it was a false alarm

OIL IN WATER

Pam Lazos

Chapter Thirty-Five

Change was a magical thing. Avery and Kori sat at the kitchen table, folding the notices announcing the public meeting. Avery hoped that between the two of them they could account for the dynamo that was once Ruth Tirabi. He knew it was a long shot, but time would be the judge.

Kori folded a single flyer and stuffed a single envelope. Avery’s system was to fold ten letters and stuff ten envelopes, faster at a rate of two to Kori’s one.

“So, except for some of the stuff that wasn’t blended, I got rid of the rest of it,” Avery said. “Maybe we should invest the money. We could double our profits.”

“Or lose it all. That money provides the cushion we need until my business is more routinely in the black.” She folded neatly with an artist’s eye for perfection which also accounted for her lack of speed. “Let’s not mess with a good thing, huh?”

Avery nodded and stuffed an envelope.

“I’m going to miss the extra money though. It was nice not having to count laundry change,” Kori said.

“We don’t have to miss it. If we could get Gil interested, the TDU would be up and running. We’d never have to worry about money again. And Mr. Cooper said…”

Kori shot him a look of empathy. “I think for you it’s a little more about getting your name on a patent than it is about the money, isn’t it?”

A wry smile crossed Avery’s lips. Kori was right. Avery was desperate for a patent. His father had half a dozen by this age and Gil already had several.

“But the machine itself, Kori. Just imagine what it could do for the environment. It takes millions of years under extreme pressure to create the fossil fuels we now burn as oil. This machine cuts that creation time down to hours. Just think of the greenhouse gasses it eliminates. We could keep what’s left of the ozone layer intact. Not to mention the money we could make if we held the patent on it.”

Kori nodded, but he could tell she was no longer paying attention. Avery decided not to mention Mr. Cooper’s offer just now.

“Hey, Kor?”

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for helping with this stuff,” he said, indicating the mounds of papers across the table. “Mom would’ve been happy.”

“You mean happy to see me finally take an interest in something other than my own trivial little dramas.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

Kori reached over and gave Avery’s hand a squeeze. “I know. It’s what I meant.”

Gil, Max and Jack burst into the kitchen. Gil shed his coat and sat next to Avery.

“First day changing the oil?” Kori asked Jack. “Geez, Gil could stay cleaner than that.”

“Shut up,” Jack said and kissed her full on the lips, smearing her mouth with oil.

Kori grimaced and headed to the sink to rinse her mouth. Gil made a paper airplane out of one of the flyers.

“Ooooohhh, you said shut up. We’re not allowed to say that in this house.”

“Yeah and who’s going to stop me?” Jack said.

“I will,” Gil said, his tone serious. He drew himself up tall in his seat, thrust out his chest and threw his airplane at Jack.

“You and what army, Gilliam?” Jack asked, reaching over to tousle Gil’s hair. “That’s a stupid rule anyway.” Jack walked to the fridge, pulled out a beer.

“Aaaahh, you said stupid.” Gil looked at Avery for assistance, but before Avery could say anything, Jack continued. “That makes you….” Gil thrust his chin forward as if tossing the word at him, but would not say it.

Jack sat down, twisted the top off his beer and took a swig. “The only stupid things are those rules,” Jack said.

Gil looked wounded. He grabbed his coat and ran out the door, Max on his heels. Avery shot Jack a dirty look and went after Gil.

“What I do?” Jack asked.

Kori, didn’t stop stuffing envelopes to look at him. “You called my mother stupid,” she said, a sad smile on her face.

“I didn’t say a thing about your mother,” Jack said.

“Those were her rules,” Kori said, looking up. “Now who’s stupid?”

➣➣➣

Avery caught up to Gil just as he slammed the barn door and threw the dead bolt, activating the alarm. Avery knocked.

“Gil. Let me in, man.” Avery knocked a bit harder. “Gil!”

“Go away.”

“Why are you taking it out on me? I didn’t say anything.”

“Exactly.”

“Gil, you ran out before I had a chance to.” Gil came around to the window of the barn, peeked out at his brother, then retreated to the inner recesses of the barn. “C’mon, Gil. You love Jack. He just said a silly thing.”

“Robbie would have flattened him.” Avery tried not to laugh. Ever since Robbie left, Avery noticed he’d been growing taller every day in Gil’s eyes. Avery pondered his most beneficial course of action before responding.

“Yeah, well, Robbie was older than I was and knew a lot more than I did.” He paused for emphasis, laying his ear against the door to better hear what was going on inside. “Sorry.” Avery could practically here Gil smiling on the other side of the door, his vindication pouring out through the crack under the door. “You gonna let me in now?”

Avery heard Gil’s soft footsteps approach and then a soft thud. He waited for the sound of Gil messing with the dead bolt, but heard nothing else.

“Gil. I said I was sorry, now open the door.” Avery heard Max’s low wail and ran over to the window. A table blocked Avery’s direct view so he stood on one of the remaining drums: he saw Gil lying on the floor, writhing, the beginnings of an epileptic fit.

“Oh, Jesus,” Avery said. The area around Gil was relatively uncluttered, but his twisting and turning took him in close proximity to table legs and the myriad tools and appliances on top of them, any one of which could end up on his head.

“Damn!” Avery bolted to the door and using his shoulder as a battering ram, ran at it full throttle. He winced. The door was sturdy and dead-bolted from the inside. It didn’t budge. Avery looked around wildly, his hands settling on a log from the nearby woodpile. He smashed the window in, immediately setting off the alarm inside the barn, the house, and, he knew, the police station. A shockwave of sound ran through his body and Avery clapped his hands to his ears. The whole world can probably hear this right now.

Avery pulled his shirt sleeve up and balled the end into his hand. He poked and smashed at the remaining bits of glass still clinging to the panes and cleared an area large enough to crawl through. He dove through feet first, sending a measuring tape, calipers, and a screw driver, clattering to the floor. The last thing he saw as he dropped into the barn was Kori and Jack running out the back door toward him.

He fell to the ground, taking a beaker with him. Shards of broken glass flew everywhere. He swept what was too close to Gil aside with his feet, but that was too slow, so he used his hands, embedding a shard in the flesh at the side. He gritted his teeth and removed a substantial piece of glass before dropping to his knees next to his brother. Blood oozed from his palm.

