Tagged: death

The Ely Pass Accident 0

When I was in college, I was driving across Nevada around Christmas and hit a cow with my car. I wasn’t driving too fast, but I managed to come out of a cloudy valley onto a pass and there was a herd of cows in the roadway keeping warm. Since I was driving pretty slow, I managed to weave the car between the standing cows and most of them ran away. However, there was one steer in the middle of the road that refused to budge. And so I hit him with the side of my car. It all happened so fast and I remember hearing a “bump.” That’s not so bad, I thought. I drove the car to the side of the road, got out and saw the imprint of a six-foot cow on the side of my car. The dent was so bad, I had to pull it away from the back wheel so I could keep driving. The cow ran off and I never did see it.

Anyway, I kept driving on and hoped the cow never died. In Nevada’s open range, the driver is responsible for killing a cow. Being a college student, I barely had enough money to drive home. I surely didn’t have money to buy a dead cow.

Fiction comes out of real and imagined experiences. Here is a piece of flash fiction about a cowboy heading home.

Thirty miles of snow blanketed the valley from range to range. Small strips of black pavement broke through the snow. The pavement disappeared as the road dipped farther around a bend. The cowboy paused the truck at the top of the grade and considered his future. Would it be possible to turn around and start over? Too many miles to go and too much behind him, he decided. A gust of wind raced around the cab and snow swirled around the hood. He looked down at an endless snowy valley. His breath blew fog on the window. He wiped away the frost and wondered if he should have called Sally to let her know he was coming.

The cowboy sat until he felt the cold on his legs. The chill rode up from the bottom of the floorboard through his boots making his bones hurt. The chill reminded him things were not warm between him and Sally. He patted his thighs and shivered. He must try to reach her. He turned the heater up, pulled the truck into gear, and jumped the start smoothing out as the truck picked up speed.

He considered the snow, cold, and all the times he had been stuck in this same spot shivering. He traveled this lonely highway all the time and it never seemed very warm. Watching the junipers pass against the snow, he expected to see a bandit ahead. This stretch of basin and range resembled a desperado’s playground. The roadway always seemed covered in snow with no one took the same road on the same day. Today was no different. The snow piled higher against a whitened sky and the truck began to make new tracks in the packed ice. He no longer saw the pavement. He watched for the mile markers and aimed down the middle.

The cowboy imagined what was happening four ranges over. Sally focused on her two boys, three poodles, and a husband. He thought about her growing up. She rode beside him with her small legs hanging over the seat. Now her smallest boy could take her place. He rarely saw her now. An unspoken distrust hung in the air when they did see each other. Another cold he never could thaw. His daughter looked at him with suspicion when she poured him a cup of coffee in her kitchen. Her eyes wondered what he wanted and why he dropped by. He smiled and hoped she would forgive him. He wished they could be closer.

The cowboy hummed an old melody, something he had heard once, in a haphazard manner. He stomped his heel on the down beat as the truck bounced off the center markers. He wondered if he shared this song with Sally once, rocking her to sleep or out of habit. He turned his attention to the road and began to whistle the melody.

He regretted he never could find the middle ground with Sally. His daughter never liked horses or the ranch life. The time he was away had further wedged them apart. The divorce made it harder for him to be close. A cowboy’s fate he guessed. He made a fist in his lap, then relaxed as the truck climbed a hill. He geared down and the truck slipped in the ice. He caught the wheels from slipping before the bed fishtailed.

A grey cloud enveloped around him as he climbed the grade and thick fog erased the mile makers. The cowboy felt for the center line. He inched up until the tires grabbed pavement. The truck sped up as the cloud passed and he could see the road ahead.

A small herd of cows stood in the pavement warming themselves. He breathed in and stomped on the brake pedal. The brown and white cows looked at him like he was interrupting a meeting. He threaded past them sliding across the pavement. He hit a patch of ice and the truck bed began to spin. He steered into the slide but went too far sliding the truck around to the right. More cows ran away and he could see their wide eyes as they rushed off the road. The tuck continued to slip sideways and he could see it slowing down. An ounce of hope as he figured he might make it.Out of the passenger window he saw a large steer standing its ground in the middle of the road. The cow looked through him. He pumped on the gas and tried to drive forward. The acceleration gave the back-end more speed. The truck slipped even faster toward the standing cow. There was no way he was going to avoid a crash.

