the Dig

the Dig
a short story

They told us not to go into the DYE site during our initial briefing because it was unsafe. There were other reasons given; although, I can’t recall them. Radiation? Monsters? But after we got stranded, we wandered. Thirty minutes of snowshoeing on the hard snow seemed little distance away from the camp, still on the flat horizon. I followed Neil in a sliding tumble, up and over the bank, down to the ladder. When we stood hunched at the bottom of a snow bowl, the sudden, dim light temporarily blinded me after coming out of the bright arctic landscape. Neil snickered at the metal ladder leading up to a steel hatch as every rung except the top four sunk into the miles of solid ice below. There was no telling how far it descended. Before climbing, I took one last look at a snowy circle surrounding the raised structure and steel support columns like an oil rig on a frozen ocean. My thick boots barely fit between the rust-layered, round, metal rungs, up through the opening at shoulder height into a black hallway full of musty chilled air and snowdrifts.

As I mentioned, I’m not supposed to be here, and if there were any part in the story when the monster attacks, this is the right moment.

The small, timid, young university Ph.D. girl, that’s me, and the taller, over-confident, photojournalist, Neil – we suddenly scream in terror. A Yeti-like creature stomps in from a darker-still doorway. Its slender rows of silver teeth shine from the flashlight and open to let out a hideous screech. Its massive melon head brushes the drooping, water-stained ceiling tiles. The creature rips Neil’s arms from the sockets in an instant he holds up his camera in a Night-Stalker-like defense. Now Neil screeches. Of course, I’m smarter, so I use the moment to turn and jump back down the hatch, where I run-stumble-slide back toward the only warm shelter at this spot on the Greenland ice sheet for 125 miles. Behind me, I hear footsteps hammering on snow, growing louder like my pounding heartbeat.

Maybe there is no monster – just noise in another hallway, ongoing deterioration. Still daydreaming, the flashlight is shined in my face. Neil walks on. I follow him down the deserted passage, being extra cautious past the doors now to an open area that I am sure was the shared room. Our breathing sends out white moisture plums. The inside is not warmer, I decide, like an empty freezer, and abandoned since satellite systems made the giant radar dome on the roof above us obsolete.

“You know that movie, The Thing?” Neil whispers. “Probably not, you’re what again, twenty?” louder.

“Old enough,” I replied, not giving him the answer he probably wanted. I’ll play along.

“I’ve watched that movie. Kurt Russel. There’s a newer movie too. Why?” Anyways, his point is like my Yeti vision. I may be a new adjunct, a brainy science nerd with a research grant, but my uncle likes Kurt Russell. Guardians of the Galaxy 2, Escape from New York, Big Trouble in Little China, and especially The Thing, so this place was close, minus the shape-shifting, face-eating, psychotic alien on a killing rampage.

Neil widened his blue eyes inside his olive-green balaclava and nodded to animate the point – it went without saying – this was creep city.

I looked at a mixture of snow and abandoned junk everywhere. I saw scattered silverware, a green vinyl tarp, rusted chairs, a charred cooking pot on the grey linoleum floor with bits of burnt furniture in it. It felt more post-Thing as if the characters killed it and left its frozen, rotted carcass in a wall – that’s the smell.

Neil wandered further, now taking photos around the corner where outside light bled in through the wide, steel-louvered window shutters. He volunteered to record the trip for the university. He sweetened the deal with an offer to write on the National Guard unit that landed us here on a ski-equipped cargo aircraft, three days ago, from Schenectady. 

“Aren’t you not supposed to take photos of all this, secret military site?” I hollered out to the other room. After a more extended silence, he walked back into view, smoking a cigarette.

“No, there’s nothing of value. The reason the crew got up one day and just abandoned it,” he replied. He threw his cigarette in the pot on the floor, put his thick mittens back on, and closed the mask’s Velcro on his flushed face.

“Your face is pretty red from the snow reflection,” my strategic comment to change the subject from an anticipated history lesson. [Man … no speeches. You lost both arms.]

This arctic building was DYE 2. Remote DYE sites across North America once searched for Soviet bombers coming over the pole. Neil lectured, not taking my bait. The states even operated radar sites on ships and ocean platforms, off both coasts. Back in the 50s and 60s, everyone knew about them. They expected an attack at any moment with fallout shelters and surface-to-air Nike missile silos around the big cities. Kids practiced air-raid drills, taking cover in school hallways or under desks. Now it all rusted out of knowledge after the development of satellites. No one’s vaporized. That colossal Cold-War effort included ski-equipped cargo planes, much like the one that flew us in. Every bit of rotting junk arrived on them, including the building, piece-by-piece. They transported the fuel used for heat and power. The operators lived isolated on this barren, inhospitable plane. Like an orbiting space station, they relied on resupply. Nothing lived naturally. The sun never set in summer months and never showed in winter months. A balmy day was 48 degrees, and a cold day was -58 F.

Neil reopened his mask to reveal a sideways smile behind a goatee face. It all made his jutting chin more prominent. “You need to see this before we go.” He turned and walked back toward the other room. His snow boots kicked up drifts and debris.

“What’s in there?” Getting spooked again.

“Some clues to your mystery,” Neil shouted.

She is getting tired, hurting, she is cold. She is past ready to go home. Not to the camp, but home, at her apartment, where there is summer weather. No more digging in the ice, down 10, 20, 30 feet to recover the scientific instrument that Doctor Wyatt mysteriously set here 50 years ago. He led the university’s studies on dark matter, that is, until his disappearance and before his spells of madness before that. These things are not understood by anyone now or for some time, she supposed. Whatever was the cause of all of it, there was a small part in her mind that worried about what they were digging up, should she be exposed to it. Pretty silly. But there was also part of her that hoped it was some revolutionary discovery buried under the ice. As mythical as the monster. 