He mounted Gil and, in moments, had him pinned by both shoulders, his injured hand spraying blood across the collar of Gil’s shirt. Gil moaned and Max licked his face. Gil seemed to sense Max’s presence because he relaxed slightly and lifted his face toward him. Avery loosened his grip, but did not get up. Kori and Jack appeared at the window and when Kori saw the blood, she screamed, a higher-pitched wail than the alarm. Avery’s hair stood up on the back of his neck.

“He’s bleeding!” Kori screamed.

Avery shuddered. “Stop! Stop screaming! It’s my blood!” He yelled over his shoulder. “Somebody’s got to get in here and shut that Goddamn alarm off.”

Jack jumped through the window with the grace of a panther and moments later the alarm went silent. Gil seemed to relax and Avery moved off and sat next to him without letting go of his shoulders. Jack unbolted the door and Kori ran in, dropping to the floor next to Gil.

“Call the police,” Avery said to Kori. “Tell them it was a false alarm.” She rose reluctantly and ran into the kitchen.

“We gotta get a phone out here, man,” Jack said to Avery. Avery nodded, watching his brother. Gil fell into a deep sleep and began to snore.

“This is probably a good time to move him,” Avery said. “Let’s get him inside where it’s warm.”

They carried him in, Jack at his feet and Avery at his head with Max leading the way.

 to be continued. . .

to read what brought us to this point see here

copyright 2012

enough to poison

OIL IN WATER

Pam Lazos

Chapter Thirty-Four

Kori sat at the computer feeding labels to the printer. Gil ran down the stairs, Max fast on his heels. The basement air which filled the room like a cumulous cloud parted, making room for their testosterone-laden, electro-energy. Gil bounded over to Kori and peered over her shoulder.

“Whatcha’ doing?

“Making address labels.”

“It looks like the letters are marrying.”

“What do you know about marriage?”

“Mom and Dad were married.” Kori reached out and grabbed Gil around his waist, pulling him in close for a hug.

“I’m bored.” Gil said.

“Why don’t you guys go outside and play?”

Gil sighed and Max yawned exposing a full and threatening set of teeth.

“Guess not,” Kori said. “I know. Why don’t you invent something.”

Gil looked to Max for approval. Max yawned again and sprawled on the carpet. Gil shook his head at Kori, dismissing the plan. “What else?”

Kori scrunched her nose in contemplation. “Why don’t you go outside and help Jack,” she said, smiling to herself. Gil looked at Max who wagged his tail at the mention of Jack’s name, but made no sign to go.

“Okay,” Gil said, and Kori released him. “C’mon, boy.” Gil snapped his finger at Max and the pair ran up the stairs, disappearing over the horizon of the top stair.

 ➣➣➣

Jack lay on a creeper under Kori’s car, his feet sticking out the side. At least under here, the infernal wind wasn’t so bad. He’d already replaced the rotor cups and pads, and was moving on to an oil change, a simple enough job, but for the below freezing temperatures. He rubbed his hands together to warm them before loosening the nut on the oil pan.

“Hey, Jack. Whatcha’ doin’?

Startled, Jack clunked his head on the oil pan. He rolled out to find Gil, squatting at the front tire. Dressed in a down parka and wearing a hat with little jingly bells hanging from three triangular flaps, Gil looked like an elf. Max sat beside him wearing a pair of reindeer antlers.

“Don’t you know not to sneak up on people like that?” Jack rubbed his head where metal had hit flesh.

“I wasn’t sneaking. Sneaking is when you tiptoe and go shhhhh, shhhhh, shhhhh. ” Gil demonstrated, putting his index finger to his lips.

“Kori told me to come out and help you,” he said, finger still at his lips.

“If Kori wants her car finished this century, you better do something else.”

Jack pursed his lips in irritation and rolled back under the car. Gil squinted after Jack’s dark form, still pleading his case.

“But you said I could try it,” he whined. “You said the next time you worked on the car I could go under with you.”

“In a minute, Gil. Just let me get this — oh, man.” Wheels on macadam followed a sloshing sound and the glug, glug, glug of oil being loosed. Moments later the oil pan clanked to the ground. Jack emerged, sliding past a still squatting Gil.

Gil giggled and covered his mouth.

“Shut up. If you say one word I swear to God…”

Gil handed Jack a rag lying on top of Jack’s tool box. Jack grabbed it out of his hands and began to swab at least a cup of oil out of his viscous, gleaming hair. He laughed despite himself.

“Did you know that a single quart of oil is enough to cause a two-acre sized oil slick on the surface of the water? Do you know how big an acre is? A little more than 43,000 square feet. So that would be 86,000 square feet worth of oil slick.” Jack listened with half an ear while he rubbed, trying to absorb the clingy liquid.

“And as you are currently demonstrating, oil is not easily removed from hair, let alone say cormorant feathers or seal fur. And not only that. It kills the aquatic organisms that the fish live on. You know how? It chokes ‘em. Binds up the oxygen and then they can’t breath.”

“If you’re referring to the oil I just spilled, let me assure you of two things. One – most of the spilled oil is in my hair. The rest is safely in the oil pan. And two – I don’t think there are any cormorants or seals for some miles from here.”

“But it’s not just that. Did you know that a single gallon of oil is enough to poison a million gallons of freshwater? Do you know what a million gallons of freshwater is? It’s a supply big enough for fifty people to drink and bathe and cook with for a whole year.”

Jack grimaced and poked a corner of the rag in his ear, soaking up drips of oil.

“And even though much of the earth is covered with water, only one percent of it’s potable. You know what potable means, right?” Gil said.

Jack nodded and rolled his eyes. The oil in his ear was slick and evasive, covering his skin like it was a second one.

“And even though we only need to drink about two to two and a half quarts of water a day, we each use about a hundred and twenty-five to a hundred and fifty gallons a day for all the other stuff. Very wasteful. About forty percent more than necessary, I think.” Gil stared at him, wide-eyed. “I’d be willing to give up baths to save water, you know.”

Jack rubbed the oil-stained rag roughly over his head and gave up. “What are you, the Encyclopedia Britannica?” He threw the towel to the ground and sighed. “Let’s take a break. Get a drink while we’re waiting for the last of it to drain. So we can be quite certain I’m not further contaminating our precious water supply.”

“Yeah, because fragments of those little spilled oil spots on driveways and roads can also end up in our water supply. When it rains it gets washed into the storm drains, and when it rains really hard, into the combined sewer outfalls which empty into the river. You know what that means, right? Sewer and rainwater together. That’s really gross.”