He heard a small thump in the middle of the door and the truck stopped sliding. He took a moment to collect himself and he thought it was a small dent. Then the bottom of the truck rounded him landing in a crunch. Broken glass showered over him. A toolbox dropped and cut a gash above his right eye. He grimaced and passed out under the glove box.

He laid in the cold air bleeding. Cows wandered around the overturned truck sniffing at the doors. The truck sat in their warm spot.

A grey sky spit snowflakes. The herd of cows huddled near a borrow pit watching the truck. The cowboy woke up to a smell manure, urine, and cold. He rose up on his elbows as a small steer ran by the windshield. He found himself wedged between the door, the crumpled roof, and the steering wheel.

The roof shot up bouncing him to the floor board. He felt a primal scream rise through him. The sound made him to want out. The cowboy reached for his crumpled hat under the dashboard and missed. The truck rocked under him and his butt slipped down toward the door. He reached again for his hat. The wild scream rose from under him a second time in what seemed like a hollow and desperate plea. The cowboy pulled up on the steering wheel and pushed on the driver door. It wouldn’t budge. Facing the broken window, he stuck a boot over the center hump, pushed himself up, and wiggled out.

***

The cowboy fell face first in the snow. A smell of iron, urine, and manure caught up to him and he looked back at the truck. A bloody and mangled head moved under the window. The cowboy stood up and brushed ice off his neck. Melting ice burned a hole through the gash in his forehead. He patted the wound and a clump of blood covered his fingers. He wiped the blood off on his pants.

The reflection in the door revealed a four-inch gash in his forehead. If he had hair, he would look scalped. Blood hung from the torn skin. He pulled the mess over the raw wound and patted his forehead. The falling toolbox had opened up a sizable piece of his face.

He ripped off a piece of t-shirt leaving a curled up ribbon below his flannel shirt. He wrapped the thin material around the bloody mess tucking one end under the other to hold it in place. The white cloth soaked with blood making the bandage a scarlet banner.

The wound made him queasy and he needed to sit down. He lowered to the ground next to his crumpled hat. He smoothed a dent in the crown and placed it over the scarlet bandage.

The cowboy sat in the snow and shivered. The falling snow melted on his hat and jacket. The gash in his forehead hurt. He watched snowflakes dance across the valley. The wind swirled the snow around the junipers. Nothing moved. Nature paused to see what would happen next.

A snort interrupted the silence. The cab moved up as the steer tried again to remove the truck from its back. He jumped away from the truck. The smell of urine became stronger. The cow let go and the cowboy watched as its eyes closed. The herd watched the truck with snow swirling around their heads. A few moved back to the center pavement. The cowboy shivered again and pulled his jacket tighter. The wind seemed colder than before.

The crumpled cab lay on top of the steer. The cow no longer moved. The cowboy heard an odd whizzing nose and he realized the rear tires continued to spin. He walked around the truck and wrenched on the driver door. It wouldn’t open. He found a rock, smashed the window, and turned off the engine.

He stood in a puddle of urine and blood next to the cow’s rear legs. He stepped away leaving bloody footprints in the ice. His forehead stung and a trickle of blood dropped from his eye.

***

The cowboy sat underneath the overturned truck bed. He tolerated the smell of the dead cow by moving as far from it as he could near the tailgate. To keep dry, he sat on a carpet made from the clothes in his duffel. He had placed a few more layers of t-shirt around his wound. Outside, three inches of new snow-covered the ground from a couple of hours of snowfall. Small flakes fell at first, and then large, wet flakes came down like rain. None of the wet wood he gathered lit a fire with the few matches buried in his glove box. He never found the cigarette lighter. The stack of clothing failed to keep the cold ground from making his seat numb. He kept his bare hands tucked under this armpits and rocked back and forth to keep warm.

No one came up the grade to discover his wreck from either side. For the longest time, he stood in the falling snow looking into one valley after another hoping for a rescue. The snow only made him wet and cold. Winter was the wrong time of year for a steady stream of cars. And no one knew he was out there.