They pulled shifts digging at the coordinates left like a treasure map by the doctor soon after arriving. Their orange plastic toboggan-and-rope system lifted ice blocks out the hole. She cut squares with a chainsaw on her shift, and Neil yanked them up a slope into the sunlight. She reflected on how each ice block locked in climate information during a time as surface snow. The hole reached further back in that buried time as they dug; their topside pile of tossed time grew extensive. Actual ice core projects were going on specific to such environmental studies at Greenland facilities west. Those scientists pulled out cores of frozen atmospheres dated tens of thousands of years old. But would her university group ever reach past their meager five decades of seasonal crust here?

When the university cleaned out the professor’s office, his notes on an experiment pointed to an unknown object he left in 1967. No one alive could recall him in Greenland, including retired faculty and the National Guard unit practicing their snow landings and arctic survival training at the DYE’s ski-way. It was no wonder that everyone on her team quoted scary movies and felt creeped out by it all. Captain America lay frozen under the ice for all they knew! That drew her to pursue the equipment. It was indeed why Neil jumped on the opportunity to document it for the university. Despite his promises to cover the National Guard’s training missions, he wanted the story for his news blog.

Neil was once one of those adult learners who stood out on campus. He sought a new life, crossing into the civilian world after serving 33 years in the Army and a timely divorce from his wife, who automatically-collected half his military retirement. She met him during a Sociology class, and they became acquainted during breaks in the smoking area. She finally kicked the nasty habit as a means of stress relief. He had not. She had not seen him since he graduated from his associate degree program in social media management. Still, they kept up on each other online. That’s how she told him about the temporary reporting position with her research staff. As the new adjutant of Doctor Wyatt’s old department, she selected and led the arctic-recovery team. In many ways, Neil was like her Uncle Dave, her dad’s only sibling, who lived in Alabama, who she rarely saw except for weddings and funerals. He had been in the military too. Dave also suffered a nasty divorce. Anyways, Neil made her feel safe on the trip, as he’d been through Desert Shield and Desert Storm and deployed to Bosnia and Afghanistan, and God knew where else. He’d even served at a missile defense site in central Alaska.

It was a small office where she found Neil looking through a four-drawer file cabinet. His thick, oversized mittens swung from his snowsuit’s wrist-clips. “Did you find the dirt, Geraldo?” she said, trying to bust him. He remained oddly quiet, without reply. His hand, gloved in a green wool liner, pointed to a file folder set on a rusted and peeling steel desk. His attention stayed on files in a drawer. Beams of sunlight invaded them and the other things in visual suspension through the broken louvers on a skylight, bouncing off objects and highlighting the kicked-up garbage. Humans were temporary, she thought. All would resettle when they left. The yellowed memo in the folder on the desk, many pages long, looked official, with a Department of Defense letterhead.

OFFICE OF THE ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE
WASHINGTON, D. C. 20301

15 Apr, 1973

John Stuart
Site Director, DYE II
USAF Operations, Kangerlussuaq
Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

Dear John:

I hope this memo finds you and your crew well. I am sorry to be so late in replying to your letter and suggestions on the Antarctic Operation Deep Freeze access. Still, we have had some extensive reorganization underway in our Science Foundation support office. I did want to have these people give some thought to your concerns about potential protestors. As I understand, you are all about halfway through your rotation, and I congratulate you on it …

She skipped past the grayed typewriting quicker until she saw Doctor Wyatt’s name on the second page.

It has also come to the attention of NGB that the Science Foundation support project, entitled Raven Dream, led by Doctor Wyatt, did not submit the required safety compliance documentation, per the recommendation provided, July 15, 1967, by DoD Arctic Transport and Support and Security Council Supplement 361-016, Appendix 12. I don’t think that any of your crew there were working the DYE at the time. It’s pretty important to us here that you’re on it. Still, the council recommended that all support to Raven Dream cease indefinitely. This stop-order includes any mil-air travel and asset support to include: The Dark-Matter Transport-Hyper, quark-phantom collectors, and the Broken-Pencil array rider. The Schenectady folks know this, but Dr. Wyatt is indisposed with a mental illness – an involuntary commitment. The problem is that we don’t know precisely where the site(s) is/are on your lawn. Dr. Wyatt is not of the mind to tell us. We certainly don’t want you to go searching for them or disturb them until we have a better idea of just what they are and do. We are at least pretty sure now from the images that they are not collecting UV and air samples, as the documentation suggested. The university is at a loss for details as well. Safety is imperative until we can determine the cause of the doctor’s sudden illness. He dropped out of reach from the world for some time prior. Forward any queries to …

She skipped to the back. It was signed, Stan Evander, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Sciences and Technology).

“Broken-Pencil array rider?” she mocked with a hawkish voice. 

“Some general’s chief of staff named that one, no shit,” Neil replied. “Probably pissed off. But what’s a dark-matter transport?”

“Hyper,” she added on. “I’d explain it, but then I’d have to kill you,” semi-joking.

She looked down to a separate hand-written note, in pencil, that looked stapled to the page later.

We’re leaving that one out there, under the ice. So let’s be sure it stays forgotten when you shut it down.
– Stan

 The note was stamp-dated, RECEIVED June 12, 1982. There was a typed label on the file folder tab, “WYATT.”

“Where did you find this?”

“In this busted cabinet,” Neil said. “It’s pretty hefty. I think it was for secure stuff, but somebody broke in, by the looks a while ago, probably a dog-sled group looking for valuables but not these old memos. They probably used some of this to start that fire in the other room.”