“Are you done now?”

Gil stood up, extending his hand to Jack. Jack grabbed the proffered appendage and allowed Gil to pull him to his feet. He rubbed his greased stained hands on his pants and together they walked inside.

 to be continued. . .

to read before, make a wish and click here

copyright 2012

a real life movie

OIL IN WATER

Pam Lazos

Chapter Thirty-Three

The change was gradual as most changes are. Not a sweeping, life-altering moment, like satori, that mystical state of enlightenment where all is revealed. That only happened to people in the movies whose lives fit snugly into a three-act structure.  That was more Gil’s thing; his was a real life movie.

No, this change began with the industrial revolution and it was slow and steady and specious and that’s why no one noticed. Avery knew the statistics. Over two thousand species of plants and animals, making their homes in various rainforests became extinct every day.  Tillable land took precedence over foraging the fertile soils for raw materials that would become medicines. Old growth forests were becoming tables and chairs and bookcases. The trees, which acted as the earth’s lungs taking in carbon dioxide and returning oxygen, were being methodically clear cut, leaving a system that ran on partial capacity, like a cancer patient who’s had a lung removed.  Fertile soils, the hallmark of America, capable of producing vast quantities of a amber waves of grain, were being systematically stripped of all nutrients, thanks to agribusiness, through the overuse of pesticides and lack of diversification in farming, or worse, paved over for housing developments. The hole in the ozone layer continued to grow yet the U.S. walked away from Kyoto, citing shoddy science and uncertainty, allowing corporations to line their pockets a little deeper against the coming winter, the winter that may soon never go away. What will we do when floods and famine become the norm?

Avery really never understood it all. He knew it was bad, but what time he devoted was more for Ruth the Mother Of Us All . He sighed, folded another group of flyers and stared out the window looking for answers in the grey winter sky.

“Hey.” Avery jumped sending a stack of flyers sailing to the ground.

“Jesus, Kori. You scared the heck out of me.”

“What are you thinking about?”

“Mom,” Avery said. Kori sat down next to her brother.

“Me, too. So – how can I help?” She extended her hand.  Avery put a stack of flyers in it.

“Really?”

“Really.”

“Labels. I need some…” A loud rap at the door sent more papers scattering to floor. Avery turned to see two policemen, peering in the kitchen.

“What’s going on?” she asked, and jumped up to answer the door.

Gil miraculously appeared in the kitchen. “They’re cops,” he said and sat down at the kitchen table, his knee bouncing up and down.

“No kidding, Sherlock,” Kori said, walking to the door. “Why are they here?”

“Cause I set off the alarm.”

“You little jerk,” Avery said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Cause I didn’t know until just now,” Gil said.

Kori opened the door and greeted the visitors. “Hi. Can I help you?”

“Yes, Ma’am. I’m officer Matheson. We’re investigating a call into headquarters at 14:42 hours. Report indicates the alarm in the barn was tripped. Have you been home, Ma’am?” Avery walked over and stood behind his sister.

“All afternoon, officer.”

“Have you noticed any suspicious behavior in the vicinity of your backyard, Ma’am?”

“Not suspicious, but I can tell you…” Avery pinched Kori in the back, hard. “Oowww.” She turned to glare at her brother.

He smiled sweetly, a warning in his eyes. “Nothing suspicious, Officer,” Avery said.

“Okay. Mind if we take a look?”

Avery and Kori both shook their heads.

“We’ll let you know if we find anything.”

The cops walked across the lawn and Kori closed the door behind them. Avery and Gil exchanged glances.

“All right-y, then. Somebody better tell me what’s going on.”

➣➣➣

The wind picked up as Officers Matheson and Traecy crossed the backyard. They arrived at the barn to find the door banging in the wind. Matheson checked the perimeter while Traecy investigated the interior. After several minutes they stood at the door.

“Just a false alarm. Probably forgot that it was on,” Matheson said. “This wind’s not helpin’.” He turned his collar up against a fresh onslaught and closed the barn door.

“Kids,” Matheson said. Traecy nodded in agreement.

to be continued. . .

to read what came before make a wish and click here.

copyright 2012

inside the bear’s mouth

OIL IN WATER

Pam Lazos

Chapter Thirty-Three

Avery stood at Marty’s drafting table, pouring over drawings of the TDU, matching up the drawings with the real thing. At ground level, the outside of the TDU’s receiving station looked like a gigantic child’s play chest. Sliding metal doors opened and disappeared within the grated metal exterior framework – the classic European pocket door – to reveal a cavernous opening that funneled trash to the giant cylindrical tank housed below ground. With this design, Marty had been able to back his tractor right into the barn and utilizing the trailer’s hydraulic lift, pour the trash directly into the yawning mouth of the cylinder.

Marty’s TDU was a democratic machine, treating all trash equally as long as it was carbon based. Once inside, the trash was mixed with water to create a slurry, an insoluble, goopy mess. The slurry passed through a pipeline to a holding tank where it was heated under pressure until it reached a reaction temperature. Another pipeline, a third unit, also cylindrical – Marty Tirabi was fond of circles – ferried the slurry along to where it finished its initial reaction and was flashed again. Here the gaseous products were spun off, the pressure lowered, the liquids separated from the volatile chemicals. Marty built a series of interconnected pipelines placed one on top of the other, some at 90 degree angles of each other, a steel matrix within which to house the myriad and varied reactions occurring. Step five was another series of thinner cylinders, three in a row, tall and demure, sitting side-by-side like young girls at their first dance, waiting to be asked. But size was no indication of their strength. In these cylinders Marty heated the mixture, separating water from gas from light oils which led to the final stage, two large, squat holding tanks where Marty intended to store the gas and light oils. Even staggering the six stages of equipment at forty-five degree angles of each other, the prototype was huge and encompassed the entire back wall of the barn.

Avery sighed and flopped down at the drafting table. Marty had said there was a problem with water. Was it too much or too little? Avery couldn’t remember. Gil knew, but damn it, he wouldn’t help. Avery was on his own. And with at least two dozen blueprints, this was going to take a while. Maybe a little meditation was in order.

