the black marauder, pinning it against the guardrail. The smell of smoldering hot metal filled the cab and an occasional shower of sparks arched over the sedan and scattered across the windshield. Earl rode the accelerator until the safety-guard ran out. There was a slight chirp of tires as he righted the truck and with his one good eye, Earl watched with satisfaction as the trunk of the sedan rose momentarily before the rocky jaws of the ravine swallowed it completely.

He brought the truck skidding to a stop crossways in the road, and turned sharply on his passenger.

“O.K, Mr. cat got your tongue—you may not be runnin’ from the law, but you damn sure got on the wrong side of them boys. You best start yappin’ or I’m gonna commence to whoopin’ yer ass!”

Dalton showed no visible reaction to the threat. Instead he exited the truck, walked to the front, and tossed his backpack on the hood. Earl’s patience had run out. He poured himself out of the vehicle to confront the young man.

“Just a minute, Earl. I know you’re upset, but I’m thinking somebody must have planted something in my pack.”

Dalton unzipped the bag, and after shuffling the contents he retrieved a small black box. He drew his arm back and launched it into the ravine.

“GPS tracking device”, Dalton mumbled.

The hitchhiker turned to deal with Earl’s frustration and anger.

“This is going to take a bit to unravel. I know it’s asking a bunch, but can we talk while you drive?”

The old man said nothing but reached inside of the truck and retrieved the pouch. After stuffing a fresh wad of tobacco, chewing it thoroughly, he loosed a stream that landed squarely on Dalton’s shoe.

“Don’t suppose this trucks amoving ‘til you do some straight talkin’. Ain’t got no chickens to sell now. ‘Spect there ain’t nowhere to head but home, and at the present moment I’m fightin’ off a terrible urge just to bull-rush you over the edge of this road.”

Sensing the desperateness of the situation Dalton began spilling.

“OK…OK. My name really is Dalton Fiori, Professor Dalton Fiori. I work, or used to work, at the University of Raleigh, North Carolina. A colleague of mine and I worked independently from the university on a secret project for a very long time. After ten years we were relatively successful, but it turned out this friend of mine had a serious gambling problem, much more serious than I realized. Bookies began breathing down his neck every other day, and when they threatened to kill his family he folded. Without talking to me he made an agreement to turn over our discovery as payment. I got wind of the deal, cleared out our basement lab in the middle of the night, emptied my bank account, and hit the road. I’ve been on the run for a couple of days now. And that’s the honest to God truth, Earl.”

An invisible wall went up between them; disbelief comprising the lion’s share and silence the remainder. The only sound was one of sandpaper, as Earl drew his thumb and forefinger along his jaw-line. Dalton supposed he was deciding in his mind whether he believed enough of the story to allow him to continue riding.

“Earl, what were the chickens worth, and how much to repair the truck? I’ve got cash and I want to make that right between us, regardless of whether you let me ride or not.”

Earl kicked at the ground a moment with his head hung low. Dalton peered closely awaiting a decision on the ride. He couldn’t see the expression on the old man’s face, but observed the heaving in his chest.

“Earl, are you cryin’…..over chickens and a beat up old nag of a truck?”

The old man drew his shirt-sleeve across his face.

“Hell no I ain’t cryin’ over that…for a damn scientist yer sure a dumb one.”

Earl attempted twice unsuccessfully to clear the lump in his throat before he swallowed hard and forged ahead in a shakier voice than before.

“Is a hundred dollars too much? I figure two dollars a chicken is a fair price, and the wife’s got a second-cousin who does body work on the side. If he can weld her up where she’ll hold that’ll be that. You see, son, as you get older you’ll learn that outside-looks don’t matter so much. Look at me, dusty as a tumbleweed, ain’t got two nickels to rub together, nor enough teeth to make a jack-o-lantern jealous. But can’t nobody tell me the Lord didn’t give me a good heart. My judgment is suspect from time to time, so you better get yer ass in the truck ‘for I leave you fer wolf-bait.”

Dalton had suspected Earl’s first question would be to ask about the discovery and what was in the backpack, but it wasn’t and he was thankful for that. A college professor’s life didn’t lend itself to associating with Earl’s type. Dalton felt a great appreciation for the opportunity to be in the presence of a simple man who thought simply, but found it awkward to know how to speak to him meaningfully on his terms.

The mountains were threatening to swallow the sun completely by the time Earl turned down a side road and found a lower gear. Dark shadows started from each side of the road until they meet in the middle, prompting Earl to turn on the headlights. Only the passenger lamp worked, but a full moon spilled an orange hue onto the ground, like a spotlight on a stage where the performers are nature’s creatures, unaware they are performing at all. Occasionally a family of critters scurried across ahead of the truck.

“Earl, it ain’t too hard to see why a man would want to settle in the mountain of West Virginia.”

Saying the word ain’t was painful for Dalton.

The old man laughed.

“Fer some of us it ain’t so much a matter of settlin’ as not having any means of escape. So far, four generations of us lived in this cabin. ‘Spect I wasn’t the first to have dreams of leavin’, but….”

Earl’s voice trailed off to silence.

“But what Earl? What’s kept you here?”

“Tragedy, and circumstance, I suppose.”

By now darkness filled the cab, but the creaking of the seat as Earl shifted frequently indicated his uncomfortable state.

“If you don’t mind sharing, Earl, what kind of tragedy and circumstance?”

“Well, to borrow a professor’s words I once knew, ‘This’ll take a bit to unravel.’ Started about a mile from here—me and my only son Roy was sawin’ logs. We’d set about clearin’ a pretty good chunk, and there was only a small strip of trees left…a couple of months from squirrelin’ away enough money to get outta here for good. Roy was a dreamer….he even convinced me that there was somethin’ better out there, just waitin’ on us to grab it by the tail. Though he didn’t talk much about what rolled around in his head, I could see it in his eyes. Think he had detailed dreams, ‘bout a much better life for his young wife and him.”