“I don’t think we should tell anyone that we saw this,” she said.

Neil remained on the cabinet, now cumbersomely searching the bottom-drawer with cold-stiffened hands, and silent.

“I’m serious, Neil. This shit will fuck everything up; if not, somebody comes after it.” She folded the documents the best that she could through her mittens and shoved it all inside her snow-boot. “Was there anything else?”

“Neil!”

“No, nothing else, yet!” he replied. “You know, the university isn’t paying me shit to document that I could make with this story. It could get me a placement with the Post.”

“But you won’t because you’re loyal to us, right?”

“Yes, yes,” Neil said. “It fucking figures, I’d be at the friggin’ North Pole, surrounded by ice and this alma mater assignment; then I get a possible break. Something good, but gone.”

“I think we better head back,” she said, satisfied with his reassurances. 

“Wait … … … what the …?” Neil had pulled out, opened a folder holding a large photograph, and now looked as frozen as the room. 

During the snowshoe back to camp, she remembered Uncle Dave living at their house, after discovering his wife cheating on him with a married colleague. Her uncle had also been nearly committed to an institution for his self-protection. Still, her father talked to some people who allowed Dave to stay with family in New York instead, and he managed to pull out of the deepest parts of depression. It was not too long that Uncle Dave found a new job and headed south. She remembered that she had a few hours alone with him one afternoon when everyone else was out shopping for the holiday. They watched The Thing and then a parade on television and got laughing, acting as the announcers and voicing out a disastrous parade review with mock voices. Dave managed to slowly re-establish his life, and she missed him much.

Along with her uncle’s heart, the aunt that she never really knew [She met her once.] kept the old city house in Missouri that Dave spent blood and years renovating. It was probably her plan all along, she thought, like Neil’s ex did to him, waiting for his retirement to file for divorce. She also lied to her family and her work colleagues and friends about the breakup. Naturally, they all distanced themselves from Dave as if he had done something wrong. Even after having been abandoned and nearly homeless in the Midwest, he never let on about her lies and the affair, thinking better; that women’s collogues and family, they all swam in the same septic tank, he said. He could have screwed with them and their adultery in so many ways, especially with their government clearances, but he took the higher ground. Maybe something similar happened to Doctor Wyatt to cause his mental breakdown and disappearance? “Some cupid kills with arrows, some with traps,” Shakespeare wrote. Yeah, she thought, or some with false witness. She was never getting married.

On their return, the Air National Guard unit looked packed for the morning’s C-130 arrival and airlift back to Kanger, their seasonal operations center. It had been scheduled to pick them up this afternoon, but they were weathered out. Several thin metal pallets, called skids, held a pile of tightly ratchet-strapped gear under cargo netting for loading. The only other things left were a snowmobile and the collapsible half-domed shelter, which everyone would sleep in and break down as soon as the aircraft was on the way. A half-dozen Airmen took the opportunity to wander over to the dig and help the university. It relieved the exhausted staff, which included six of them counting her and Neil. Their time to find the equipment before the plane arrived was running out.

Over the last two days, the Airmen’s attention was turned toward their barren land arctic survival school and the students’ training on personal protection, as well as their overnight remote field survival test. When the aircraft landed, the university team did their own thing. Their dig was some 100 feet from the camp. But just off the plane, a dozen students had to get by as if they had crashed alone on the ice sheet. They spent one night in the group shelter, but one night in pairs inside the snow-trenches, they dug, with benched sides and v-shaped roofs made from snow blocks. That night it was -14 F with 20-knot winds, but no students showed up for a warm night in the heated shelter – an automatic course failure. She had noticed them practicing this morning with orange signal smoke and flares. She and Neil walked past the class on their way to the DYE to see if they could gather any information on the buried scientific equipment. Like those mock stranded castaways calling for help, the DYE site was the science team’s Hail-Mary to nothingness.

Doctor Wyatt’s early dark energy studies centered around its use as a means for space travel. But the theory that dark matter was actually a scattering of primordial black holes dating back to the big bang carried little support in the 70s. The university and the scientific community outcast him slowly for its radical concept, if not, acceptably, in a way much colder and devious than direct opposition. They took advantage of slight mistakes in his research and papers. They overlooked his work while taking bits and genius from his hyper-transport mathematics to gain momentum and funding for other research projects. At least, that’s the conclusion she came to after her research and dissertation. If only the doctor’s time in the field was now. Dark matter carried large research grants and some of the most significant studies pushing the science today; billion-dollar super-colliders and time on NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope. It was now acceptable to imagine lassoing the ass end of a primordial black hole to pull a spot of the galaxy to your feet by never actually moving. Doctor Wyatt’s quantum math eventually proved black holes everywhere, a large percent of the universe’s mass. Like those sent from the defunct DYE, accessing them with high-frequency radar waves was as possible as deflating a balloon and stepping into its stream of escaping air.  You just had to untie them or find way to undo the knot.

She and Neil had the last shift until the plane arrived. No one was awake and the quiet somehow added to the dead cold. Up from the bottom of the pit, she looked through her breath to the dim twilight – their arctic midnight. She did not want a dislodged ice block falling from the toboggan onto her head. They had dug down farther than she’d predicted, and the climb back up to the world was considerable.

This was usually the moment at the end of the scary movie when the survivors, having dodged the monster’s bloody attacks, mistake disappearance for death, generally, after an explosion or a fall from a high place. The false demise of the beast lets their guard down. It’s the young, virginal girl … there’s something cliché like a shower scene or another moment of sexual vulnerability. Well, she did not feel too sexy in her sweaty, three-day worn snowsuit, so she had that going for her. Everyone looked asexual under all of their clothing and gear layers, and she went days without a man staring at her chest, which just occurred to her, and she smiled.