Avery practiced meditation in fits and starts. When he did, a wonderful clarity always ensued, imbibed with an acute awareness of being in the present. And the help always came with it, fecund and unbidden. From where it came, he really couldn’t say. Probably the universal mind, the brain trust, as he referred to it. From ions, or static or electricity. From nowhere and everywhere. He knew at times he’d tapped into the morphogenic field where ideas were traded like stocks on the NASDAQ, the theory being that if a monkey in Costa Rica learned to drive a car, a monkey on the Rock of Gibraltar could do the same without even meeting the Costa Rican monkey. Or perhaps he’d tapped into the Zero Point Field, that eerie, brave new world where discoveries were deposited in the cosmic bank account, waiting to be withdrawn by anyone holding a debit card. He’d read plenty on comparative religion, and had a few surreal experiences in his lifetime, enough to recognize the signs of a downloading from the One Mind when he felt it, which he rarely did. But Gil made regular withdrawals, engaged in constant conversation, slept with it under his pillow. For Gil, change and enlightenment were the same, immediate and visceral, played out physically each time he had a fit or an idea.

For the rest of the world struggling to catch up, the only acceptable change was a gradual climb up a low-grade mountain, the steps laborious and slow. And morphogenic field or not, it still took time for all the other monkeys to accept their new knowledge. Even if they could do it, did they want to do it? Even if he could fix this invention – something he didn’t have a whole lot of faith in at the present moment – Marty had said it would make the world stand on its head. Was the world ready for such a precarious position? Come to think of it, was he?

Avery needed Gil’s fertile mind where you could plant the seed and days or weeks later the answer sprung forth like Athena from Zeus’s head, in full warrior regalia, engaged and ready for battle. Gil’s epilepsy fueled his creativity; the disease forced him into the Zone where he was working out some serious past-life crap. Avery felt helpless at these times, but appeased himself with the thought that you can’t work someone’s karma out for them, a fact that at the tender age of ten, Gil completely understood.

“Gil.” Avery walked to the living room and shouted for his brother. “Gil!”

A muffled, “he’s in his room” wafted up from Kori’s corner of the basement. Avery nodded a thanks that she couldn’t see and went upstairs to find Gil.

He rapped on the door – the music was so loud the door handle was vibrating – and stepped into the room. Unless Gil was hiding under the bed, he wasn’t here. Avery checked the closet – sometimes Gil liked to hang out in the back of it with a flashlight and pretend he was a secret agent or something – then under the bed. He took a peek out Gil’s window. A light was on in the barn, even though it was broad daylight. Gil hard at work . He shut off the stereo and headed for the barn.

➣➣➣

The wind whipped across barren fields where only rolled bales of hay remained. The oak trees swayed and heaved in fits of laughter as the wind rose up, intertwined with their naked branches and whispered secrets only the oaks could understand. Avery took inventory. All healthy, thank God. A couple dozen were in striking distance of both the barn and house. He’d hate to see the damage one rotten tree could cause in a windstorm like this.

He touched the bear totem pole rooted to the ground, facing the barn. It was six feet high, a hundred feet from the barn’s entrance; its eyes saw all who moved through those doors. Marty had carved it out of a tree gone rotten at the base after Gil had noticed it swaying in a windstorm much like this one.

Marty relayed the information to Ruth who, noticing the swing set was in the probably trajectory of the tree should it fall, called a tree service. The tree service couldn’t come for two days. Ruth told Marty to leave the tree alone, that if it hadn’t fallen by now, it wasn’t going to fall in the next two days, and left on an errand.

But Marty couldn’t leave anything alone, especially a rogue tree, threatening him through his barn window. Ruth’s tire tracks weren’t even cooled before Marty got out the ropes and chain saw. The whir of power tools called the kids to the backyard, but Marty banished them to the deck, more than a safe distance away, until he was done with the felling. After that, it was all fun and games. The kids played happily on the fallen log while Marty used his chain saw on the part of the tree still in the ground and routed out the finer stuff. When he’d finished, Marty had transformed his enemy into a vigilant friend, the coolest totem pole the kids had ever seen. One paw rested on the bear’s stomach as if he’d just eaten lunch. His mouth was open, exposing healthy, yet deadly incisors; his eyes were wide as if he’d just spotted something. Marty let Kori paint the eyes and claws and big scary teeth all white, and when it was dry, he let the kids crawl all over it, something they still did years later whenever they hung out in the backyard. Avery smiled and rubbed his hand inside the bear’s mouth. For luck.

Avery tapped lightly on the barn window. Gil threw the dead bolt and waved him in. Avery dropped the roll of Marty’s drawings on the table and removed his coat while Gil closed and locked the door behind him.

“Toasty in here,” Avery said. Gil had the space heater cranked up and it felt like a kabillion degrees in the barn. “Why don’t you wear a sweater like most people do in cold weather and then you won’t need the heat to be so high?”

“Cause I wanted to wear my lizard shirt.” Gil looked down at his black t-shirt with the lizard face on it and smiled.

“What’cha got going on here?” Avery asked.

“Building something,” Gil said.

“I see that. But what is it?” To Avery, it looked like a souped up go-cart. He walked over and surveyed the frame and held a tentative hand out to touch it. The frame proved incredibly durable. “May I?”

Gil nodded and Avery stepped up on the floor board, testing the weight load by jumping up and down on it.

“Come here. I’ll show you.” Gil pushed Avery’s own drawings aside and peered over a stack already open on the drafting table.

Avery sifted through them, his excitement growing. “It’s a hybrid engine? Are you using technology that’s out there or is this something…?”

“New. Dad says you can’t talk about something until you finish or you lose the muse. So I can’t talk about it.”

“You have a muse? Who is it?”

“You know. A pretty lady. Sometimes she sings.”

“What’s her name?”

“She never said.”

“Is she real or you made her up?

“Real.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I just know. She comes at night. Sometimes she whispers ideas in my ear or if I’m stuck on something, she helps me solve it.” Gil looked down at his hands and turned them over, inspecting them. “Sometimes she just holds my hand. She says they’re soft.” Gil smiled sheepishly. Avery snickered, but turned away before Gil caught him.

“She helped me with that,” he said pointing to the ATV. “It’ll be more energy efficient than the others. Less fuel, less charging time, and the batteries’ll be smaller.”

“Hmmph,” Avery said, pondering the blueprints. “How long until you think you’ll be done?” Gil shrugged his shoulders and spun around on his stool. “Well, just let me know and I’ll get busy on the patent.” Avery flipped through the drawings. “Is there anything I can start on now?”

Gil unclamped the vice grips holding the drawings in place and rolled them up, a dismissal. Apparently, the conversation was for the present, concluded. Gil unrolled Avery’s drawings flat and used the vice-grip to clip the topsides to the edge of the drafting table. He reviewed them carefully for several minutes, unclamped the vice-grip, rolled the drawings back up and handed them to Avery. Then he walked over to the hammock where Max reclined.

