Friday, April 9, 2021

THANK YOU FOR DROPPING BY...

 


I've been writing short fiction for ten years. 

My published work is spread out across the internet. I've collected the stories here. It's my equivalent of 'one-stop shopping' - just for you!

Browse to your heart's content, enjoying what you choose to read and making a note of a story or two to read at a later time. I hope you will tell your friends about my stories and invite them to drop by. 

I will be adding to this blog as each new published piece of my writing becomes available. Some editors have exclusive rights that extend well beyond the published date; others let me post it on this page as soon as my story first appears in print. All of this to say that you will need to check back to 'Don Herald Stories' from time to time to discover new stories.

Please respect that I've retained legal rights to each of my stories. Therefore they cannot be copied and posted elsewhere. But ask me if you want to do something with one of my stories. I'm open to considering what you're proposing. But ask; please don't 'borrow' it from my page!

I welcome your comments and suggestions. I carefully consider each comment, and often the ideas find their way into future stories. Use the 'comment' bar at the end of each story to register your comments with me.

Thank you for stopping by and reading some of my stories.

Niagara Falls 1963

 


I rarely check out her lingerie drawer. I can’t remember the last time. Over our years together, checking out the contents of her underwear and socks drawer was one of those ‘rules’ a couple puts into place. Rarely spoken – ‘My undies and socks drawer is off limits’ – it just is. And, quite frankly, despite years of intimacy, I still feel a bit uncomfortable poking around in the top drawer of her dresser.

But here I am - picking through her panties, warm wool socks and bras of all colours and designs.

______ ó ______

‘Next time you come back, bring me some panties, would you? Open back hospital gowns with my bare ass hanging out  - remarkable as it is, mind you – anyway, I need some damn panties to wear. Since they’re keeping me for a couple of days, two or three should do it. Ok?’

 She smiles with just a touch of the mischief-maker in it. She knows I’ll be uncomfortable, embarrassed even. But it makes for an even better ask if she doesn’t point it out. Especially here in a hospital room she’s sharing with three other women. Of course, they’re pretending not to listen, but they sure are. And each of them has a hard time hiding the enjoyment they’re having at my expense.

‘Ok,’ I answer in a whisper. But sound carries in a room like this, so I may as well have shouted it. ‘Any particular colour you want?’ Muffled laughter from the other beds. A wide smile from her bed. She’s enjoying this far too much.

I gather up my backpack, offer a quick, dry kiss on her cheek and scramble with a modicum of dignity for the exit. Just as I reach the door, she says, ‘Oh, honey. A couple of bras too. Maybe the black lace one with the cups that push me up and out. You know the one.’ She laughs a bit too loud. ‘There’s a cute Resident here I think would appreciate it.’ 

Out in the hall, I hear all four women laughing. I resist the urge to go back into the room and remind her that she’s not 40 anymore when that black push-up bra would really mean something.

I decide I’ll have her panties and bras in a small white bag that I’ll casually slip onto her bedside table. At least that’s the plan now, but I know all four of them will be waiting for my return with her undies, especially the black bra. I can only imagine how my wife will play it up. I wonder how the Resident will react when he sees black lace under her light blue hospital gown.

______ ó ______

At the back of the drawer, buried under several bulky pairs of her favourite Merino socks, I discover two rolled-up tubes of off-white paper pages. Held together with a thick purple elastic – like the kind that comes occasionally wrapped around a parcel of letters. Each tube, about the length of a rolled-up newspaper, has many sheets in it. And a small box, wrapped in old newspaper using lots of clear sticky tape. She’s always used newspaper and gobs of tape for wrapping stuff. She was doing it when I first met her as a junior in high school. She still does it now, fifty-one years later.

I’m curious. Why would she’d keep all this hidden away in her undies drawer? Maybe I’m over-thinking this. Perhaps it’s not hidden in the way I mean. Perhaps it’s all here for ‘safekeeping.’ Maybe. But I’m leaning more toward ‘hidden’ as in ‘deliberately keep it out of sight from my husband’ hidden.

I step back and sit on her side of the bed, shoving back two of her pillows to make space. Disturbed, the pillows release the scent of her – Dune by Dior – citrus, vanilla, jasmine and sandalwood. She’s worn it since the early 90’s – her signature perfume, expensive but one of the very few extravagances she permits herself. I let her scent wrap unseen around me. Memories.

I remove the elastic on the nearest tube. Dozens of pencil and charcoal drawings unfold slowly in my hands. Her pencil and charcoal sketches. Always that, never any colour. Each of her sketches is signed and dated – this one: JAS, June 8/63. Some include a note above the date – picnic Niagara Falls. I slowly turn each page. Our life together reveals itself in her perfect sketches. She always has her sketch pad with her or nearby. Most folks use a camera to capture memories or scenes that interest them. My wife uses a spiral-bound sketch pad – always the Strathmore 400 series. No object is too small or large for her pencil. But she is fascinated with the human body, especially hands and the face, eyes, and mouth.

She is an accomplished artist. But a private one. None of her exquisite work has shown in a gallery. Never will. She shares her work with family, close friends, important other people in her life. I expect her surgeon will get a drawing of his face or maybe his hands. Perhaps even his Resident, if he reacts well to the peek of black lace under that gown.

______ ó ______

June 8/63 – picnic Niagara Falls. Us having a picnic on a grassy knoll with the Canadian side Falls in the background — a memory, every detail still fresh in my mind.

We drove there in my grandfather’s ’54 Chev Bel Air. He’d died in May of that year and left me his beloved car. He’d take me on road trips when I was younger. We had many good times in that machine. Now that it was mine, the Falls road trip would be the first on my own. I’d saved up enough to pay for the gas and maybe a souvenir from the shops that line Clifton Hill. She brought lunch, a blanket and of course, her Strathmore and pencils.

Back then, she used cheap pencils with soft lead. 2 B’s, if I remember correctly. But like anything else in life, once she became more settled and had more resources to devote to her hobby, the graphite pencils from Staedtler or Faber-Castell became her drawing instruments of choice.

She’d never been to the Falls, so there was lots to see. She’d made egg salad sandwiches on brown bread – my favourite – with carrot sticks and old cheddar slices. I think her mother made a thermos of green tea and two large chocolate layer cake pieces, especially for the trip.

‘I want a souvenir before we go,’ she says. ‘Something that helps me always fall in love with this place again and again.’ She waves her hand in a slow three-sixty in the air.

‘Then we’re off to Clifton Hill,’ I say.

She visits every tourist trap shop on the street, searching for something to remember her visit, our picnic, the wet trip to the Falls itself on the Maid of the Mist.

She finds the perfect souvenir. A small snow globe type item. Only this is unique. Somehow, the makers made it so that when shaken, the globe snowflakes only appear to be cascading over the Falls itself in a beautiful flow of sparkling colours.

‘I love it,’ she gushes. ‘Don’t you love it too?’

‘Yeah, that’s the best snow globe I’ve ever seen. A great souvenir of our visit to the Falls.’ I buy it for her, and I’m rewarded with a tight, full-body hug and a deep, damp kiss.

‘I’ll keep this forever,’ she promises.

We drive home in the Bel Air, feeling like royalty. She sits in the middle of the front seat, left hand on my thigh, sometimes slowly sliding a bit here, a bit there, as only teen lovers can do.

Before I drop her at home, we spend an hour or so at our favourite make-out spot in the lane of an abandoned farm near our old high school. We’ve been here many times before, but always in my father’s ratty Toyota Corolla. But on this day, I had my own car –the ’54 Chev Bel Air with a huge rear seat. Need I say more?

______ ó ______

The second tube of sketches is more recent, my wife’s skills as an artist clearly on display in every drawing. There’s a surprise waiting for me.

Many of these drawings are of me. Since she is always sketching life around her, I never paid much attention to her drawing while I was working, watching TV, reading a book or feeding the animals in the barn. There were drawings – she called them ‘studies’ – of my hands, my face, cheeks, lips. All rendered in fine detail. 

I was stunned by the beauty of her work. It took a long time to work my way through her second tube of sketches. Taken together, these two tubes of illustrations was like experiencing a ‘Best Of…’ collection of memorable moments in our life together.

I decide to open the small box wrapped in newspaper and sticky tape. Inside, carefully nestled in amongst the small Styrofoam beads, is her snow globe.