He laid his head on the metal panel and thought about Sally. She might be cooking dinner now. Macaroni, cheese, broccoli, and steak. He like a thick cut, medium rare. A wave of nausea rolled over him and he sat forward. The cold metal made his head hurt. He rubbed the makeshift bandage and came back with another hand of blood. He wiped it away on his leg and then held his head in his hands.

What if I die out here?

***

He thought about a time when Sally stood on her tiptoes to lick chocolate cake batter from a spoon. Her pink dress matched her toddler stockings. She reached up to get at the spoon and he kept pulling it away. He chuckled. No wonder she hated me, he thought. Another time, he let her paint his lips and color his eyes. He looked like a rodeo clown, but she liked it. Then there was the years he wasn’t around. She stopped counting on him and grew closer to her mother. After that, he couldn’t break through the distrust.

He wondered what if he had stuck around? It might be different. No way to know. He let out a sigh. He would have found a way to screw it up. Nothing he did seemed to work.

He looked at the dead cow mashed under the cab. It looked asleep. The cold no longer bothered it. The cowboy felt warmer. He shifted on the carpet and leaned to look under the tailgate. Still snowing and getting colder. The sudden change in altitude shot a quick pain behind his right eye. He could feel his heart beat through the blood-soaked bandage. He took a deep breath, laid back on the truck panel and closed his eyes.

***

Sally held out a hot mug of coffee to him as he walked into the kitchen. She laughed as he burned his lip pulling the cup away from his mouth. He set the cup on the counter and reached out for her hand. She took it and he pulled her in for a hug. He smelled her hair and thought about what a great daughter he had.

A highway worker pulled into the wide shoulder next to a pile of black cinders. The cows were long gone. A wrecked truck lay overturned near the far shoulder. Melting snow dripped down on the carcass of a dead cow under the crumpled cab. Broken glass spread out on the pavement.

The red-haired worker in overalls looked under the tailgate. He found the cowboy laying on a bed of clothes with a smile. A brown bandage and dried blood covered the face of the dead cowboy.

The worker stood up and looked out over the snow-covered valley of rabbit brush and junipers. He kicked away some snow from his boot. He looked the other way down the grade. Another long stretch of snow. Heck of a place to wreck, he thought. He spied a hawk flying across the valley.

The bird hung on the wind channels between the ridges floating over the basin. Miles of chaparral and high desert spanned below. The hawk saw a rabbit and darted to the spot vanishing behind a stand of junipers.

Dallas 3 a.m. 0

On Oct 1, I woke in Dallas at 3 a.m. before my flight back to Las Vegas. Picking the morning flight over the red eye became a battle of trying to sleep in a too soft bed with a thin pillow. I might have slept better on the overnight. I should have just stayed awake and pretended I was 20 again.

I hit stop on the phone alarm and saw a long line of alerts. In the dark, the light of the phone let me know, “20 dead in Las Vegas. More than 200 wounded.”

It was 1 a.m. in Vegas; it had just happened.

For years, I feared hearing a mass shooting in my city. Too many tourists; too many opportunities. It seemed very real.

I spent the weekend with Katie in north Texas. A fan of country, she would have been at the concert. Thankfully, she was in bed in Denton.

Matthew tried to get tickets to the Route 91 Concert on Saturday. He texted to say he had couldn’t get tickets. That left my son Albert. My phone showed he walked into the house at 10:06 p.m.; two minutes before the mass murder.

I sat in the dark and thought how lucky we were. None of our kids were there. Relief and then horror as an alert put the death toll over 50.

We landed in Las Vegas after 7 a.m. Curtains flowed out of two windows at the Mandalay Bay. The Strip was closed so we took Maryland Parkway to work. It felt like the wind had taken the heart out of Las Vegas.

A Justice tried to give blood but the line was 3 hours deep and she had to come back to hear oral arguments. She never was able to give blood.

Albert woke up confused. He read my text, “Are you okay?” He looked out the window. A bus went by so he figured everything was okay. Then he Googled Las Vegas and saw the news. “Oh, that’s why they texted.”

He went out and bought six cases of water to take to the first responders. It seemed like all he could do. He talked to a few of them. Everyone was feeling grief. Not too many people wanted to talk about what had happened.

He kept pausing the news to ask us questions. “Why did he do it?” “I can’t believe he did it.” “Do you think he cared?”