How’d you get him up there?” Avery asked. Gil shrugged like it was no big deal and lay down next to Max who, startled from sleep, emitted a small yelp.

“I need your help,” Avery said. Gil nestled in close, warming himself against Max’s monstrous shape. The hammock moved in a rhythmic, rocking motion. He shook his head and buried it in Max’s face.

“Why not?”

Gil buried his face deeper into Max’s fur.

“Gil. Why the hell not?”

“I just don’t want to do it alone.”Avery detected a tremor in Gil’s voice and mistook it for fear.

“You won’t have to do it alone. I’ll help you.” Gil shook his head vehemently and Avery dropped his voice, low and soothing.

“Are you afraid? Don’t be afraid. The barn’s alarmed. And I swear I’ll keep you safe.”

“I’m not afraid,” Gil spat out. “I just…I can’t do it without Dad. It was his. Not mine. I can only do it if he says I can.”

“But, Gil. Dad’s dead.”

“I know that Avery!” Avery didn’t notice the tears gathering in Gil’s eyes and continued.

“Well, he’s not going to be saying anything again.”

“How do you know?” Gil shouted.

It was the first time Gil had shown such emotion and made Avery realize the unbearable angst Gil had been carrying since his father died. A sudden queasy feeling gripped Avery; it couldn’t have been worse if he’d been sucker punched.

“You don’t know anything.” Gil jumped off the hammock and ran for the door. Max tried to follow, but his foot got stuck in between the knots. He sat there whimpering, trying to disengage his paw. Gil unlocked the dead bolt and ran out failing to deactivate the silent alarm. Avery watched Gil run across the yard, unaware that downtown at the police station, another alarm screamed out a warning.

Max yelped in frustration.  Avery untangled his foot and lifted him out of the hammock. Max took off after Gil through the open door. Avery sat back on the hammock and rocked, listening to the howling of the wind.

“Now what?” Avery said to himself. He really didn’t expect an answer.

“Stuff envelopes,” a voice said. Avery landed on his hands and knees and scanned the space around him. The queasy feeling was back. He sucked at the ambient air.

“Mom?” He stood up and looked uneasily around the barn. As much as he would love to sit down and have a heart-to-heart conversation with his mother, the shock might be enough to kill him. He took several tentative steps, swiped the drawings off the drafting table and high-stepped it out of the barn, slamming the door behind him. He didn’t stop to lock it.

Two minutes later, he threw off his coat and sat down at the kitchen table. Stacks of paper and envelopes crowded the kitchen’s surface areas. He scanned the room. The project would take all day. Avery shivered and with a single glance back toward the barn, folded one of the sheets of paper in three and stuffed the first envelope. He looked again before stuffing another. Nothing was amiss. He began folding and stuffing in earnest and after several minutes, the repetitive motion of his task took the chill out of his spine.

to be continued. . .

to read what came before start here. . .

copyright 2012

Let’s Have A Town Meeting

OIL IN WATER

Pam Lazos

Chapter Thirty-One

Kori, Avery and Gil poured out of Ruth’s minivan and staggered toward the house, drunk with the success of their mission to Cooper’s Service Station. Kori hung back watching while Avery lectured Gil about the finer points of backwards butt-kicking.

“No, it’s like this,” Avery said. “You walk next to the person and then you take your outside leg, the leg that’s farthest from them, and you swing it around and up and you kick ‘em in the butt without even breaking stride. If you can help it, you don’t even look at them, but it’s really hard not to laugh.” Avery demonstrated, giving Gil a good swift one. Gil pitched forward, but caught himself before falling, laughing at his own clumsiness.

“My turn,” Gil said. “Just pretend you don’t know I’m going to do it,” he said. Together he and Avery walked up the few steps to the back door and once on the landing, Gil swung his leg around and kicked Avery so hard he sent him hurtling head first into the back door. Avery caught himself and grimaced at Gil.

“How’d I do,” Gil asked, beaming. Avery narrowed his eyes.

“Remind me not to teach you anything anymore,” he hissed, holding the door for them.

Avery sat down at the kitchen table and began counting the bills. “Two hundred and eighty-six dollars. That should hold us for awhile, Kor.”

“Well, it won’t pay the taxes, but it’ll buy groceries for a couple weeks.” She walked to the counter and retrieved two glasses and then to the fridge for the milk. “Although the way you guys eat, it probably won’t even last that long. She handed glasses to Avery and Gil and snatched the money out of Avery’s hands while he was in mid-gulp. She stuffed the bulk of the money in a jar in the cabinet, a few bills in her wallet and handed Avery $90.

“For the field trip. And some walking-around money.” She smiled and looked at him in earnest. “I’m still a little worried, but. . . .”

“But nothing,” Avery shrugged, and polished off the rest of the milk. “We’re hot wired right into the police station, remember. As long as Einstein over here doesn’t hit the alarm by accident, we’re A-okay.” Gil ignored them, drained his glass and left the room. They heard the T.V. click on and soon the soundtrack to Holes was coming through the surround sound.

Avery leafed through the mail haphazardly separating bills, advertisements and solicitations from anything that looked like real mail. One piece caught his eye because of the address label. He shoved it across the table at Kori who turned it over again and again, considering it with reverence like it were a holy icon. Finally she opened her hands and let it drop to the table, staring after it as if it might open itself.

“Maybe we should write ‘return to sender’ on it, or ‘no longer at this address’” Kori suggested. Avery reached over and picked it up, studying the return address.

“United States Environmental Protection Agency,” he said. “It’s official.” He handed the letter back to Kori, but she didn’t reach for it. “Open it.”

“It’s Mom’s.”

“Kori . I hardly think that matters now,” Avery said, raising his eyebrows at her. She still wouldn’t take it.

Avery tore the letter open. “It’s a notice of a public meeting.” Avery’s eyes scanned the page. “Hey, there’s also a federal register notice soliciting public comment on EPA’s Record of Decision for the Stahl’s landfill.” He flipped back to the notice in the local paper, scanned it quickly and slid both across the table to Kori. “Looks like EPA’s going to have a town meeting about the farm.”

“The Stahl’s property?”

“Yeah.” Avery pulled the papers back and read something again. “It says they just completed the Record of Decision, the ROD, and they want to inform the public about the remedy they’ve chosen and give us a chance to ask questions.”