Looking this time to cut another row of blocks with the chainsaw, her flashlight caught something buried. It was not a shadow, but something was certainly there.

Cutting further down. “Looks like a weather balloon,” she said. “A simple instrument.” There was a connection.

“Wait, it’s a parade float? That whale is the balloon!” she yelled to the surface.

This was not the doctor’s experiments, which gave them a moment of pause at the DYE. When they saw it in the old photo, on the ground. A whale had been dragged hundreds of miles over the ice or transported from a dimensional portal? Doctor’s Wyatt’s experiments did not do this. The equipment would never be found, she now realized, probably purposeful. But what of the bodies they saw? None of it made sense.

Then, feeling foolish, she thought to read the old memo’s parts that she skimmed over. She pulled it from her boot and read under the flashlight.

… at a loss for details as well. Forward any queries to my public affairs office. We’re keeping a better eye out now for Polar Peace activists. We realize how they got out there at your site on dog sleds thanks to the doctor’s help to protest the DYE and inflated that float, like some Macy’s march. The red liquid they threw on themselves as fake blood for effect and the diesel fire they set. It goes without saying that confiscating their film made good sense twice over. None of it ever made the papers that we have seen. Seeing the doctor’s unvetted, classified experiment in the background also triggered the end of university support at this time. The protestors were all released from federal custody on the gag order. Still, we don’t expect a second attempt at arctic or Antarctic operations, as they lost some credibility from the event’s environmental impact. Again, let me assure you of my deep appreciation for your crew, and please accept this expression of thanks. See you soon.

Sincerely yours,

Stan Evander
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense
(Sciences and Technology)

Attachments:
1. Photograph of DYE 2 Polar Peace protest
2. Background paper, Raven Dream, FOUO

By that point, Neil climbed down the extension ladder. He took some photos. They pulled pieces of the hardened vinyl from the ice and could make out what remained of a gray whale’s image with the hand-painted letters “P lar P e” remaining on its silver coating.

“How could he do this?” she said aloud, watching the morning landing. “Destroy everything that he researched.” 

“Sometimes people change from discovery,” Neil said. “Maybe a lie to get through. It doesn’t work. Just buying time with something that seemed expendable. He found something groundbreaking but destructive. He was smart to realize that.”

The C-130 lifted off the ice. She would soon be in her summer weather after an overnight at operations. But something stood atop the DYE site’s bulbous radar roof, watching them take flight. Or perhaps swirling snow. It had not been there before, and there was no access above the array.

The plane shrunk steadily then disappeared. No one heard the faint noise, maybe a spell mumbled in the wind, then a pop, but now nothing in the cold, forgotten decay.

(Written by Mike R. Smith, 2020)

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

the Fly Trap

the Fly Trap
a short story

Our explanation would be the August heat. It stewed Delaware’s East coast in all kinds of ways after an unusually cold and stormy spring that extended into July. Thousands suddenly fled to the ocean for some relief in its breezes and waters. Their pale bodies laid out on towels that carpeted the beach at Cape Henlopen State Park. A full parking area showed the incentive through hazy convection – how visitors hot-hopped quickly beyond the sand-dusted boardwalk and restrooms to the water. Cool ocean breezes reached the expansive campgrounds, and there were isolated areas to explore. Still, no one paid interest in the sandy marsh trails that cut into the protected wetlands. Swim-suited vacationers focused on the shore. Signs about marsh history and its protective role to the ecology posted, but no one paid them notice but as useful places to hang wet things. Park rangers offered walking tours, but those events canceled – they became too busy policing crowds.

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The shore’s pristine beaches came from the state’s good stewardship and millions in annual restoration and maintenance projects. In wintry weather when shore-casters were the only witness, ocean storms eroded the coastline. The frigid, salty waters spilled over high, grassy dunes and flowed into the frozen wetlands where their nutrients fed an ecosystem. The campsites closed, but a short drive away, weekenders crowded the area’s tax-free shopping outlets and souvenir shops to stretch holiday budgets.

When late summer of ’98 arrived, I traveled south from Saratoga, N.Y., during a week-long visit to see my stepfather, Arthur Merritt, in southern Delaware. He bought a house near it all some years before, and my stay felt well overdue. The drive would take seven hours.
Art embraced retirement since leaving his job in Schenectady building steam-turbines for General Electric at a youngish 55. His middle age began to show through a suddenly greyer mustache. His stocky posture remained straight, but his handsome face turned less elastic and gained some wrinkles that made one wonder about him. I knew Art spent considerable time refurbishing the one-level ranch. He also explored the area, visiting shops, museums, parks, and such. My mother, not retired, stayed in upstate New York and seemed comfortable with their separations. When I visited her, she would tell me how Art bought this thing for the new house, refurbished a room, or seen some attraction. I enjoyed her stories. She traveled south when she could and seemed ready to end her remaining years of work and join him. I held no interest in purchasing the country home I grew up in – they hinted to that. It measured small and sat on the bank of a creek where, as a child, I felt it might wash away. They paid a fixer-upper’s price for it in ’72 and made it an excellent place to live on a budget, but after 30 years of refurbishments, its limitations remained. My mother kept it tidy, gained compliments on her flower and vegetable gardens, and cut the grass, but for the first time, I saw the place as a burden rather than an old friend. I considered the inevitable day when my older brother and I would sort their possessions. So, when it took so long to see their newer home, I figured in my meditation on all that.