I lift it out and hold it carefully in my hands. I gently shake it left, then right and watch the sparkly snow pieces flow over the edge of the Falls – again and again.

I put her snow globe back into the box.

I will take it to her this evening. Along with the panties and one white bra. Not the black lacey one with push-up cups.

I’m substituting black lace for sparkly snow pieces.

The snow globe.

Our picnic at Niagara Falls.

Our road trip in the ’54 Chev.

A deserted farm lane near Ancaster High.

Let’s see what those three other women in East 4-702 think of that story.

First Published. In the Canadian online magazine of short fiction, CommuterLit, during the week of April 12 to 17, 2021.

The Backstory. During the Covid summer of 2020, I took on a writing project of considerable size. I would write several short stories each week until the end of October. My stories were generated from prompt words, phrases or ideas provided by Canadian writer and educator, Sarah Selecky. 

'Niagara Falls 1963' was one of 52 stories I wrote that summer.

I enjoyed creating and writing this story of teenage love maturing into enduring love between both characters as mature adults. I hope you enjoy the tale.

Legal Rights. I own the rights to this story. Please don't 'borrow' it from this blog and publish it somewhere without my permission. Ask me. Tell me what you want to do with it. We probably will be able to work something out.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

MAVERICK'S CHALLENGE



The Pacific – she’s dark and angry today.

There’s lots of movement beneath me, kicking my board left, then right, up then down. But I‘m fixed on the horizon. Suddenly, there it is. One bump, slightly bigger than the others, coming at me like a slow-moving freight train. With a few quick arm strokes, I pivot toward the shore, riding the wave’s growing swell.

The sound is deafening, like a 747 screaming toward take-off. Slashes of cold water spit high into the air, needle-pricks on my face, salt washing into my eyes. I struggle to keep my focus on the board tip in the boiling, hissing blue-green crest.

I feel the powerful hydraulics rising beneath me. Like an invisible fist, I’m suddenly punched upwards. I feel the new wave’s push. I stand, reposition slightly into a low stance and drop over the rapidly accelerating lip. Immediately I’m cutting beneath the crashing curl, then into the compressing barrel within my fragile, imaginary bubble of air.

I’m invincible. Nothing can touch me. Nothing can hurt me. A few seconds of pure joy and absolute fear all mixed together. It’s a peak moment. It’s what I live for. In these moments, all else doesn’t matter. No other exists.

On the edge of control, I’m blown out the tube and into the swirling foam and pounding currents of the dying wave.

I drop to my board, turn and wait for the jet ski to pick me up, then race through gigantic collapsing waves to just beyond the breakpoint where once again I’ll wait for my next big ride.

____________ ¯ ____________

I spent most of the day surfing the wave sets at Table Tops. It’s where you’ll likely find me any time I’m on a home break from the Big Wave Tour. I’m tired and need some rest. Driving to Aunt Maeve’s place, my cell starts playing the opening bars to ‘Oh, Canada.’ It’s Mom.

Usually, we only text, not often, but just enough to say we keep in touch. Something serious must be going down. I pull over onto the side of the 101 in case I need to give Mom my full attention.

Frightened words whisper over my phone.

“Danny? Oh my god. It’s – it’s your Dad. He’s…” The static crackle and shrill hum of a weak cell connection wipe out her next words.

“Mom? What’s going on? Where are you? Mom, can you hear me?”

“I’m here, son. Just catching my breath.” A long pause, the sound of deep breathing mixes with static on the line. “His heart. A heart attack.”

She begins to cry. I haven’t heard Mom cry in a very long time. My gut turns over and over, unwanted memories sticking pins deep into my soul. I struggle to breathe, feeling I’m about to vomit all over the dashboard.

“He’s taken a turn. The doc says he likely won’t beat it. Oh my god. It’s all so unbelievable.” Another pause, more deep breaths.

“Found him on the driveway. Beside his truck. Still breathing, mumbling wild stuff. Paramedics worked on him for quite a while. ‘We’re taking him to Royal Jubilee. Come with us,’ they said.”

She pauses, another deep breath. Then says it straight out, no bullshit.

He’s dying, Danny. Can you come? Please. In spite of,” she hesitates as if searching for the right words, “In spite of everything between you.”

Another hesitation, this one much longer than before.

“I know he’d want you here.” More static bursts mixed with breath sounds. “You still there?”

I’m sure she’d been practicing the words again and again before calling. Over the years, she’d always placed herself between us, hoping for peace but regretfully having always to settle for what we’d become to each other – nothing.

“Yeah, Mom, I’m here. Ok. I’ll take the first flight I can get. I’ll be there in the morning. Don’t worry, ok? You at the Jubilee?” I already knew, but I needed to ask just the same.

“Yeah. The cardio unit. They’ll be moving him soon. Just ask at the nurses’ station. We’ll be here. Oh - and Danny?”

Her voice seems to have a happier edge to it. I think maybe it’s because she’s just made the impossible happen.

“Thanks for coming. I know it’s hard for you, son. Coming back, I mean. It’s for him. For me. Bye.”

She’s gone.

____________ ¯ ____________

Mom sits on the other side of the bed, sometimes holding his hand; other times trying unsuccessfully to read the paperback she’d bought yesterday in the gift shop. She’s tuned into the changing rhythms of the rasping breaths. She often strokes his limp arm in the unshakeable belief he knows she’s there. Long ago, in our days together, she was always there – trying to make peace between him and me. A few times, it was for the better, but more often, it was for the worse.

I’ve just joined her, arriving in Vancouver three hours ago on a red-eye from Los Angeles, then taking the seaplane shuttle over to Victoria.

____________ ¯ ____________

Mom’s older sister Maeve lives in Solana Beach, an upscale community north of San Diego, California. It’s a short walk to the ocean and some of the best surfing beaches in California. I went to live with her seven years ago - I was fifteen.

Maeve is single, never married. Got some big, hush-hush civilian job with the US Navy. In the early years, she’d come to visit us quite often. When my father started hitting the bottle hard and was making life difficult for Mom and me, well, Maeve stopped coming. But she’d often call and talk to Mom. But never, as far as I recall, when my father was home.

She’d always treated me like a son, so when she and Mom hatched the plan to have me go live with her – ‘so you can learn to surf the big waves and actually go to school’ – it was an easy sell to my father and friends in the village.

Mom, Dad and me – we lived on the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island in the small town of Sooke, about an hour’s drive from Victoria. Our house was a wood-sided, paint peeling old bungalow. Mom kept a small vegetable garden fronting onto Eustace Road, just a short walk – or in my father’s case, a zig-zagging stagger – from The Legion. My memory of those years with him was that most days he spent equal parts at work or drinking with his buddies at the Legion. Whatever time he had left over, he’d be at home sleeping or terrorizing us.

Back then, I wasn’t much into schooling, which is weird considering my mother teaches at the Edward Milne high school. No gung ho keener for the books, my only passion was for surfing the Pacific waves that pound Vancouver Island’s west coast all the way up to Tofino. Some say hindsight is 20/20, so I’ll admit that my mild ADHD probably really helped keep my energy and focus more on surfing than the books.

When I was about four, I got my first surfboard. My Dad – he wasn’t drinking too much back then - made it from a piece of industrial strength Styrofoam. He said he found it in the waste bin at work, but I think, to use his words,  Dad ‘set it free’ from the warehouse. That home-made board worked quite well.

It wasn’t long before I outgrew the small rollers off our town’s public beach. ‘Your kid’s a natural with the board’ the experienced surfers would always tell my parents. I constantly nagged Mom to take me where the waves were larger and by definition, far more dangerous. I was seven or maybe eight by that time.

One day, a ‘grown-up’ sized board arrived by FedEx. Unknown to me, after asking a couple of the locals what board design would work best for me, she’d ordered the Sled model from a board maker in Tofino. Then, early one Saturday morning, Mom drove me and the Sled aways up the coast to Sombrio, a surfing beach popular with the local hardcore types and other surfers passing through on their way north to Long Beach – the primo surfing destination near Tofino. On those waves at Sombrio Beach - that’s when I got serious about surfing. 

____________ ¯ ____________

The body in the bed is host to many coloured wires, plastic tubes with red and pale yellow stuff spitting through, clear vinyl drip bags hanging from poles - all of this with the occasional beep, bell or chime sounding softly in the background. Under a pale blue flannel blanket, the chest rises up, down, then up again, over and over. Sometimes the eyelids flicker, open wide, slowly move back and forth between Mom and me, then close.