“What do you mean, us?”

“Well, I’m going. It’s only over at the high school. It’s close.”

“How you gonna get there?”

“Kori! We need to be interested in this stuff. It’s in our backyard.”

Kori shrugged in response. “That was Mom’s thing. Not mine.”

Avery rubbed hard at his temples. “It’s everyone in this house’s thing. It’s the whole planet’s thing.” Avery grabbed the envelope. The return address said U.S. EPA, but there was no name associated with the organization. “I wonder who in EPA sent this,” he said, and tossed the envelope on the table. “You know, Mom was the chairman of the citizen’s group that followed this stuff.”

“Mom was the chairman of every group that followed anything like this,” Kori said. Her face wore a blase expression.

“We gotta call somebody and tell them,” Avery said.

“Oh, no. You just turn that optimistic gaze in another direction, brother.”

“Somebody’s gotta get copies made, buy envelopes and stamps and mail this notice out to the neighbors. That’s what Mom used to do. The EPA obviously doesn’t know she’s dead.”

“How would they?” Kori snapped.

“Look, my point is, if these notices don’t go out, how’s anyone going to know about the meeting?”

“Maybe they read the paper.”

“And probably they didn’t.”

“So send them out.”

“You gotta help me. I can’t do it alone.”

“No way. I don’t have the time or the inclination. And I don’t want to get involved.”

“But you are involved.” Avery waved toward the window and beyond. “We’re all involved. Our aquifer’s contaminated. Do you realize that if Dad hadn’t built a water purification system for our well, odds are one in four of getting cancer? And that’s after drinking the water for only five years. That’s how bad the contamination is. We’ve been using that aquifer for twenty-five!” Avery opened his hands as if Kori were stupid not to see his point. “One in four, Kori. One in four people in the Hickory Hills development has contracted cancer. Which one of us do you think it would have been?” Kori mumbled something under her breath, but Avery continued.

“You know what we’d be drinking right now, if our water came straight through from the well. The components that make up gasoline, for starters. Same stuff that’s in those barrels out back.” Avery jerked a thumb in the direction of the shed. “That aquifer will take decades to fix even if it ever clears up. And until everyone wakes up and realizes that we all live downstream….”

Kori laughed out loud, walked to the fridge and poured herself a glass of water.

“You sound like an ad for the EPA. Wasn’t that one of their television spots?”

“They don’t do T.V. spots. They’re a part of the U.S. federal government. They can’t advertise. Pity, too,” Avery said, as if struck by a thought. He rubbed his hairless chin in contemplation. “Advertising,” he said mostly to himself.

Kori took a drink and stood, staring out the window. She leaned against the sink and sighed. “I’ve got paper and envelopes. Use whatever you want. I even have labels downstairs and I’m pretty sure I know where to find Mom’s mailing list on the computer. But just keep me out of it, okay?”

“Kor, just…”

“No, Avery. I can’t. Don’t you see?” She folded her arms across her chest, more of a hugging motion than an acrimonious gesture. “It’ll bring her so close, but without breaking the surface. It won’t bring her back. Nothing can.”

Kori hadn’t told Avery about the terrible nightmares she’d had following Ruth and Marty’s death. Visions of her blood-spattered parents being chased by a monster with hell in his eyes and arms that shot fire from their fingertips. They wrenched her from sleep, leaving her gasping for air, shaking and sweating, so unnerved she didn’t dare roll. Kori’s chest tightened at the thought.

“Why don’t you call the lawyer? What’s that guy’s name? Bill Gallighan? His law office would probably do all of this for you. He’s an advisor to the citizens’ group. You could at least get him to pay for postage.”

Avery shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. “He does this pro bono. His law office doesn’t give him a dime. Plus he’s gotta maintain two hundred and twenty billable hours a month or they won’t let him work on the case anymore. They’re real bastards. The firm gets all this credit and name recognition and Bill’s the one doing all the work.” Avery folded his hands and crossed his legs as if in consultation with himself.

“Well, he has more money than we do. He can pay for stamps. Maybe even copies.”

“Actually, the law firm will pay for copies. And envelopes. Not stamps though.”

“What’s the difference between paper and stamps. It all costs money.”

“They want the stuff to go out on their letterhead because it’s free advertising and then everyone thinks they’re nice guys. But they don’t want to be out of pocket for the postage.”

“How do you know that?”

“Mom told me,” Avery said. He picked up the letter again and stared at it for several moments as if he could conjure Ruth simply by holding it. “She did so much.” Avery’s voice was wistful. “Stuff we’ll never even find out about.”

“She didn’t tell me much about that.”

“You had to ask her.” Avery sighed and ran his hands over his face. The conversation had brought him down.

“Why don’t you go watch T.V.,” Kori offered.

Avery nodded and left the room.

Kori stared at mounds of mail, but made no move toward it. Outside, the rain clouds gathered.

to be continued. . .

to read what came before count your lucky stars then click here

copyright 2012

no one can know

OIL IN WATER

Pam Lazos

Chapter Thirty

Avery pulled Ruth’s van into Cooper’s gas station. Kori sat in the passenger seat; Gil and Max were in the back reading comic books. Kori slunk down in her seat, pulled her hat low over her brow and bit her nails.

“You guys wait here, okay?” Avery said.

“All right, already. Just hurry up,” Kori snipped.

Avery blew out of the car as if he’d been sand-blasted, rolling down to the pavement and out of sight before Kori had a chance to change her mind. Max’s ears pricked up, but Gil made no move to indicate he was even listening.

 ➣➣➣

Avery crossed the parking lot as if he owned the place, a walk he’d been practicing for weeks in anticipation of this meeting. He could see Mr. Cooper’s bald head through the window, bent in concentration over a stack of papers. When he got to the door, though, Avery wavered, and rather than boldly stepping into his future, he knocked lightly, the little bell over the door tinkling as he entered. Mr. Cooper didn’t look up, but continued reviewing the stack of papers before him, initialing them one at a time as he placed them into the “completed” pile.

“Lazy bastards,” Mr. Cooper said, not quite under his breath.

“Excuse me,” Avery said, half-turning to leave. Not the welcome he expected.