I didn’t know what to say. I had the same questions.

I donated some money to the Vegas Shooting Fund. By the end of the week, it totaled more than $10 million.

Most of the victims were from California. Of my friends, at least 12 knew somebody shot or killed. A large number of people were from my hometown of Bishop. One little town of 4,000 people and so many people were at the concert.

Las Vegas gets a bad reputation as a place no one calls home. Nearly 50 million people visit every year.

But on the first day, United Blood Services collected more than 600 pints of blood; they are lucky to collect 100 pints a day. As people stood in line, businesses brought sandwiches, water, pizza, cake, umbrellas, and chairs. Everyone wanted to help. Our community showed through.

By the end of the week, you could find #VegasStrong on most of social media accounts and billboards around the city.

The mass murder stung us. But it didn’t stop us from being people who care.

I’m still numb to the whole event. I would give anything to wake up in Dallas at 3 a.m. to see nothing on my phone.

My Life Soon Ends 0

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Pixabay

Sunrise bounced through our plastic dome inching closer to my eyes on the pillow. I looked at the divergence of yellow and red light flaring through the bubble and then across the room. The sixth day of Shepard seemed it would shape up as a typical butterscotch day. I saw the sun’s reflection on the large dome of MaxPol. The sun woke me everyday, but the reflection wasn’t always there. Pioneers colonized Mars 160 years ago by surviving the solar flares in eco-domes with a limited atmosphere shielded from the neural damage of radiation. Those before me found a way to release water, and they invented calendars, fashions, and traditions. They built the central colony of MaxPol and spread out from there. I understood the privilege the pioneers gave me. Every person born last on Mars understood the sacrifice required for the next generation.

Maggie put on a white dress for the afternoon transformation ceremony. She transfixed me with her smile. I looked past her to the mirror as she added a garland of chamomile to her hair. She mirrors Aleren. In the reflection, my grey hair frames the wrinkles around my eyes. With her beauty, my life soon ends.

Maggie stood still in front of the mirror admiring her reflection. She finished up her hair and let her arms fall straight down. I stared too.

“You will make a beautiful bride.” She blushed at my comment. “After the transformation, you will meet your partner. Then you will make handsome babies.”

“And go like you,” she added.

“You must produce at least three children as a Last Born,” I reminded her. “There is no reason to rush.”

“And when those children are born, I will go.” She sighed.

“All Last Born villein must repay steerage,” I said. “And you are the last to repay.”

A generation of villein before, myself, and now my daughter Maggie all preordained to settle the debt.

“This planet requires too much,” Maggie said.

“It only seems that way because of all the work we must do.”

“No,” Maggie said. “Mars owns us until we die.”

Grandmother Viola agreed to the villein contract with the Interstellar Transport and Exploration Company in an attempt to escape Earth. She longed to reach past the stars and make her mark. With her signature, she agreed the next three generations of her brood would work as miners, scientists, and in my case, a Last Born. All Last Borns married after the transformation and raised a family. We taught the Martian traditions and prepared our children for the work. Some of our children work in the distant settlements of Mars or become apprenticed to a scientist here at MaxPol. In most cases, like my middle son Adam, we never see them again.

When Maggie reached the age of viability when the fears of death passed, roughly one sol, her mother walked out of our living pod to end her life. She birthed three children, as promised, and had nothing left to do. Aleren dressed in a white robe, weaved flowers through her hair, and slipped out of our pod onto the soil of Mars. Beyond the dome, the air was thin and Aleren had only a few precious minutes to reach the pedestal. I stood with my two boys and daughter watching her walk away. I was proud of Aleren despite the tears rolling down my cheek. When she finished walking, she raised her arms upward, and turned toward our window. Maggie rushed to the window while Adam held my leg and hid his face. Zach stood stoically next to me. She ended her life on Mars with no regrets.

Aleren dropped to her knees and her head began to swell. Seconds later, her white robe exploded upwards in the wind and she was gone. Aleren aged 16 sols, gave birth to three children, and completed her transformation.