I barely recognize him – the face sunken and parchment-pale, lips faint pink, cracked and sometimes slowly moving as if he’s in silent conversation with some invisible person.

Mom’s voice breaks into my thoughts.

“He’s proud, you know. Of what you’re doing on those surfboards. Sometimes I’ll catch him watching your competitions on the Sports Channel. But he’ll always quick switch to a movie just so I don't find out what he’s up to. ‘Course he’ll never admit his pride, not even to me. He’s a stubborn old coot, that’s for sure.”

She smiles at his body, patting the top of the hand with its four crooked fingers and bent thumb while doing a quick air kiss alongside his closest cheek, now dark with rough beard stubble thickened with sticky drool.

“I don’t get it,” I say, a bit too loudly given the situation. But I push ahead, knowing she’s not going to like what I have to say.

“I really don’t. With him, it was always university this, college that when I was a kid. You remember? ‘I don’t have no education’ he’d shout at me. ‘So no fuckin’ son o’ mine is gonna be a surf bum in California, smokin’ dope and chasin’ slutty women. You’re fuckin’ goin’ to college to learn about being an engineer, or maybe, god forbid, even a lawyer.’”

“And then, if he could, he’d grab me by the shirt collar, lifting me up off my toes. Sometimes he’d punch, but mostly he’d just slap away at me, swearing in my face, sprayin’ spit ‘round like there was no tomorrow.”

“You remember that, Mom?” I knew she remembered all too well, but I just had to say it right here, right now, over his sleeping body. “You’ll forgive me if I fail to see any fatherly pride in his words or actions over our years together.”

The body in the bed stirs, then stiffens. Eyes open, lips move. “Daniel? You here now?  Fuckin’ late, boy. I’m waiting…” His voice fades off to a low, raspy murmur then abruptly stops.

And Mom, right on cue, just as she always did when words failed between us, gets up from the chair and gives her husband a hug, soothing him with whispered words – “Yes, Jacob, our Danny’s here. He’s come all the way from California just to see us. Now you be polite to our son.”

But his eyes close, the body relaxes, and he slides away into whatever dreamland he’s found for himself.

Mom looks up at me, eyes full of tears, but soft.

“It’s not too late, you know. You can still make it right. Sure, he looks like he’s out of it. But I know he can hear you, feels you here beside him.”

My voice rising in frustration, I desperately want to point out her total denial, not only about his present physical condition but, more importantly, what a violently abusive brute he really was.

____________ ¯ ____________

One day, I realized I was big enough to really do something about putting an end to his years of violence toward me, but mostly toward Mom. So I do. I give him some of his own medicine. I’d just turned fifteen, but big for my age and very strong from all the extreme surfing.

He’d come home totally drunk from an all-day session at the Legion. Mom said or did something that pissed him off. He gives her a real solid, open-handed whack across the face, sending her staggering back into the fridge door. An edge of his Masonic ring opens a small gash along her cheek line.

Without really thinking about it, I give him a hard push on the back of his shoulders to get his attention. He spins on me. ‘Don’t you fuckin’ give me any o’ your attitude, Danny boy. This here ain’t none o’ your business.’ I smile at him, knowing he can’t ignore it.  

He lunges at me, but his drink makes him slow and uncoordinated. I step forward while grabbing the iron skillet off the stove and swing it up and hard. I hit him full in the face. Blood gushes. A couple of teeth pop out, spinning onto the floor. His head jerks back, the eyes roll up, he falls backwards onto the counter, then slides unconscious to the kitchen floor, right at Mom’s feet. She starts screaming and with both arms, pushes me hard in the chest.

“Danny, what have you done?” Dropping to her knees, she starts to cry. Her hands are feeling around on the floor, getting blood on her fingers, which then trace dark red random swirls onto the linoleum. “There. Got it. A tooth. He’ll need it.” She looks at me, holding up the broken tooth in her bloodied fingers. “His smile, Danny. Always was his best feature. I sure loved that smile.” Mom seems confused about what’s just happened to her husband.

“I’ve finished it, Mom.” No emotion. Just a simple statement of fact.

And then, just because I can, and quite honestly because I really want to, I give him a vicious kick in the face. The impact drives his head back into the corner of the cupboard. I find the sharp crunching sound strangely satisfying. My blood is up. All the years of his abuse on Mom and me are fuelling my rage.

“Oh, Danny, what have you done? You’ve almost killed your father.”

I notice his right arm - fingers facing up, slightly curled, bloodstained - sticking straight out from under his head. I stomp on the fingers as hard as I can. Once. Twice. Three times, until I hear bones pop and shatter. It’s the hand he always uses to slap and punch us. Not anymore.

I’m aware that someone is screaming my name.

I’m on autopilot now. I pull back my leg and kick him full on in the balls. His unconscious body involuntarily shudders and twitches, then becomes still. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it feels good, really good to take it to him like this.

“Please, son, no more. No more, please.” She pulls herself up with the help of the kitchen counter and drops the tooth into an unwashed coffee cup.

Mom grabs my arms and pulls me into her. I can feel her heart beating against my rib cage. Or perhaps it’s just my own. But who the hell cares? She holds me tight until my blood cools and her tears dry.

I help carry him to the chesterfield in our front room. She tries to make him comfortable with pillows. She wets towels in the bathroom and tries to wipe away the blood. He moans with each touch of her hands but still seems totally out of it.

I turn, walk through the kitchen, out the back door onto the porch where I sit quietly, trying to let my emotions settle.

A few minutes later, Mom comes out with mugs of hot, milky tea for myself and her. We sit in silence for a long time.

“Danny, your Dad needs to go to the Clinic. I’m pretty sure the nose is broken, those stomped fingers don’t look too good either. As for the kick in the balls, well…,” she pauses for just a heartbeat, “well, who the hell knows about that.” I think I see a faint smile, but I can’t be sure. I say nothing.

“I know your Dad. He won’t go to the cops about this. He’ll make up a story that he got jumped by some punks looking for money while he was coming home from the Legion. He was too drunk to defend himself, too drunk to recognize the guys who attacked him. I know him. He’ll never admit his fifteen-year-old son just beat the shit out of him.”

I’ve never heard her swear before. I can’t help but smile. She looks at me for a moment, then says, “So that’s what we’re going to do.”

She sits silently again. And then words I’ll never forget. Words that changed our lives.

“Danny, you’ll have to leave. You can’t stay here now. Not with all this,” she says, waving her arm in the general direction of the body in the front room.

“I’ll call Aunt Maeve in California. She’ll understand the situation. She’ll love to have you come live with her. She lives right near the ocean. Every day after school, you can surf the big waves you’ll need to become an excellent surfer. Someday, maybe even a professional. But, Danny, you’ll have to promise me you’ll go to school every day and do well in your studies. Living with Maeve, she’ll make all kinds of opportunities happen for you. She’ll raise you like her own. It’ll be the best thing for everyone – given all of this.”

She takes my hands and holds them on her cheek. They feel wet, and that’s when I notice Mom is crying once again.

But I’m not buying what she’s offering.

‘No, Mom, I’m not leaving you here with him. He’ll never forgive me, forgive us for what happened here tonight. You’ll always be in danger. One day, he’ll kill you when he’s been drinking and pissed off at the entire world. No, Mom, I’m not leaving you.”

Mom looks at me for a long time, sipping her tea, staring over the brim of the mug. She decides on something, then speaks.

“Danny, please listen carefully. Trust me. I know your Dad. Yes, I know what he’s capable of doing to me, but I believe with all my heart that this’ll be a real lesson for him. I know how his mind works. His fifteen-year-old son gave him the worst beating he ever got. He knows you could’ve killed him – by accident mind you – but you didn’t. You deliberately smashed every finger on his hand, so it’ll never work right ever again. From tonight onwards, the hand’ll remind him that what happened to him came because of all the bad stuff he did to us with it. I know it sounds crazy, but trust me, I know him. Oh, he’ll still drink too much, yell and fuss, but he’ll never lay another beating on me. I’ll be safe here, son. You go live with Maeve and do something really great with your life. Something I’ll be proud of. Something that could never happen if you stayed here in Sooke or even Victoria for that matter.”