Earl stopped speaking and began to cry again.

“Earl, you don’t have to continue. I can tell it’s painful.”

The old man responded quickly.

“Yep…but bad stuff happens to everyone, and nothin’ good comes from bottlin’ it up. ‘Bout time it come out, eatin’ most of my innards already. It’s a story about pride, Dalton. Pride ain’t nothin’ but a pretty wrapper ‘round somethin’ evil. Always prided myself with a chainsaw; the ability to drop a tree with a foot of where I was aimin’. I missed bad that day…twenty feet or more. When I seent things goin’ bad wrong I yelled at Roy, but that tree was so damn wide there weren’t nowhere to run.”

“I’m sorry, Earl, don’t know what else to say.”

Earl remained silent for a few moments, as if to gather the courage to say what was coming next.

“Dalton, you know what it’s like to hold your only son, coughin’ up more blood then you thought he had in ‘em, twenty miles away from help, nothin’ to do but watch the tragic consequences of your own foolishness played out on someone completely innocent…your own flesh and blood. I prayed to die right there….asked God to send a bolt of lightnin’, cause my heart to explode, somethin’ to save me from havin’ to see this terrible thing I done..explain it to his momma and wife. ‘Spect God needed me to see every second that passed, watch every hope and dream fade from my boy’s eyes, ‘til his chest wouldn’t rise and fall no more.”

Dalton fumbled for words.

“I…I don’t know what to say Earl, except I’m so terribly sorry.”

Earl continued as if he was talking to himself, that there were no words anyone could say to soften the blow. He was probably right.

“Buryin’ yer boy is about the most awful thing a man can do…somethin’ about the cycle of life messed up bad when a child dies ‘fore his parents. And it woulda been more acceptable if it were natural, ‘stead of somethin’ you done to cause it. Suppose the next two blows was natural, turns out Lena, Roy’s wife was pregnant. She gave birth to baby girl…named her Royal…and she is that. ‘Spect I spoiled her ‘cause it made me feel better ‘bout her not havin’ no daddy on account of me. She’s five now and beautiful as a West Virginia mountain sunrise and spring-fed waterfall put together. In the last year her blonde curls is all gone now and some of the sparkle in her eye. What the cancer ain’t eatin’ the chemo is. Doctor’s say there ain’t nothin’ to do but make her comfortable and wait. All that schoolin’ and you tell a family you can’t do nothin’ else?”

Dalton’s mind was churning and before he knew it he spoke.

“Earl, I personally have never had much use for God, especially when I hear a story like this. How can you still believe in a God that rains down that much heartache upon one family?”

The truck slowed and a single headlight revealed a tiny shack in need of repair, the wood shingles that remained were covered in a thick green moss, and a crooked stone chimney directed a tapered stream of smoke wiggling its way through the heavy mountain air.

“Dalton, it ain’t much, but ‘yer welcome to bed in the barn for as long as you need. Can’t promise you more than a share of what momma fixed for dinner and a straw bed. Come on inside. Don’t mind the strange looks yer likely to encounter…dinner guests ain’t too common.”

Dalton’s belly was full, but less so than his head. As he carved out a comfortable nest in a pile of hay he couldn’t rid his mind of feeling like a hobo and how awkward it felt. This cast of characters he had met today was so far removed from his realm thinking it felt like a dream. Until today he couldn’t imagine people living in the middle of a wilderness, jammed into a shack with a dirt floor, smothered in poverty but seemingly unaware of it and able to smile and function quite adequately. Dalton reached for the lantern to blow out the flame when he heard a knock on the barn siding followed by Earl rounding the corner.

“Wasn’t sure you’d be here in the morning and wanted to respond to what you asked me right before we got outta the truck. You asked me how I still believed in a God that brung such tragedy. Dalton, as you seen tonight there ain’t much out here for a man to grab aholt of, and I figure he could do a sight worse than wrappin’ his arms around the Lord. God don’t bring tragedy to people; best I can tell he sees ‘em through it. Events and people…good and bad come into ‘yer life for a reason. I believe that sure as I’m standin’ before ya. Maybe had I not come along to give you a ride, them thugs woulda shot you dead today…pretty sure God has somethin’ else planned for you to do. God don’t make mistakes…he has purpose in all things. Welp, I guess I said my piece….just wanted you to know where I stood. I’ll see ya in the mornin’ if yer still here. Good to have met ya, Dalton Fiori.”

When Earl returned the barn the next morning Dalton Fiori was nowhere to be found, only his backpack and a note filled the indentation in the straw.

I spent most of the night entertaining thoughts and ideals I never considered. I did a lot of thinking about you saying that God places people and circumstances in your life for a reason. That’s as plausible of an explanation as any that you and I might have run across one another yesterday. I was a stranger and you reached out to help me, expecting nothing in return. That is rare in this day and age.

You never once asked what was in my backpack. I will tell you that somehow I lost sight of the potential for good associated with such a discovery and instead became consumed by the notoriety and financial gain for myself, but now my work has a beautiful face and spirit associated with it and Royal is her name. Although the formula has not been fully tested I assure you there is no harmful side effects, and the tests that were performed proved very successful. To date this is certainly the closest anyone has come to developing a cure for cancer and it is my gift to you, Earl. Maybe, just maybe, God used me to restore a measure of hope to your family. I’m not certain of that yet, but I am positive that you are right when you said ‘nobody can tell you the Lord didn’t give you a good heart.’ Good luck my friend.