Mr. Cooper’s head, gleaming like a cue ball in the florescent light, popped up to greet him. “Oh for Chrissakes. Avery Tirabi. I thought you were one of my employees in here for another cup of coffee.” He stood and offered his hand, recently washed, but still bearing the grimy remnants of what looked to be a mid-morning oil change. Avery gave him a firm shake and Mr. Cooper’s round belly, stretched over the limit’s of his size forty-two pants, jiggled in greeting.

“Sit down. Have a cup of coffee.” Mr. Cooper motioned toward the “Mr. Coffee,” formerly white plastic, now oil-stained from years of dirty, grease-stained hands. A few stacks of Styrofoam cups and a shaker of sugar sat next to the pot. Avery looked at the whole ensemble and grimaced.

“Oh, no thanks, Mr. Cooper. Don’t drink the stuff,” he lied. When he did drink coffee, Avery needed tons of sugar and milk, the latter of which was no where in sight. Instead there was a liquid plastic known as “non-dairy creamer”on the table. Avery never understand the American penchant for creating fake substitutes when the real thing was so readily available.

“So what’s up? Did you come to sell me some more of that lovely gas and oil?”

Avery brightened. Mr. Cooper was interested before he’d even opened his mouth. “Actually, I did. I’ve got a few fifty-five gallon drums outside.”

Mr. Cooper raised an eyebrow. “How’d you get them in the car? They’re monsters.”

Avery shrugged his shoulders. “I rigged a ramp.” Avery waved a hand in dismissal as if the feat were no big deal. “Car was dragging a bit on the way over though. Hell on the suspension.” Avery felt like an adult, using the word “hell” without coming off like someone who regularly used vulgarity. Mr. Cooper tried to suppress a smile, but Avery caught it. Right where I want him . “So, Mr. Cooper, you said before you’d take all the gas and oil I could deliver. Are you still thinking that way?”

“Absolutely. Finest product I’ve come across in all my thirty years of running a service station. Your father made a fine product.” A shadow crept across Mr. Cooper’s face. “Tragedy,” he said, shaking his head. “Terrible tragedy.”

Mr. Cooper shot Avery a half-smile, half-grimace, walked over and clapped him on the back. “What are we waiting for, my boy. Let’s go unload. Same price as before, I presume?”

“Actually, Mr. Cooper, I need to raise the price about 10%,” Avery said. “Overhead.”

Mr. Cooper assessed Avery for a few moments. “Anything I can do to help old Marty. Cold as he may be personally, his legacy lives on.” He squeezed Avery’s shoulder. “Your father’d be proud of you boy. Well. Why am I saying, boy? You’re not a boy. You’re a man. And a heck of a fine one, too, I might add.” Mr. Cooper opened the door and held it for Avery who was still seated.

“Mr. Cooper. There’s one more thing.”

Mr. Cooper closed the door and stood, hand on the doorknob.

“No one can know where you got this stuff.”

Mr. Cooper raised himself to his full height of five feet, nine inches and sidled up close to Avery, whispering. “What’s happened? Something else?”

Avery shook his head. “No. It’s just my sister’s still freaked out about the porch. She thinks it’s all tied together. So if anybody comes around….”

“I’ll just tell them that I’ve started buying from a competitor who wishes to remain anonymous.”

“You think that’ll do it?”

Mr. Cooper rubbed the stubble of his unshaven face, deep in thought. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll handle them. Haven’t been in business for thirty years without some savvy of my own, eh?”

“Thanks, Mr. Cooper.” Avery stood and they shook hands.

“Okay, let’s walk. We’ll talk turkey on the way.”

Avery stepped into the garage, abuzz with the whir of motors and power tools, and thought of Robbie’s penchant for mechanics. He should be home running a place like this. Maybe if I sold enough oil….

They walked out into the parking lot where the noise level dropped substantially. Mr. Cooper’s step was quick and light for a man with so much girth, and Avery had to walk fast to keep up with him.

“So how much more of this you got, and more importantly, can you make some more?” Avery was about to answer, but Mr. Cooper continued. “Frankly, I’d be happy to tell all these oil guys to go to hell. They’ve been gouging me for years. Government’s no help. Let’s ‘em get away with murdering, thieving and stealing from the American public. They say they’re a unified front to help with the foreign competition, but I call it price-fixing.” He poked Avery in the ribs. “You know what I predict? I predict it’ll come back to bite ‘em in the ass someday. I just hope I’m around to see it.” He chuckled, then laughed full out, exposing a mouthful of metal. Now standing at the back of Ruth’s minivan, Mr. Cooper lifted the hatch without waiting for a signal from Avery.

Mad Max greeted him exactly like Cerberus would have had someone tried to breach the gates of hell, green eyes ablaze and barking for all he was worth. His singular head moved so fast that he very well could have had three. Mr. Cooper jumped back a quarter mile.

“Gil! Get him under control!” Avery shouted.

Gil’s eyes peered out, an iridescent green gleaming between the barrels. He grabbed Max by the collar and pulled him down to the sit. “It’s okay, boy,” he said sweetly, rubbing Max’s ears. Max settled his head onto Gil’s lap, calmer, but still growling. The sound rolled around in his massive jowls before ricocheting off the front seat and out to Mr. Cooper who stood immobile and at a safe distance away.

“It’s all right. Gil’s got him.”

“I hate dogs,” Mr. Cooper said. “Scared to death of ‘em.”

Max barked once as if to say you should be , but Gil tugged at his collar and he relaxed again.

Mr. Cooper signaled for one of his employees to bring the hand cart. Gil gave Max an ear rub so thorough that he could do little more than roll over when Mr. Cooper’s guys unloaded the van.

 to be continued. . .

jump here to read what came before. . .

copyright 2012

mind the child

OIL IN WATER

Pam Lazos

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Kori sat at the kitchen table going over accounts receivable for the umpteenth time. She wrote numbers on a yellow legal pad, arrayed neatly in columns, punched them into a calculator and wrote them down below previous groups of numbers; the paper was covered with at least a dozen such reckonings, all with lines through them. Upon transferring the final tally, she scribbled over the column and dropped her head to the table.

“Aaaaaaah!” She banged her head on the table several times.

Avery walked in, took one look at Kori and walked out. A couple minutes later he peered around the corner. Kori’s head was still on the table, but she’d stopped banging it.

“Just shoot me now,” she said without raising her head.

“You talking to me?”

“You see anybody else here?”

Avery looked behind him and then back at his sister. “No.”

“Then I’m talking to you, but it doesn’t matter,” Kori said. “I could be talking to the Queen of England. It wouldn’t matter,” she said, sitting up.