Mom takes a sip from her mug and deliberately leans in toward me so there’ll be no mistaking the truth of her next words.

“I’ll be ok, son. Trust me.”

It was a long speech from her. She sat back into the deck chair and closed her eyes. In her mind, she now had everything under control here at home. I was heading off on a jet to Aunt Maeve’s place in California. Discussion closed.

And that’s how I came to live these past seven years with Maeve in Solano Beach. And how she made sure I had both the time and the best coaching to make it as a pro competitor on the Big Wave Tour sponsored by the World Surfing League and Red Bull.

____________ ¯ ____________

Mom stretches across his body and lays two fingers onto my open mouth.

“Danny, stop. Just listen to me.” She pauses. “I don’t need a history lecture from you today.” The eyes hold me tight, her fingers warm on my lips.

“Son, you need to make it right between you. Before,” she looks down into her husband’s blank face, “Before you can’t anymore.”

Tears trickle down her cheeks onto the blue flannel hospital blanket covering him. He stirs but does not awaken. If he’s aware of us, like Mom believes, he already knows what my answer’s going to be.

I lift her fingers from my lips, kiss them, then hold her hand between mine.

“Mom, I feel nothing toward him. I came back here, not for him but only for you. I’m hoping you’ll come to accept this - it’s long over between him and me. I’ll never forgive him for all the hurt he brought upon you so many times when I was growing up. I heard those beatings when you thought I didn’t. Too many times, I heard your cries and moans behind the locked bathroom door after he’d stormed out of the house.”

I’ve become a bit too loud. It surprises me.

A nurse comes into the room. She asks if everything is all right. Mom pulls her hand from mine, straightens her blouse and says with mustered dignity and a weak smile, “Oh yes, Miriam dear, my son Danny here just got a bit carried away, you see. What with his father’s condition and all.” She waves an arm over her husband as if she expects her words and gesture explains everything.

Satisfied there’s nothing untoward going on, nurse Miriam quietly leaves, wisely closing the door behind her.

Exhausted, Mom lowers herself into the chair. She picks up her husband’s right hand once again.

“I tried to keep the peace between the two of you, you know. I really tried over all those years. I’m so sorry that life with your father couldn’t have been better. But I tried. I really, really did.”

“Yeah, Mom, I know. But you know what?”

After meeting nurse Miriam, I’m almost whispering my words.

I point at the body in the bed.

“Between him and me, it just wasn’t about me wanting to surf and not go to college. It was about him treating us like shit for all those years.”

 “You want to know something? If you hadn’t sent me to California and Aunt Maeve, I’m sure I would’ve fucking killed him if he’d tried to beat you again.”

There was one final thing. I needed to say it out loud – for both her and myself.

“More important, I didn’t like what I was becoming with him in our lives.”

Jacob Gustaf Nair, 51 years old, died four hours later at 2:35 pm on September 25th in room 732 of the Royal Jubilee Hospital in downtown Victoria, British Columbia.

____________ ¯ ____________

I’m finishing the last of my three judged sets at the most dangerous surfing competition in all of California – Maverick’s Challenge, near Half Moon Bay.

Today’s waves are cresting, on average, at thirty feet. All of us are recording good scores given the most extreme conditions. I'm being taxi’d on a fast-moving pick-up sled towed behind one of several jet skis the WSL tour must always use because paddling safely back to the beach on your own is impossible. We’re moving quickly through the churning currents of the shallows near the shore. While pleased with my overall score, I’ll finish just off the Mavericks podium today. Better than last month’s competition off Maui but still not yet good enough to move me into the top ten rankings of the Big Wave pro surfers.

Heading toward the judges’ stand high up on the beach, I’m looking for Mom and Maeve in the massive crowd of spectators.

Earlier this morning, Maeve said, “You won’t be able to miss us, Danny. Look for our bright red maple leaf T-shirts. We’ll also be holding up a big Canadian flag - just so you’ll know it’s us.”

“Yeah, Danny. Look for two old broads, drinking beer, yelling themselves hoarse into the roaring wind off the Point,” Mom said. “Hey, maybe if we get really lucky, we’ll have a couple of those buff California beach bum surfers enjoyin’ our company too.” She and Maeve laughed, high fivin’ each other with a little too much gusto.

“Yeah, right, ladies. In your dreams.” I was laughing. Then out the door of our motel in Half Moon Bay for the short drive to the WSL competitor’s tent at Mavericks.

Ever since Mom arrived for a visit three weeks ago, Maeve’s been trying to talk her into selling the place in Sooke and moving to Solano Beach.

Two days ago, before we all headed up north to Mavericks, she tried her ‘retire here’ pitch once again.

“Hell, Marjorie, there’s lots of great places to rent nearby. It would be like when we were kids back in Jordan River.” Maeve glanced out at her infinity pool, sparkling and softly gurgling in the early morning sun. “Ok, maybe not exactly like Jordan River, but you know what I mean.” They both laughed and with much enthusiasm, noisily slurped their usual morning OJ and champagne mimosas.

The jet ski is nearing the beach. The driver must pay careful attention to the changing currents as he whips back and forth between the jagged rocks poking up around us.

I catch sight of a fluttering Canadian flag high on the rocky hill to the left of the judges’ stand. I raise an arm, pumping the victory sign. The flag quickly disappears, replaced with two frantically waving red and white T-shirts.

Jeezus. My favourite women have stripped off their shirts and are dancing wildly around in bright red bras, white shorts and flip flops. Only in California, you say. So true.

Life is good these days. Sooke seems like a very, very long time ago.

My family is here.

Maeve’s neighbours have taken to calling us those Crazy Canucks.

If only they knew the truth of it.


First Published. 'Maverick's Challenge' was published in the American online magazine - Uglywriters.com - on September 12, 2020.

The Backstory. In January, 2020, I wrote the first draft of this story about Danny Nair - pro surfer - and his family. In my research for the surfing details of his life, I became obsessed with anything online about surfing, especially the 'big wave' surfers.

Eventually, I surfaced and began to write revisions, sharing a draft with my local writing group - The Writers' Group of Peterborough.

I like this story. I hope you do too.

Legal Rights. 'Maverick's Challenge' is the intellectual property of the author, Don Herald. No part of this story may be reproduced in any format without the written permission of the author.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

PROMISE ME



I don’t remember when I realized I loved you.

Maybe it was at your surprise 40th birthday party two years ago when your eyes sparkled and danced, warning me mischief was soon to happen.

Maybe it was at our picnic beside the lake. How you giggled when that earnest young man stood in the canoe, courted his girl with a half-decent version of Ed Sheeran’s ‘Perfect’ and then fell awkwardly into the water.

Maybe it was when we left the others and walked to the playground. ‘I want to sit on the swing,’ you said. ‘Push me,’ you said. ‘Higher and higher like I’m flying free.’ Your hair, tossing wild in the wind, caught in your eyes and mouth. I wanted to brush it away with my breath and many light kisses. But didn’t.

We laughed at silly things, much like new lovers do, but weren’t. At least, not then.

Maybe it was when we watched the swans along the river. We shared a soft cone, daring long gazes at each other, then glancing away. But not embarrassed. I remember how your tongue made shallow smooth grooves in the fresh white cream. I wondered what you’d feel like on my skin.

Maybe it was when you came into my dreams. Just us, no commitments to others. Always together in the quick flashes of my thoughts. Nothing to pretend or fake. Just us.

Maybe it was when your dog got killed. You were weeping, its broken body in your lap. I pulled you into me, feeling your beating heart, your warm breath heavy with pain upon my neck.

Was it then I knew I loved you?

Maybe it was our first kiss. Not that ‘hey, how are you, good to see you’ kind of kiss. But deeper, our tongues eagerly exploring. Was it then I touched you? Butterfly touching bare skin beneath the light summer blouse you loved to wear.

Maybe it was your love poem. I opened it, daring not to breathe. I read your thoughts over and over, feeling your passion’s heat. Did I ever tell you I hid your poem so others wouldn’t find it? But I don’t remember where. Not even today.

Maybe it was when we first made love. I don’t remember exactly when. I couldn’t mark it on a calendar. But I do remember the rest of it. At least I think I do.

I do remember when it ended.

You phoned while I was driving to our swings in the park.
‘We mustn’t see each other again. Not ever. It’s complicated,’ you said.