I left on a bright morning and navigated the highways using directions penciled down on scrap mail. I opened a McCrandall Road Atlas with the pages dog-eared for New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, and I carried a schedule for the Lewes Ferry that, they said, would cut an hour’s drive by crossing the Delaware River from the New Jersey border at Cape May. I liked the ferry ride very much. The trip through Jersey brought good memories of my first military enlistment when I lived at Philadelphia Navy Yard. Those few months stationed there were the earliest times being on my own, so thoughts of joining straight out of high school made me smile. When I knocked on Art’s screen door, I felt content rather than tired from my drive. Instead of opening, he appeared from a corner of the house.
“Hey, Michael. It’s good to see ya,” he said, shifting his concentration from an overturned rider lawnmower in a drainage ditch. Sweat dripped from his glasses and the green bandana tied to his head. I hugged him anyway.
The house offered three-bedrooms, with a one-bedroom apartment added onto the side closest to the driveway. He provided the tour by pointing out how he fixed or refurbished areas, or planned to. I complimented him; although, the main house smelled a little musty. I recognized some of the furniture and items from the other house. I also noticed a real-looking treasure map lying in a pile of corner-clutter. “Ooh, a treasure map,” I said, picking it up to reveal the state park system flyer released for kids “At the Beach.” The previous owner left some junk behind, he said. He explained how he renovated the apartment at that point. He lived there while making steady progress on the rest. After the tour, I helped to pull the mower from the ditch. He took a tow chain from the detached garage to drag it out using his Isuzu Trooper.
That night, we sat outside, drinking spiced rum and caffeine-free diet soda. He liked listening to public radio, but on this occasion, he played a mix-tape of Doctor John, starting with the song, “Just the same.” We talked carefully and listened to the Doctor’s raspy voice and laid-back style. Recalling the treasure map that I ribbed him for, he suggested that we visit the shipwreck museum at Fenwick Island the next day. It sounded interesting, and I added that we might take the bicycles if time permitted, remembering the state park he mentioned when I last saw him. He went on about the pirates that sailed the nearby coast – that there were many shipwrecks out there, and how he walked the beaches with a metal detector. I looked across the flat, expansive field of soy that surrounded the property. I pictured him on the beach, swinging his detector back and forth, looking for treasure. He handled aloneness well. He had no need of a job on his pension, nor did he want one. He had escaped. His curiosity was economical, too, but not intentional. What he enjoyed required little more than a walking stick, some tools, something to fix, a radio, or a good book. I realized that he would never travel or sail the world as I had done in the Navy. There was more than enough for him to experience down his road while everything else ebbed and flowed. Doctor John now sang a funky song, “I been in the right place, but it must have been the wrong time.” And Art got up from his chair to make another round. I felt happy to sleep on the enclosed porch that ran the length of the back. He crank-opened the windows, so the fresh air carried the ocean’s scent from a 20-minute drive away. Later in the night, I woke up with a plugged nose and dry throat. I walked outside, off the porch, and across the back yard to where the moon shone brightest. The bordering soy grew knee-high, and despite my stuffed up nose, I could smell the damp, turned earth. I breathed in as deep as I could; the fresh air clearing my head. There were sounds of insects, frogs, and distant traffic. Things kept on. It felt peaceful. I felt happy that my parents found a lifestyle and place that suited them. I walked back to my cot and slept soundly.

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We drank coffee and ate scrambled eggs cooked in an iron skillet. Then we loaded the bikes and a cooler into Art’s boxy vehicle. It was apparent that Art followed a familiar routine when preparing to explore, but this time with some company. He drove and acted as our guide. The southern part of the state included mostly agricultural areas beyond the beaches. Costal rains drained quickly from the sandy soil at sea level. It supported vast corn and soy. The crops fed chickens for corporate farmers. Processing plants dotted the countryside. Not until within a few miles of the coastline did housing developments and multi-level condos, recreation, shopping, restaurants, and hotels overtake the open spaces. It sprawled inland as more farmland sold, he said.
Within the museum, of course, were relics accessioned from ocean divers and fortunate beachcombers. It seemed hard to believe the enormous sum of wealth on display in a place that, on the first impression, looked like any other boardwalk souvenir shop. But their exhibits included gold bars and coins, gems, and priceless jewelry found lying at the bottom of the ocean by licensed salvagers. It’s important to note that state authorities forbid an average person from picking up objects more than 100 years old. In this way, tourists still have a metal-detecting hobby, and the state protects its archeological resources.

Art’s tales of a treasure beach would prove strange. A weathered-looking man came up to us and began talking about ships that sailed the eastern coastline during the 17th century, including the Gallant – a 40-gun slaver, stolen by Adarsh Rimpoposhe during the summer of 1636. Rimpoposhe sailed on the run over a horde of 90 barrels of stolen gold coin wanted by the East India Trading Company. When Rimpoposhe’s notorious but charming reputation won over a 100-man crew in Bali, they left the captain and a few loyal men marooned with 330 salves on an island off of Portugal. They renamed the pirated ship Lhasa, which is where Rimpoposhe once lived in Tibet as a Buddhist oracle before officials severed his left hand as punishment for casting spells. The ex-monk and his followers sought to start a new life on the other side of the world. Starving and near death, they eventually landed ashore at Fenwick Island but were no sooner attacked by an indigenous tribe and fled back to the Lhasa. With only some 20 survivors aboard, they put back to sea in a gale. No one saw them again. A colony north recorded hanging two men for stealing in 1638 who claimed themselves survivors of the Gallant.
Our storyteller grew animated as he described how Rimpoposhe created a tulpa, or a thought-formed spirit using a Tibetan spell to protect the buried treasure. Native Americans also tell stories of a cursed place in the marsh. “It takes physical form,” he said. “The shore casters see a floating-orb and hear humming noises out there,” now talking secretively. “They find nothing. [chuckle] It’ll make ya think twice about wanderin’ around alone.”
We assumed that the museum hired storytellers to entertain visitors – the man looked the part. But it got spookier: no one knew who we meant when we thanked the manager at the gift shop register. They could not recall the Gallant or the Lhasa. Whatever happened, we laughed in the parking lot and mocked our hokey encounter with pirate impersonations.