After Aleren transformed, I continued teaching our children the Martian traditions and duties passed down by the pioneers. In time, they began to forget their mother despite the picture of her face in the hallway. When he turned 16, Zach apprenticed to a climatologist. Later, Adam went to the far colonies to work in the mines. Maggie was born last, roughly three sols after Adam, and never knew Aleren. I added two sols to my life due to Maggie’s learning difficulties. Looking at her today, you would never know she was slower than the rest. When she leaves our dome, I will have aged 27 sols, fathered three children, and will walk on the surface of Mars to join Aleren.

“Father, are you thinking?”

I shook off my melancholy. It struck me I should not upset her before the transformation ceremony.

“I was remembering your mother.”

“I only know what my brothers have told me,” Maggie paused. “Why did she leave us?”

“She realized her purpose,” I replied. “Her benediction and death allowed you to live.”

I needed Maggie to understand the gift Aleren gave her.

“I barely passed one sol,” Maggie said. “I never had a chance talk with her, learn from her, or gain her wisdom.”

“All Last Borns have one job; to ensure life goes on. She spoke to you often in your crib about the future.”

“A baby maker, you mean,” Maggie said. “Enough. It is time us breeders became naturalized freemen.”

“Your mother was very proud you would be a Last Born,” I said. “Your children will be citizens,” I paused to look her in the eyes. “The first generation of Free Martians.”

“And I will not be able to see it,” Maggie said.

I gave Maggie credit for grasping the gravity of her transformation. And it gave me pause; I would not see my family earn citizenship either. Zach and Adam would never be freemen, but at least they had the chance at a long life. I did have that comfort to fall back on. And Maggie would be the final Last Born. My grandchildren would decide the future for themselves and their children.

I placed my pressed white robe on my dressing table. After the transformation ceremony, I would come back alone and prepare for my passing. Maggie would be off to the breeder colony and will miss it. Just as well; Maggie didn’t remember Aleren’s passing and she wouldn’t remember mine.

Under the central dome, the transformation candidates stood on a transparent stage. Maggie embraced her friends and I could hear their laughter above me in my seat. All the Last Born fathers sat away from the rest. The audience cheered as the chancellery read the names of those moving on.

As a group, Maggie joined the Last Borns by holding her right hand equal to her head and reciting the vow. Each swore to build up the community, teach their children, and carry out their purpose. At the end, the chancellery invited the honored Last Borns to stand. We stood and the crowd cheered as the chancellery thanked us for completing our service.

Everyone became silent for the marriage partner epistle. Maggie gasped when the chancellery chose Charles, a tall, black-haired Last Born, for her partner. I imagined their handsome babies.

At the end of the ceremony, Maggie approached me with Charles walking a step behind dragging on her hand. She seemed assured. I tried to act casual but my happiness betrayed me. Tears welled in my eyes and I pulled her close.

“They made a good choice,” I said. “Your children will be strong.”

“Yes, I suppose.” Maggie took a furtive glance back at Charles. “He is as good as anyone.”

“I guess you two are off for your training?”

“Yes. We learn the private bits about each other,” Maggie said.

“Don’t practice too much.” I couldn’t help myself. Maggie punched my arm and Charles became scarlet.

“It looks like they want you to go.” I pushed Maggie and Charles toward the stage. “I am sure everything will be fine.”

Maggie wrapped herself around me dropping her head on my shoulder. She wept and pulled me closer. I rubbed her back and whispered, “You make me proud.”

“I love you too,” she said.

Maggie avoided an awkward goodbye. I stood with the other Last Borns watching her leave. Soon I stood alone with nothing left to do but return to my dorm.

I dressed in my transformation robe and reflected on my life. None of my children died, they each learned something from me, and there was nothing left to teach them. The last thing to do was complete my transformation. Before the ceremony, I transferred my credits to Maggie, uploaded my last words, recorded a congratulatory video for my grandchildren, and pressed my robe with an iron. I fingered the trim on the collar feeling the intricacy of the lace. Everything seemed in order.

At central day, an alarm sounded and a happy voice reminded me to proceed to my affirmation. This was it. I would perform the last part of my vow.

I climbed up to the airlock between our dorm and the outside dome. Across the complex other Last Borns also entered their airlocks. I counted as many as six other men. Not as many as in the past, but still a sizable number. I realized I had never spoken to any of them.