‘Promise me,’ you said. 'Please keep your word.'

You were crying. I wanted to reach out and pull you close. Tell you it’d be ok.

‘Just give us time,’ I wanted to say. But didn’t.

I don’t remember if I cried. Or if you might have felt my tears.

I don’t remember most of what I said to you back then.

Except for two words.

‘I promise.’


First Published. 'Promise Me' was published in the Canadian online magazine - Troumagazine - on April 21, 2020.

The Backstory. In 2017, I took a three month online writing course - The Story Intensive offered by Sarah Selecky. The course has many creative writing exercises using prompts. Thirty minutes to write whatever you can manage using the prompt. One of the exercises had this prompt - 'I don't remember'. 

The first version of 'Promise Me' appeared. My writing classmates, all women, loved the story. There were a couple of aspects of the story line that my colleagues connected with: gender of the narrator? is it an affair or something else? is the promise kept?

I was encouraged by the lively discussion that happened about my first rough version. So I began to revise, reflect then revise again. What you read here is the finished version. But is a story such as this ever truly finished?

Legal Rights. 'Promise Me' is the intellectual property of the author, Don Herald. No part of this story may be reproduced in any format without the written permission of the author.





Monday, January 20, 2020

MIRROR, MIRROR ON THE WALL


A middle-aged man stands alone on a darkened stage. A bright spot holds him in its cone. He is immaculately dressed in a well-tailored, light grey suit. A silk tie, deep red, nicely compliments an expensive shirt. There is a small flower on his lapel, a lighter shade of the tie. All of it is understated, elegant.

Silent, the man gazes out toward us, occasionally pulling at his French cuffs, more out of habit than nervousness. Several times, he touches his right cheek as if sweeping away an unseen fly.

He smiles. It’s as if he is remembering something important he wants to share with us but is unsure if he should.

He pulls down upon his suit coat and then casually re-folds his hands in front.

He begins to speak to us.

The voice is cultured; his words soothing and confident. It’s a voice each of us has heard before but can’t remember when, where or who.
_________________ 0 _________________

When I look into the mirror every morning, I’m reminded of other times. And, if truth be told, it was both the best and worst of times.

Back then, whenever I entered a room, heads would turn. It seemed that women of all ages wanted to talk to me. Immediately. Urgently. Not wishing to sound too full of myself, I must tell you that more than a few just couldn’t help themselves. They’d find any excuse to lightly touch my arm, perhaps a shoulder. I remember once - a sophomore as I recall - even stroked my hair much like she would have done with a favoured cat.

Olivia, my mother – God rest her soul – often called me pretty.

‘You’re a pretty lad,’ she’d say, ‘Sure to break many hearts in the years ahead.'

She’d always tell me about the latest fashions, showing me photos in gentlemen’s magazines. High style was her thing, that’s for sure. Now you might think it odd for a mother to do that with a son. But I just accepted that’s the way any mother would talk, especially if her son was pretty like me. These days, I guess the more acceptable word would be handsome.

‘Remember this, Vincento,' Olivia was too fond of saying. ‘Clothes make the man. People, my darling, may not remember what you say, but they will surely remember if your shoes were shined, your pants pressed.’

One day, I think I must have been about nine or ten, I was watching her putting on makeup. I must confess that back then, I was genuinely fascinated by the entire process. It was just magical. My mother - well, she was what you’d call a natural beauty. Anyone who ever met her would undoubtedly say so. But when she had on her makeup, to put it simply, my mother was a knock-out.

Strange as it may seem, I remember being very jealous of all that love and attention she attracted.
Anyway, she saw me watching and invited me to sit beside her - both of us side by side in front of the round cosmetic mirror over her makeup table in a tiny space she liked to call her boudoir.

‘What would you like to try, Vincento? Lipstick? Perhaps some eye shadow? Or maybe just a whisper of rouge on those pale cheeks?’ Her fingertips delicately brushed my cheek. I can still feel her touch to this very day.

With each offering, Olivia would hold out the item in the palm of her delicate hand.

I decided on the rouge powder. My heart felt like it was going to burst right out of my chest.

‘Excellent choice, my precious. Here, on one cheek, let me show you just how to do it, so there’s only just a hint of …’ She hesitated, not able to find quite the right word.

‘So there’s only just a hint of…’ she paused again, ‘…invitation.'

Admittedly, it was a most unusual word to use in that situation. But then again, in her life, my dear mother was all about the invitation.

With practiced strokes, she rouged my left cheek then leaned back to admire her handiwork.

‘Now, Vincento dearest, you do the other.’

And I did. As I recall, I didn’t do too bad a job of it either.

‘Beautiful, Vincento. You’re so pretty. Yes, so very pretty indeed.’

She kissed me lightly on the forehead.

‘My blessed heart, you look so handsome. No girl in her right mind will ever be able to resist you.’

Looking back now, I think that was the start of it.

From that very moment, I truly believed I was pretty. ‘Stunningly handsome,’ I recall my mother saying as I innocently posed this way and that - just as I’d seen her do so many times - in front of the full-length dressing mirror.

I chose to believe in my beauty, so it came easily for me to act the part. Confident. In charge. Worth getting to know. And when I was older, definitely worth loving if you were found to be in my favour.
I wore fine clothes; bespoke suits of only the most beautiful cloth. Soft leather shoes, hand-stitched, always polished, of course. A gold Rolex. French cuffs, always accented with ebony links, the initials ‘VM’ embossed lightly on the dark bone.

But, as you well know, there’s far more to living the high life than just being a sharp dresser who’s always easy with his words. Sadly, I must report my flattering mother never revealed the secret to me. I had to learn that life lesson the hard way.

Standing here, I do confess to you that over the years, I’ve had many women - passionate, loving, attentive - in my life. For each, I was the irresistible light, and she was my delicate, summer moth. Now you may think that sounds outrageously conceited. But it is the truth of it.

Which, of necessity, brings us to Helen.

She was my soul mate. We spent eighteen marvellous months together. First, in San Diego where she had a thriving practice as a much sought after fashion photographer. Then the final six months when we were living on Canada’s Pacific coast.

Back then, Helen was big into yoga. When a teaching position at the famous yoga centre in one of the Gulf Islands came her way, she joyfully walked away from her glamorous life in California. Of course, I went along with her.

Looking back now, I sometimes wonder if she’d gradually become my light, and I was just her beautiful summer moth.

Of course, someone as attractive and socially adept as me found it easy to mix in with the yoga crowd. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that I was very popular, particularly with some of the younger female students.

That said, I’m sure you've already figured out how all this is going to end.

In my defence, let me just say that I was well and truly loved. I trust that now you can see that such behaviour was just in my nature. For the most part, Helen was forgiving. Oh, I’ll admit there were tensions between us at times about – what shall I call them – my overly familiar relationships with her students. But in spite of it all, Helen remained my soul mate.

Eventually, Helen had enough. One rainy night in late summer, we had a spectacularly noisy row. Hurtful words stripped bare our very hearts. Hidden feelings were drawn out between us; our relationship shredded beyond repair.

The next day I left on the first ferry out of Long Harbour. I headed for Victoria and a new life without Helen.

One week later, while riding a friend’s Harley on a section of twisting highway up the Pacific coast toward Tofino, I was side-swiped by a skidding Benz. Thankfully, I was swiftly airlifted to the Royal Jubilee in Victoria. The surgeons there did a great job of patching me up.

But my face… well, let’s just say that I’ll never be quite the same again.
_________________ 0 _________________
The man unconsciously touches his right cheek. The fingers linger for several heartbeats then return to his side. To some, it seems that this simple act is innocent, not full of subtle meaning. To others, it seems as if it may be an invitation, perhaps to forgive the man his many trespasses.

The man turns slightly away from us as if to leave, then pauses. It appears as if he still may have more to say. In the white cone of light, a long, jagged scar is faintly visible beneath cleverly applied makeup.

He nods slightly, then steps abruptly into total blackness beyond.

The cone of light slowly fades.

The stage is dark.

First Published. 'Mirror, Mirror' appears in the January 21, 2020 online edition of Trou Magazine.

The Backstory. I've always wanted to write a short play and eventually experience it performed in a small, intimate theatre setting. The first part of this story starts out with this goal in mind. But, as so often happens during the writing experience, the character's voice and story just took over unbidden and this is the result.