We ate burgers on our way north, which followed the coast. Art stopped on the back road to buy a melon from a lone vendor. The afternoon’s heat corralled the dark-skinned woman to a lawn chair under a large umbrella. He dropped some of his change during the transaction. “Oh … be carfull wha’ you pick up ‘round here,” she said in broken English. “Is bugs bad. No good.” We smiled and nodded politely but not understanding. I could feel the temperature radiating through the door’s glass as we drove on. Large cardboard boxes full of the day’s harvested melons littered the opened land. The pickers likely finished before noon. We continued, nearly out of eyesight, where the park began.
There wasn’t any question that we would explore the marsh with our similar style cross-bikes suitable for off-road riding. We heard the same ghost story. Neither of us suffered crowds too, so the area felt secluded from the main beach.
Testing my brakes and double-checking for my water bottle as I peddled. I followed Art from the pullover to the trailhead between the grassy dunes. Art wore his usual bandana over his head, cotton shorts, and a sleeveless shirt. I dressed a bit technical, wearing a lightweight poly sun-visor, running tank, and shorts.

flytrap000

The dune trail looped quickly through the marsh and back in on itself, but a trailhead map showed us a connection to the paved path that ran behind a pavilion, and further on to the Rehoboth Beach boardwalk. Getting to that connector was our plan. We started on crushed stone, through some dunes, and toward an area with over-the-head pine scrub. Thinking back, I should have let air from my tires for more traction, but the immediate conditions did not warrant it.

The trail smells like pine needles and the ocean. The needles are thick and packed atop the sand and gravel, and they keep the ride smooth. The heat remains, and I feel my sweat starting. Up ahead, Art weaves around pine cones and rocks. The air is dead back here, which increases the discomfort. It will improve when we break out to the coast, I think. There are no other tracks, so no one ventured back here for some time. The trail widens abruptly to a small clearing of thick sand. Our tires dig in and stay. It’s too loose and too deep to peddle through. And Art dismounts. He looks back at me. I’m thinking; we’ll need to walk through this part. I’m looking at him – his glasses are moving, or fuzzy. “What’s wrong with your glasses?”
Two masses of deer flies crawl on the lenses as he examines them – we are swatting. I am slapping everywhere. They land in our hair, on our arms, hands, and legs. They are biting. I am off my bike, running in circles trying to brush the swarm off. And I see Art scoop handfuls out of his eyes and shake them off. I think, “beekeepers get attacked less.”
There’s no other choice but to push our bikes. “We gotta get out of here,” I say as we clear the sand, and the trail returns to the packed needles.
“Go on,” Art says through his shirt pulled over his nose and ears, worn out. He has resolved himself to being bitten and covered, no longer trying to swat the flies away.
“I can’t take it, okay?” I peddle hard and get some speed while leaving Art behind. The flies chase me but clear up as the loop leads me back to the parking area.

Long back in my memory, when Art first spent time with us. We took a hike in the woods behind our house. My brother and I had explored pretty far into those woods on our own, but Art took us further, back into a property where an old junk pile and ‘50s automobile were dumped and forgotten. In an exposed area were rusted food cans and wire. I pulled out a chipped object of bright green glass that Art described as an old insulator for power lines. How did it all get back there? I kept it but lost it eventually – I always lost such things. Without warning, Art suddenly tried to run off on us to see if we could find our way back, but we were too fast to escape and had stayed on his heels. He later explained how his older brother did the same trick to him, but successfully, and that it took him some time to find his way. His brother watched him the entire time, wanting him to appreciate surviving on his own.

I see Art emerge from the trailhead as if someone I’ve never met before, and it feels very odd. I’m feeling guilty that I left him behind but glad that he did not have a heart attack. He is still calm, but he looks pale and tired.
“What in the heck was that?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “Never seen anything like it. Wow. I just …”
We kickstand or bikes at a picnic table and sit in silence.
Something has changed between us. I can feel it. “I’m sorry I took off, I had to get out of there …” He holds up his hand.
“No, no, Michael. That was crazy; I’d have run if I could. I’m glad you did.” We sit some more.

Art then retrieved the melon from the car. “Heh,” he said while he starts cutting thick slices. “Ever read that story about a lost Roman jewel found in a gardener’s cabbage?”
“No.”
“Amazing … … a vegetable grew around it.”

(Written by Mike R. Smith) 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Every dog has its day

Every dog has its day
a short story

Rob Bartell spent sessions with his therapist discussing methods to channel his anger. Now he focused on cranking the window down in his cheap rental. The cool air refreshed him. The folded American flag and medal they tossed him at the capital were in a backpack on the passenger seat. He still felt the governor’s handshake, which tried to match his.

[You were there, Bro.]

He could not recall what the governor said, but instead remembered that the man looked up at him. Bartell stood a stocky six-foot-seven. His Army recruiter told him that he represented the poster boy for the Lynyrd Skynyrd song that went, “lean and mean, and big and bad, Lord.