Over the speakers the Requiem Aeternam began to play in the airlock. I decided this was a fitting anthem for my end. I took a deep breath and let it out. The door opened and the atmosphere blew out the rupture in the dome. On Mars, I lived a total of 27 sols. On Earth, I would celebrate reaching the age of 50 years. For the first time I felt tired.

The final moment of my life I practiced sols ago with Aleren. We each let out our breath like we were coming up for a dive. We giggled when we had to breathe in. Now outside it was difficult. I felt the effects of the vacuum on my face and my lips tingled from the lack of oxygen. I failed to realize how hard it would be. Yet, I wanted to experience my death. The moisture in my eyes evaporated and my lungs started to freeze with my slow exhalation.

Aleren made roughly 40 steps before the wind scattered her across the surface and I wanted to walk as far as the platform. Yet, I had not counted on the difference in our age. My heart struggled under my exertion and I walked less than 20 steps. I managed to reach a small rise in the dirt. I climbed over it, dropped to my knees, and realized death was near. My eyes began to burn, so I closed them, and let the sun warm my face.

As I gave in to death, the ground under me opened and I dropped beneath the surface. I tumbled down and landed with a thud in a dark hole. I could see nothing but black; did somebody dig me a grave?

“Place him in the bateau and run to the compression chest,” a male voice said.

The taste of oxygen differed from the thin nitrogen and carbon dioxide of the surface. I took a shallow breath. It felt cool in my aching lungs. Around me I heard voices, but my eyes were blind. Nothing took shape.

“It may be too late,” said a female voice.

The transformation prepares us for the responsibility of ensuring life begins on Mars, I thought. Each Last Born teaches, scolds, counsels, and nurtures their children. I let out a final breathe.

“We must save him. He deserves to know the future.”

“Adam?” I thought I heard the voice of my middle son and realized it was a dream. His voice took me to my memory of all of us standing together for a portrait under the middle dome with the yellow sun shining behind us. I smiled thinking about them as my transformation ended. I knew Mars was a better place.

The False Ending 0

I have mentioned that many stories fail to gain traction in the second act. This is where the viewpoint character forgets why they are in the story. Of course, it is the writer who has forgotten; either by writing by their pants or failing to plot in enough conflict to keep the story moving forward. Stories thrive on conflict and bad things must happen to the hero before it all ends up as good and satisfying.

That is why within the second act, is the false ending. In fact, you might say this is the top of the hill. And this is why screenwriters call it the midpoint. Everything works up to the midpoint and then tumbles down into the depths of hell before the beginning of the end.

Screenwriters know they must take the viewer to the first turning point within 12 pages. Novelists also incorporate a turning point before the end of the first act. The second act is reserved for the hero doing heroic things; nothing can go wrong. And then it happens: the midpoint. Writers reserve the midpoint for the center of the story and add the ultimate conflict for the hero to face.

The midpoint is when the girl discovers the guy is hiding a secret girlfriend (who usually is revealed in the third act as his sister). Or at the midpoint, the hero faces emotional or physical death. Will she make it? Keep watching. Everything is revealed in the third act.

A good midpoint incorporates a false victory for our hero; she defeats the bad guy, only to discover a badder bad guy is standing behind her. Another excellent midpoint is to have the hero face ultimate disaster; the singing cowboy movies called this a cliffhanger. Finally, a midpoint should provide the ultimate obstacle in the story. What happens to give the antagonist the upper hand? What is the chink in our hero’s armor?

Midpoints add conflict, which is the main reason anyone reads a novel or watches a movie; they want to see the hero defeat the antagonist. They want to see the hero survive the midpoint.

[plain]How have you used this technique to infuse your stories with conflict? Reply below in the comments.[/plain]

The Devil Knows You’re There 1

He hung 100 feet above Fremont Street, like Superman, tethered only to the narrow ribbon of wire in a harness. Unable to twist and look up at why he was stuck, he looked down at the street instead. A sea of tourists moved below him as if he was another attraction. A small boy let go of a smiley-face balloon and started to cry.  A bald dude stared at him in a peewee muscle shirt. A ragged homeless man bumped the crowd begging for a dollar. A topless brunette in a devil’s costume waved at everyone while holding a red fan over her exposed breasts.

Mark had promised a different outcome. (more…)