Legal Rights. ‘Mirror, Mirror On The Wall' is the intellectual property of the author, Don Herald. No part of this story may be reproduced in any format without the written permission of the author.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

CODE BREAKER



“Dawson? Get your ass over here. Now.”

“PK? Jeezus old man, it’s 330 in the effin’ morning.”

“So what? You’re young. You don’t need a shit load of sleep anyways. Besides, got somethin’ here you’re gonna wanna see. In thirty, boy. Out.”

PK hung up.

This was just too important to wait until the kid rolled out of bed at 10, maybe even noon. It could be all over by then. He couldn’t tell for sure. But the kid would know what to do. Dawson was young, but he had the smarts for this sort of thing. Kinda reminds me of when I was younger and in the squad. Hernandez thought I was the best damn code breaker he’d ever worked with.

Phillipe Kayson. 71 years old and looking way worse for wear than he rightly deserved. Fondly known as PK to all his Armed Forces buddies and a couple of close, non-military friends.

PK hadn’t slept much in the past few days. Might even be longer, but he wasn’t sure. Not that he cared. No, sir, this pill stuff had to be solved right soon so he could get on with the mission. Yes, sir, he was convinced there would be another mission for him once he could break this damn code. As good as he was with making and breaking codes, this one here had whipped him for the past couple of days. Maybe it was more than just a few days. Who the hell knows? He’d lost track of time.

But the kid would look at it fresh. Have some ideas about what the god damned pills were telling him to do. PK trusted very few people these days, but Dawson was one of the good ones.
___________  ¯ ___________
Dawson took a cab downtown to PK’s high rise just off of Strachan Avenue, a short stroll south of Dundas. At this time of the morning, not much was happening on the streets, so he made it door to door in just under twenty minutes.

PK’s building had seen better days. Truth be told, the better days were long gone. Mostly old folks lived here now. Some on their own, others with a flea-bitten, scrawny cat that never went out. Or a spouse who, just like the cats, also never went out. It was just that kind of building.

The lobby smelled of stale piss. Over in the corner, someone had vomited all over the front window. It had dribbled thickly down onto the cracked blue tiles that hadn’t seen a wet mop in months. No need to press the buzzer. The front door lock was busted. Great for the local dealers, pimps and hookers but not so great for the frail, vulnerable older folks that lived here.

Dawson noticed there was more graffiti in the elevator than there had been a week ago. That surprised him. Very little free space was available for the taking. Lots of gang tags scrawled with fat Sharpies.

Here’s a new one - ‘Mess with PK, you done 4ever’.

That’s odd, thought Dawson. I wonder what PK’s done so that tag’s right up by the floor buttons. You’d have to be some real dumb shit not to notice it. But he agreed. You get PK as an enemy, and you got yourself a hurting relationship with a nasty dude indeed.

As long as Dawson had known PK, the old man always tried to blend in. ‘Urban cammo’ he called it. ‘Wear the colours of what’s around you. Just like we did in the Service.’ It was one of PK’s favourite sayings.

At the eighteenth floor, the elevator doors jerked reluctantly open onto a poorly lit, musty smelling hall. The carpet, probably blue once, now looked somewhere in between rat’s ass purple and dog crap brown. Ripped patches were torn up or missing altogether. As if Tiger had been practicing his short game and hadn’t bothered fixing the divots. Dawson knew from coming here often that the eighteenth was like a mini-United Nations. All races, colours and lifestyles. Even at 4am, the air smelled like the Oxford Square Mall food court during the lunch hour.

Eighteen ought two. For as long as Dawson could remember, the left side screw of the apartment door plate had been missing. In stubborn defiance of gravity, it still refused to slide down to the right. Dawson liked that.
No need to knock. PK was expecting him. But lately, PK was jumpy and unpredictable. Perhaps a quick rap wouldn’t hurt just to let him know I’m here.
S
o three quick taps on the dented metal clad door.

“What the fuck? Get your pimply white ass in here kid. This ain’t the Royal York, yuh know.”

PK’s place was messier than usual. Actually, it was a whole lot messier than Dawson had ever seen it. Clothes scattered here and there. Old newspapers piled up almost to the ceiling in all four corners of what passed poorly for the living room.

A 42” Sony flat screen, PK’s only visible luxury item, flickered silently on top of a slightly tilting faux walnut Ikea credenza. CNN on the screen with a Wolf Blitzer look-alike talking to someone in a black flack jacket standing in front of a burned out, still smoking tank. Ukraine, maybe? 

Closed captions streamed across the bottom of the screen, not quite getting the syntax right. Dawson knew that for some unknown reason, PK preferred seeing the words rather than hearing them.

Beer smells and cigarette smoke mixed with mouldy pizza on the counter. Or maybe it was the half-eaten dim sum on several plates piled near the sink. It all just seemed to blend right in with the odours in the hallway. 

Large, dirty half-windows along one wall. Dawson was sure no blinds had ever covered them.

Easily visible about a half block away, the crisp profile of a newish office tower. Its randomly lit floors faintly pierced the night. Cleaning staff moved through it like ghostly ants, getting things ready for the white shirts and smart pantsuits that would arrive in a few hours. Just better-dressed ants, thought Dawson.

“Get yourself a mug o’ Joe from the hotplate. Bring me a mug too. We’ve got a shit load of work to do here, kid.”

PK nodded to some stuff laid out on the card table in front of him.

He was wearing what he always did in his apartment - a traditional Vietnamese pyjama pants and top made of silk or satin. It was simple, versatile and best of all for PK, it required little to no care. PK preferred black silk.

This morning he also wore a thin, red silk scarf twisted tightly around his head, just above slightly too large ears. The scarf was trying none too successfully to keep long crinkly strands of pepper gray hair out of his eyes. His feet were bare, the toes oddly blunt and gnarly as if PK’d been kicking the shit out of wooden planks most of his life. Given his specialized training in the Service, that was likely a true fact.

Dawson settled in on a short, somewhat rickety stool PK had roughly pulled up beside him at the table. A sharp whiff of sour body odour caught Dawson unaware. He realized his friend likely hadn’t showered for quite a while.

PK looked him square in the face. His eyes were grey-blue with light flecks of brown. Almost a stare, those eyes never turned away. Dawson felt a cold tingle dance up his spine. Right then he knew this thing with PK wasn’t going to be good.

“I need your help kid. Can’t figure this out myself.”

The old man never asked anyone for help. So whatever was going on with him, Dawson knew it must be some serious shit.

PK waved a burn-scarred right hand over the stuff spread out in broken lines on the table.

“What ya see, kid?”

“A bunch of pills. Couple of capsules. Different shapes, colours. Pill bottles, tops off. Arranged neatly by size over there in the corner. A well-used spiral notebook lying open. Pages seem to have lots of writing. Some letters, a few numbers. Wait -actually a lot of numbers. Two packs of Gauloises Vertes cigarettes. Your favourite. One deck almost empty. An over-full ashtray. It stinks, should be emptied. A large magnifying glass with a cracked lens.”

Dawson paused, pleased with his quick inventory.

“Fuck, kid. I not taught yuh anything last couple o’ years?”

PK’s eyes flashed at Dawson. A mixture of frustration and annoyance.

“Never, ever take anything at face value. Nothin’s as it first appears. It’s all in the fucking details, kid. The fucking details.”

Feeling the sting from PK’s words, Dawson took a few moments to re-examine everything on the table. There had to be a clue here. Something he was missing. Something that was pissing off PK.

He glanced at the pencil scribbles on the notebook page closest to him. Groupings of alpha letters and numerics. Some random words like orange, green, blue.

That’s when he saw the connection.

He picked up one of the small white tablets, slowly turning it in his fingers.

'CFZ 300’ was stamped on both sides. He picked up a plastic capsule, half pink, half a combo of green/blue. ‘APO L15’ was white-stamped faint on each half. He squinted with renewed interest at the many other pills lying scattered around the table top.

“All these pills have numbers and letters stamped on them. Some shaped smooth round. Some elliptical. A few with squared edges. Different colours. But each pill has a different alpha-numeric stamp.”

Dawson set down the pill and capsule. He looked over at his friend. PK was smiling like the family cat that had finally caught the god-damned canary.

“Effin’ right, kid. Letters and numbers.”

PK paused. His expression turned grim.