He sat cramped in the little car and breathed consciously, slowly, in and out. “Suck it,” he whispered on exhale. Parked, with his head on the wheel, his hands remained unaltered from the mad grip that connected skill and anger in road rage.

He drove here daydreaming when something bounced off the windshield. Left, he saw a man hollering,  gesturing and trying to pull alongside in a silver truck. Bartell veered to block the man’s next approach as he’d done in convoys. The truck, forced toward the ditch, pulled behind to avoid the busy oncoming traffic. The man did not relent, and he tried to match Bartell at a faster speed. Bartell braked hard and fell behind to steer into the pickup’s rear bumper. The driver tried to correct but lost traction. The car nearly flipped, fishtailed, and stalled. He sped on.

Bartell’s mood lifted from that fog. He looked around the empty parking lot and expected to see a pickup roaring toward him. A one-lane road offered the only entrance to the riverside park. The battle ended.

[I will waste you.]  Inhale, exhale, inhale.

IMG_0828Dead leaves scattered. Surrounding fields of big river grass yellowed and bent. The park looked void of seasonal boaters who wintered out until Memorial Day. A plastic porta-potty door rocked on one hinge toward a stack of boat docks and picnic tables. Tractor tracks crossed the grass. A bike trail intersected the road beyond. He drove here after the ceremony. It suited him well as a running sanctuary since his homecoming – the fourth deployment after the attacks. He wanted to be alone.

SLAM! The porta-potty’s door lashed to a gust. He flinched. His ghosts rustled as he got out and stretched. He zeroed the chronometer on his watch. He tightened his leg strap and observed the muddy Mohawk waters flow slowly toward the Hudson. The historical marker pointed out where workers camped the river bank two centuries ago as they dug the Erie Canal from Albany to Buffalo.

“I’ve got a mule, her name is Sal,” Bartell mumbled half-heartedly. [Fif-teen miles on the Er-ie Ca-nal.]

A static ran through his head while he checked the car’s front bumper for scratches — a small ding in the plastic cover meant nothing too noticeable. He felt like kicking it in. But he regained himself and thought of mules pulling barges. He thought of ditch diggers with bent backs, their clothes muddy, and shovels of heavy mud. They were resilient, many immigrants, who helped invent modern excavation. The newspapers praised their progress but called their effort worthless. “Clinton’s Ditch,” his father recalled. “The project seemed unfathomable, like men on the moon.”

The street remained void as he ran. He jogged slow, warming up passed stubbed fields of clipped corn stalks that hid scattered deer runs and irrigation pipe. Where the area stopped, he turned right with his breath rapid, onto a crushed-stone bike trail that stretched past a farmhouse and a crooked cow-barn. His feet crunched the cadence. His breath adjusted quicker. He saw a battered, thick-wheeled tractor parked like an odd ornament, out of gas, or maybe under repair. The November air warmed from the bright sunlight; nevertheless, he saw no others. The trail continued 12 miles to the Town of Pallentine. Half paved. The gravel half Bartell favored for his carbon-fiber foot. He also liked the serenity of the forgotten canal nearby. “I can run up to town,” he thought, overzealous. “Then up the highway, maybe to Utica. When would I stop?”

It felt difficult to find that sweet spot, he told his therapist, because his throttle sometimes stuck at high or low, with no cruise. The feelings were too strong, and he failed to see the things now beyond. They prescribed him medications, “for a while.” Their effect in the last two weeks seemed noticeable. He did not feel so battered.

[We’ve hauled some bar-ges in our day
Filled with lum-ber, coal, and hay
And ev-ery inch of-the-way I know
From Al-ban-y to Buff-a-lo.]

IMG_0892Overgrown, the abandoned canal stretched west and paralleled the path, the main road, and the river. Oak and maple trees now filled its low areas where diverted water once floated cargo and people west across the state. His father said that when the railroads came the mule-powered barges were no match for steam engines. Then the thruway.

Bartell’s father considered himself a canal historian. He brought him and his brother once to find an unknown, abandoned lock hidden in the woods. He said he snowshoed to it during a winter storm, as a kid, and whistled on an acorn top for help after twisting his ankle. It’s sheer rock walls were collapsed and half-buried. His father retraced the steps. Bartell was seven, and his brother, John, was nine. Their mother just died, and so they hiked through the woods to cope with the loss. Bartell awed at the massive granite blocks that looked tumbled and turned over by gods rather than decades of river ice. Each block seemed as chiseled as those in a Roman cathedral. He thought to find that magical, rooted place now to keep a chunk of stone over his parent’s graves. Maybe that’s what brought him. He wished his father saw him at the capital. He wanted to recover sooner.

He passed between un-mowed edges of Queen Ann’s lace, purple burdock flowers, and milkweed. He knew the way, soon a low bridge over a creek, and then a long, level ditch.

[Filled with explosives, your boot came off in the muck. We’re trapped. Then that jackass turned back, and after him, to unscrew it. He needed a step, but it’s deep. Up to the hips deep, and it bit a leg off. A disappearing joke in the quicksand that the bullets boiled? No. You’re gone. Never coming back. My mangled meat will also outlast me. Horfreakinray. That’s my joke-a-day. Mine cauterized. Mud took it away.]

A silver truck crossed an intersection ahead of him, slowly. His eyes strained. If the driver approached him, he might hurt him. The medication would not help.

Its tires squealed. It sped on.