“But it all ain’t random, kid. No sir. Somebody’s sending ol’ PK a message. It’s code. They want me to do one more mission. My last hurrah.”

PK slumped back in his chair and laughed loudly.

He pulled out the last Gauloises from the open crinkled green paper pack. Lit it with a quick, long yellow flame from a steel sided flint lighter embossed with the words ‘We Dare.’ He inhaled deeply, held it for what seemed like forever to Dawson. Then PK exhaled, slowly blowing a stream of tight, perfect smoke rings into the already stale, sticky air of the apartment.

“What the…?” said Dawson, trying unsuccessfully to keep the amazement out of his voice.

“Someone’s sending you an effin’ coded message on those pills? They want you to go one last mission?”

Dawson laughed at the sheer craziness of it all.

But PK wasn’t laughing. Far from it.

Once again those grey-blue eyes bore into him, causing Dawson to blink with anxiety. The Gauloises hung loosely from the corner of PK’s tightly clenched lips. The ash was threatening to drop and burn a hole in the pyjama pants, maybe the thigh too.

“Yeah, kid. We got some very serious shit going here.”

PK waved at the pills and capsules.

The ash fell off, landing beside a blue-black plastic capsule that quickly sizzled and shrivelled from the heat. Only the letters ‘MYLAN’ remained readable.

PK swore. He angrily snubbed out the cigarette into the tray filled with many other partially smoked butts.

“You believe me, right, kid?”

His undertone was menacing, begging for a negative reply.

“I guess anything’s possible, PK. Tell me how you figured this out. Then we can go from there.”

Dawson was desperately buying time, trying to collect his thoughts. To figure out why he was suddenly feeling very frightened for the old warrior beside him.

“A few effin’ days ago…well maybe it was longer than that, I was taking my morning pills. You know, like I do every morning with my cuppa Joe.”
Dawson didn’t know but nodded encouragingly.

“That’s when I noticed one of the pills had some writing on it. I never seen that before. I went to the window over there. Held it to the sunlight. Effin’ eyes aren’t quite what they used to be, so I went over to the kitchen drawer. Got my magnifying lens. Sure enough, someone had printed ‘CFZ 300’ on the pill. Bloody hell, I’d never noticed that before. So I went back to the table and put each effin’ pill under the glass. Every effin’ one had somethin’ written on it. Different letters with different numbers. Sons of bitches, they were all telling me something. Just like the codes we used back in the day.”

PK’s breath was coming in noticeable, raspy gasps. His eyes seemed darker, more distant. The black pupils, unusually large.

Dawson wondered if his friend might be having a stroke.

PK was murmuring as if he was the only one in the room.

“Charlie. Foxtrot. Zulu.”

He picked up the shrivelled capsule and held it under the glass. He slowly read off the stamped letters but translated them into military talk.

“Mike. Yankee. Lima. Alpha. November.”

“It’s effin’ code, right? Don’t you see it, Dawson? Somebody snuck in while I was out messing with the punks down on the street. The fuckers switched out my usual meds for these ones with the code letters and numbers.”

His voice was getting stronger now, gaining confidence with every breath.

“So I did what we’d do in the Service. I wrote every effin’ letter and number down in this notebook.”

With his free hand, PK riffed through several pages.

“As well as the shape and colour of each pill or capsule I got it from.”

PK seemed proud of his efforts. He handed the scribbler to Dawson for his inspection.

Dawson read the list.
APO L15 – plastic capsule, pink + green  green/blue
CRFZ 300 – white tab, longish
RXP 500 – white round tab with a cut groove
APO-AML 5 – white pill, six  eight-sided
APO-R0S 20 – pink pill, small and rounded
ZS 223 – white pill, elliptical
MYLAN 345 – pale orange pill, round with a cut groove
MYLAN 1101 – green/brown bronze capsule
APO = Alpha Papa Oscar
CRFZ = Charlie Romeo Foxtrot Zulu
RXP = Romeo X-Ray Papa
APO-AML = Alpha Papa Oscar + Alpha Mike Lima
APO-ROS = Alpha Papa Oscar + Romeo Oscar Sierra
ZS = Zulu Sierra
MYLAN = Mike Yankee Lima Alpha November

In the remaining pages, PK had been working various combinations of the letters and numbers to unlock the code. Some entries looked promising but were scratched out with a dark, heavy pencil swipe. Occasionally there were margin notes that PK had apparently written to remind him of ideas or old tricks for code breaking.

Dawson knew it must have taken PK days to assemble and work over everything on the pages.

“You’re a hotshot. Right? Got an easy way with numbers and letters. Like me when I was your age. What effin’ sense you make of it? Jeezus H. Christ, this is a real ball buster, eh Dawson?”

PK just sat there, sucking on his pencil as if it were the last Gauloises in the world, looking expectantly at the kid, waiting for words of wisdom to roll easily off his lips.

The kid’s a wizard with numbers and letters, PK thought. Lucky I met him in Trinity Park a couple summers ago.

Dawson was stumped.

He hadn’t a clue what was going on with the pills. Or the code. Or PK’s supposedly secret mission.

But right at this moment, he was more concerned about figuring out what was really going on with the old man.

He bought himself more time.

“You able to make any sense out of it, PK?”

PK slowly shook his head. A couple more wisps of grey hair fell out of the red headband. He brushed them away.

“Not an effin’ word of it. Best god damned code I’ve ever come across in all my years in the Service.”

Absentmindedly, he pulled up the pyjama sleeve on his left arm and scratched an ageing tattoo. Dawson had never seen it before - a skull head cockily wearing a green beret with a distinctive diagonal gold slash patch. The mouth held a menacing looking dagger, sharp edge facing inward.

Involuntarily, Dawson shivered at the image.

Instinctively, he knew his friend Phillipe Kayson, aka PK or Papa Kilo, must have been one dangerous mother fucker back in the day. But maybe, in spite of his age and given the fresh warning Sharpie’d on the elevator wall, there was a good possibility PK was still a kick-ass, take no prisoners kind of guy.

Dawson was close to deciding what was really going on with his friend.
But he went through the motions anyway. He made a show of carefully studying all of PK’s code-breaking attempts recorded in the scribbler.
Twice he asked PK to explain some complex looking, alpha-numeric combinations.

Several times, Dawson took the glass and carefully examined some of the pills, obviously cross-checking with the jotted notations on the pages.

But it was all nonsensical jibber-jabber to Dawson.

Dawson decided he should just stop screwing around and put it right out there for his friend. But first, he would slowly slide into it.

“You got any idea why some guy would sneak into your apartment and switch the pills to give you this shit-kicker of a code? I mean, you’re a decorated Special Service war vet. You can be trusted. You’ve proved your loyalty many times over.”

He nodded to the burn scars on PK’s right hand.

“You got the scars to prove it, old man.”

“So why the hell would this mystery dude drop you the code the way he did? Why didn’t he just knock on your door? Hand you the effin’ code written in invisible ink or whatever shit you secret code guys use. And say some crap like ‘For God and Country. Honour and Fidelity.’ And then just effin’ walk away?”

PK had to think about that for a bit. The kid was asking a tough question. It deserved a proper answer.

But try as he might, he didn’t have one.

“So what are those pills telling me to do?”

He put an edge to his voice just so the kid would know he wasn’t going to waste any more time messing around with questions that had no effin’ answers.

Dawson could see the ‘don’t screw me around no more’ message in PK’s eyes.

So he decided to change plans and go all in with his friend’s secret code fantasy and see what happens. 

“I think somebody’s deliberately messing with you PK. They switched your pills to the ones with the numbers and letters on them. You being a Special Service guy, they knew you’d be hyper-vigilant to your surroundings and would pick up on the pill switch. Somehow they knew you’ve a knack for code-breaking, so they wanted to mess with your head. They knew you’d knock yourself out trying to break out code string from the pills.”

Dawson paused for a breath. Suddenly he had another thought definitely worth sharing.

“Any chance you might have recently pissed off any of the neighbours or the gang bangers out on the street? You know, done so much harm to someone, they’d go to all this trouble just to royally mess you up?”

Dawson was winging it here, trying to explain away the unexplainable to an old man, his good friend, who truly believed the pills spread out on the table held secret instructions for one final mission. Semper Fi and all that rah-rah military shit. Some sick dude, who wanted badly to take a hard stick to the old man, was playing off of that old band of brothers Army bullshit.

PK smiled. Now the kid was finally talkin’ his language.

“The other day, I tuned up a couple bangers from down the block. They’d kicked the shit out of Miss Adele from 1807. She was coming home just after dark from getting bread and milk at Mister Lee’s down at the corner. Fuckers grabbed the purse and broke her cane over the hydrant. First, they gave her a beatin’. Pretty bad. Left poor Miss Adele bleeding on the sidewalk. The cops came but did nothin’. Asked Miss Adele if she recognized the punks who beat her up. Said she didn’t. But she told me later who they were. I told her I’d take care of it. It’ll take a few weeks for everything to heal up, but I guarantee you those dudes won’t be messing with any of the old folks around here again.”

PK laughed at the memory. “For God and Country,” he said with a smile.

PK got up slowly from the table and walked over to the windows. The first feeble rays of the early morning sun were trying desperately to peek through the grime. He was lost in thought, turning over the kid’s words.

Dawson sat and waited, slowly sipping on his now cold coffee, wondering what he could possibly do to help his friend. He’d have to think carefully about that one before suggesting anything solid.

PK turned from the window, a big grin on his face. Obviously, he’d made a decision.

“I think you’re right, Dawson. Only thing makes some sense is that somebody’s screwin’ with me. There ain’t no code to break. Ain’t gonna be no mission to go on. Damned if I know who it is, but give me some time, and I’ll figure it out. And when I do, I promise you, kid, there will be one last mission. But it won’t make the evening news.”

PK turned away from the window and smiled at Dawson.

“Look, kid. Thanks for comin’ out and workin’ it with me.”

“What say I buy you breakfast down at McCreadie’s? You still into wheat cakes with all that syrup shit?”
___________  ¯ ___________
After breakfast, PK returned home. He heated up the remaining Joe on the hot plate then went over to the card table with all the pills and paper spread out on it.

“Bullshit.”

He hadn’t wanted to embarrass Dawson when the kid had tried so hard to sell him on the bullshit tale of there being no code, no mission and just some guy messin’ with his head.

No sir, the code is as real as I’m standing here.

I just have to spend a bit more time with the numbers and letters. No code has ever stopped me and this here one is not going to be the …

A rapid movement on the balcony caught his eye. He smiled.

“Where you been, my friend? You hungry? Come by for your pigeon?”

A Peregrine falcon had landed on the balcony railing and was making low, soft clucking sounds.

PK went to the fridge and took out a large ziplock bag. Inside was a dead pigeon.

He’d caught it a few days ago. Maybe it was longer than that, but not too long. He’d perfected his bird catching in the Service while he and the squad were secretly working black, deep in the jungles of Nicaragua. So, naturally, he just transferred it to the benches, grass and shrubbery of Trinity Park. The fun wasn’t in catching the pigeon but watching the Peregrine rip it apart, and chunk swallow it in pieces.

The Peregrine was a sleek male. A few months ago, PK had watched him and his mate come and go from their nest box atop the office tower down the road. PK had bought the most expensive pair of service issue binoculars he could get at the Army Surplus over on Richmond. He started watching the falcons roosting and hunting. Both birds loved to soar on the thermals between the tall buildings.

PK thought they were magnificently regal birds and very skilled hunters.
The male in particular rarely missed a pigeon, either one sitting on the top ledge around the Old Fire Hall or one in the air. The ferocity of his hunting never ceased to amaze PK. It stirred something deep within that he hadn’t felt in a very long time.

One day, to PK’s delight, the male Peregrine had unexpectedly landed on the balcony railing. He gripped a plump, feral pigeon firmly in its talons. PK slowly moved to the window and watched in fascination as the Peregrine casually ripped apart the pigeon, swallowing entire chunks of feathers and flesh in rapid succession. 

PK named the bird Ezra. After his father who was the god damned best hunter in the Ottawa Valley until he passed away from throat cancer twenty years ago.

Soon Ezra was making PK’s balcony railing a regular feeding stop, carrying dead or still struggling squirrels and pigeons there to be eaten. Ezra seemed to have no fear of PK, sensing no danger from this curious creature just a few feet away.

PK began to catch the pigeons in Trinity. He’d twist their necks and bring home the warm bodies in a plastic shopping bag. No one saw him trap and kill the birds, but if someone did, they didn’t report him. Every other day, PK would take a carcass from the fridge and loosely tie one leg to the railing. It didn’t take Ezra long to figure out that a pigeon on that balcony was a sure meal for him.

The bird and the old man had an understanding. It was the most natural thing in the world. With some satisfaction, PK knew that it takes a predator to recognize a predator.

Recently, PK began studying Ezra. In particular, how Ezra launched himself so smoothly from the balcony railing or his nest box atop the building just down the block.

The air currents caught in his wings and lifted him quickly at least a hundred yards above the office tower, circling and gliding effortlessly. Ezra would call to his mate with a distinctive, harsh sounding ‘kak-kak. kak-kak’. Quickly PK learned to perfectly imitate Ezra’s call. Not too long after, he was able to get Ezra to answer when the bird came to sit on the railing to take the pigeon.

PK had always regretted that he didn’t learn to fly jets as a young man. 

The Service had eagerly offered aviator school when they recognized his quick intelligence and exceptional skills with his hands. Still in the early days of his assignment to a special ops team, he much preferred the high-risk adventure and personal toughness of a grunt soldier who did hard stuff that almost no one else dared to do.

So he stayed with Special Forces. The hunting and killing had seemed second nature to him. He loved the camaraderie of the other men and the shared danger of their work. The prospect of sudden, violent death in the jungles or deserts of some godforsaken country just fuelled his passions. Oddly, the constant threat of death was a nourishing life force to him. Actually killing a bad guy face to face, well that was just an expected prize of the hunt.

For several weeks now, PK had been making detailed notes of the mechanics of the Peregrine’s flight. He studied Ezra’s wing beat patterns and rhythms. How he used his tail feathers in guiding and adjusting within the soaring columns of air.

PK soon came to believe that he could do it too.

But common sense told him a human couldn’t fly like a bird.

However, when PK suddenly stopped taking the two daily pills marked MYLAN 1101 green-orange and MYLAN 351 soft orange, within days all doubt left him.

He began to plan for his first solo flight. He knew that Ezra would look after him. They would soar and hunt together.

PK knew he’d have time to fly once he caught the banger who was messing with his head. He’d been thinking a lot about who this guy could be.

He’d decided it must be that tall, skinny pimp and dealer everyone called Critch. This dude sometimes hung out in the lobby of PK’s building, doing business while his girls turned quick tricks in the stairwell. Critch supplied them with just enough free dope to dull the thinking but keep the body moving.

Three months ago, PK’d tuned up Critch real good for no reason other than he just didn’t like gutter scum like him. Sure as shit, that stopped the whoring for a couple of months or so. But in the last few days, Critch and his girls were back, dealing and turning tricks down in the lobby.

PK decided that just before 12 tonight, he’d have a private chat with Critch about why he shouldn’t have messed with ol’ PK using those marked pills. Then, with a grin on his face, he would take certain steps to ensure that Critch and other gang bangers in the neighbourhood got an obvious message they shouldn’t mess with PK ever again.

Once that little matter was taken care of, then PK would have more time to think about hunting with Ezra.

But first, he’d have to break the code. It was a pride thing now. No code in the Service ever’d beat him and sure as shit, this one wouldn’t. He’d damn sure crack it on his own.

Dawson would understand. PK was sure of that.



First Published: This story was published on May 25, 2019, in the American online magazine 'The Ugly Writers'.

The Backstory: The first draft of 'Code Breaker' was written in 2015. It was a much different story then, much more raw in its language and the events described in the story. I tried unsuccessfully several times to get the story of PJ, Dawson and Ezra published. I archived the story and went back to it several times over the intervening years, making changes that I thought an editor would find more acceptable. In 2019, I totally reworked the story. I really wanted this story published. Fortunately, 'The Ugly Writers' online magazine editors decided to publish it.

'Code Breaker' is a story about an older veteran of a Special Forces unit. Phillipe Kayson suffers from PTSD. Some readers may find the ending upsetting. And that's just fine with me!

Legal Rights. ‘Code Breaker' is the intellectual property of the author, Don Herald. No part of this story may be reproduced in any format without the written permission of the author.

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