Bartell ran unknowingly toward the unmarked grave of Danny McCann, who Sheriff William Stillwell shot dead during the 1818 Canal Strike. The diggers walked off the job after a foreman tried to dry their camp. Thirty young men took out on a cold November night into Palatine. They busted up the town and stalked into the Spraker Inn on River Road. In a wild, drunken stupor, McCann snatched Stillwell’s drink from the bar and proclaimed that no one could stop a man from his right to drink. Stillwell, too old, with one seeing eye, left the room but returned shortly with his young deputy. He then leveled an old musket on the men and told them to get back to camp. McCann leaped toward the sheriff and the others moved over when he crashed to the floor, gunned down in a cloud of powder. The men got their whiskey but were no longer allowed into towns. There would be no trial. They shoveled McCann’s grave as they dug foggy-headed, up the Mohawk Valley toward Buffalo.

[“Shit. Get my leg!”]

Bartell’s team encountered stiff resistance sectors and elaborate minefields on his last patrol as they pressed into insurgent sanctuaries. There were many gunfights, and their efforts to clear the roads bogged them down. The patrols were slowed further by the deep mud and the irrigation ditches that crisscrossed their path. John said they reminded him of the canal, but Bartell realized that the canal back home did not require armor to plow for hidden bombs. They slogged their way forward slowly, through that morning muck when John died. They called for close air support with laser-guided weapons and strafed to flatten enemy positions. Then they came upon an impassable ditch filled with quicksand. Impossible. They inserted on Black Hawks to flank, with their position now under major attack. John thrived in those intense situations. It proved a prowess underestimated by many. “It’s gonna be a mud fight,” John said to him using a weak hillbilly impression. “We’ll crawl right into Clinton’s Ditch.” The orders were to wait, but insurgents targeted the team stuck and exposed down in a flooded, overgrown area. They agreed, they did not have long.

[“It’s an acorn top. You blow across it with your thumbs in a V-shape, and it’ll whistle. Here … you try.”]

What sounded like a sharp “yelp” brought his mind back to his run. Then an orange flash in the corner of his eye. Something flew through the air, into the canal and landed with a wet thud. The sound of breaking tires seemed last.

IMG_0389Bartell stood on the shoulder of the trail, trying to catch his breath. He looked down into a sunken area between the road and the bike path — nothing in focus.

“Bartell, that’s you,” asked a bellied, unshaven man across the way. He looked in his 40s and wore a dirty t-shirt and sweatpants. His hands looked filthy, and dirt marked his side like he crawled from a pit. “I heard you were with the governor. You got the Silver Star, right? You know, I was just messin’, why’ a go off like that?”

Bartell took a deep breath, made a tight fist, and crossed over to the road. The man smelled of cigarettes. He thought to confront him but he suddenly recalled John’s mechanic buddy, Griff. There existed in those personal effects a photo of them drinking at Spraker’s before training. John felt nervous then, which seemed funny since he thought up enlistment.

“My brother, you meant …

[… my brother.]

“It was his. Posthumous.”

“Shit, sorry.”

[A friend of mine once got her sore
Now he’s got a bro-ken jaw
‘Cause she let fly with an iron toe
And kicked him back to Buff-a-lo.]

The two looked down. Blood streaked across the weeds in a red flight path toward the canal for 50 feet. Further down, through the cattails and lying in a stagnant puddle, was a dog. The mechanic’s silver pickup with its trail of brake marks and plastic shards from its front grill shadowed over the grass with a piece of orange-red fur stuck in a shattered headlight. A smell of burnt rubber lingered.

In 1821 Orville McCann parked his wagon near the same spot after a desperate search for his son’s grave, but to no avail. He camped the night and set out toward St. Louis the following morning empty-handed. The man spent weeks on his hands and knees, in muddy fields and with no company to unearth the marker canal workers said they placed. What he did not know was that river ice buried the stone in the winter of 1819. His distant Missouri relatives still recall him saying “that it just wasn’t right, leaving his boy’s bones in that god-be-damned place.”

[Not my blood.]

“It’s an Irish Setter,” Bartell asked no one, unsure in its mangled state. The animal panted, from somewhere. He thought, “maybe a year old?”

Bartell read every news story, book, and magazine he got at Walter Reed to escape. They found him there on occasions in open debate with an empty recovery room, shouting at the by-lines and quotes with his monitor’s alarm tripped. Medics once found a raving madman in his place — Bartell checked out, just for a moment. Months of medical limbo, trying to move again, were maddening; after all, what did anyone know? They came one evening shortly before his move from intensive care to tell him about his father’s severe stroke. He died the day John’s personal effects arrived.

[“… a mud fight.”]

The man with the silver truck flicked a cigarette into the canal and then climbed down its embankment to examine at a closer distance. He hunched over it and folded his face as if he smelled something foul.

“Man’s best or not, they say these injured ones’ ill bite you, if you give ’em a chance.”

IMG_1161Bartell stood silent, now on the edge of the road. The air seemed lighter. He waited, trying to breathe. Steam rose from his heated body with a ghostly effect as passing clouds let in sporadic sunshine. Then a child’s scream from the other side pierced the air and broke the spell. A frantic girl ran toward him, down a driveway and to the road, with no regard. “Casey!” She screamed for the dog.

He thought, “I’m too far,” but this time, he vaulted a great deal using the spring of his prosthesis. Strong and swift, he catapulted the girl clear of traffic, then tumbled down into the ditch.

[On behalf of the State of New York and a grateful nation, I thank you for your brother’s ultimate sacrifice.]

Blurry eyed, he saw her sitting above him. She looked maybe nine. She transformed, calm, like an angel.

[I know, it wasn’t my fault.]

Bartell rolled onto his side. His breath knocked out of him. Then he noticed a battered old gravemarker half-buried in the weeds.

(Written by Mike R. Smith) (Song lyrics, Low Bridge, by Thomas Allen 1913)

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.