Avery sat down and assessed the mass of paperwork spread before her. “Are you going to tell me what the problem is or just go on in high drama?”

Kori raised her head and slammed her fist on the table again. “The problem? The problem is we don’t have enough money. That’s the problem.”

“I thought you just got a check from Robbie?”

“I did,” Kori nodded, “and I used it to buy groceries, and clothes for Gil since all his pants were like three inches too short, and pay the insurance, and the electric bill so they don’t shut us off, and the overdue cable bill…”

“We should be dropping cable. It’s an expense we don’t need,” Avery said.

“Oh yeah? You gonna listen to him whine all day about how there’s nothing to watch. Some expenses are necessary — for sanity’s sake.” Avery dismissed the argument with a wave of his hand.

“And just today I got a $3,700 tax bill and you know what I have left in the checking account? Two hundred and thirteen dollars. Enough to buy groceries for the next two weeks which is two weeks short of when Robbie’s next paycheck will be here.”

“What about the insurance money?”

“They’re still investigating cause of death,” Kori shook her head.  “Bastards.”

“Well, what about your clients? Don’t they pay you?”

“Just sent the bills out.”

“For work you did in the summer? Kori, you really have to stay on top of this!”

“Don’t you think I know that, Avery?” Kori’s voice trailed off. Avery followed her gaze out the small portal window flanking the kitchen. “Even if everyone pays right away, it’s not enough to cover the tax bill.” Kori dropped her head to the table again. “I can’t do this.”

Avery studied a handful of papers. He pulled the checkbook from Kori’s slack fingers and perused its contents.

“I can make this work.”

“I’m scared,” she said, and squeezed his forearm so hard, he almost winced.

Avery saw all the pain and sorrow of the last months in his sister’s face and felt his stomach lurch. He rubbed her back. “I’ll take care of it. It’ll be alright. I promise.” He took a deep breath before proceeding. “I’ll limit it to a few gas stations. And I won’t supply them more than a week at a time so their standing orders won’t be off by too much. Last thing we need is an oil company rep nosing around.” He looked at Kori who, Avery noted, was not protesting. “I’ll keep selling until I unload it all. Then we’ll be officially out of the oil business.”

Kori shook her head, a vehement toss that petered out as she covered her eyes with her hand. When she looked up, Avery noted the absolute despair in her eyes.

“What about Gil? He works out in the barn still. Sometimes for days at a time.”

“It’s armed,” Avery said. “Anything happens, the cops show up.”

“Avery, I could never in a million years forgive myself.” She squeezed his hand. “I know you’re trying to do what’s best for us. And I couldn’t do this, any of this,” Kori’s hand arced out, taking in the expanse of the house, “without you. It’s just…. It’s too risky.”

“But, Kori…”

“Something good’s gonna happen for us, A. I know it will. It’s got to.”

As if on cue, Aunt Stella rapped at the back door, a squat, red-cloaked figure, peering in, hands clasping her cloak together at the throat, eyebrows raised in greeting. Avery got up to open the door, and Aunt Stella, looking like Red Riding Hood plus, blew in, followed by a cold November gale. She set her basket on the table and began the meticulous process of removing layers of clothing: a woolen hat hidden under the cloak hood, woolen scarf and mittens, and a fine woven cloak, all red.

Kori gave Aunt Stella a peck on the cheek and pulled out a chair for her. Aunt Stella was sweating lightly above the brow – a result of so many clothes for what amounted to a two-hundred yard dash – but she rubbed her hands as if to warm them as she accepted the proffered seat.

“Oh dear. My goodness, it’s cold out. No need to go to the freezer section to get a turkey this year. They’ll be frozen in the bush,” Aunt Stella said. “It’s uncannily cold for November.”

“It’s global warming, Aunt Stella,” Avery said. “It’ll result in the ultimate demise of the human race, all because of man’s over-reliance on fossil fuels, which, in my opinion, is driven by greed, intractability and borderline contempt for issues concerning the environment, as opposed to a lack of alternative fuel options.”

Kori rolled her eyes, but Avery resumed his diatribe.

“Let’s see, twenty or thirty more years of wrenching million-year old fossil fuels from the earth’s core so I can drive my brand new Hummer, or another few centuries of life on this planet as we know it, rolling brooks filled with trout, mountains that rise up into infinity, not the kind that have their tops blown off so they can get to the coal seams beneath, but the majestic kind who’s crowns are still intact. Hhmm. I’ll take the oil for twenty, Bob.”

“See what you did?” Kori looked at Aunt Stella, clearly perturbed.

“All I said was, ‘it’s cold out.’”

Kori filled the coffee pot with water, a sibilant pfpfp, escaping clenched lips.

A confused Aunt Stella looked to Avery for clarification, but he waived a dismissive arm at his sister, punctuating her rudeness. He mouthed the words don’t worry about it and Aunt Stella waved her own arm at Kori’s back, ending the matter.

Aunt Stella pulled off the layers of cloth covering the basket and the most glorious of smells escaped, ensuring Gil’s materialization at Aunt Stella’s side, Max close on his heels, drooling, Gil about to be.

“There’s blueberry-walnut with brown sugar topping and apple-currant with pecans,” she said proudly, letting her own olfactory system get a whiff of the divine vapors rising straight up to heaven to where God could have a sniff. “My daughter sent me the recipe. She’s taking a cooking class.”

Gil pulled up a seat next to Aunt Stella and without waiting to be asked, popped a chunk in his mouth and gave a bite-sized piece to Max, careful to first remove the almonds. Curiosity piqued – generally Max’s palate wasn’t quite so discriminating – Aunt Stella couldn’t refrain from asking.

“Gilly, why are you taking the nuts out? Are you afraid the dog will choke?” Gil shook his head, his chipmunk cheeks bulging with blueberry muffin. Kori set a glass of milk before him and he gulped some down.

“No,” he said, breathless. “It’s because he loves them so much. I save them until the end.”

“And how do you know this, Gilly?”

“He told me. He’s not stupid. He knows what he likes.” Gil blinked his large eyes once at Aunt Stella before shoving his face into the basket. He took a long, slow draw, gathering every available scent, and after a few seconds he emerged, a muffin between his teeth. Aunt Stella’s eyebrows rose up and she pinched her lips together to suppress her smile.

“Gil,” Kori snapped, yanking the basket out of his reach.

Aunt Stella covered her mouth to stanch the ensuing giggle. “Oh my, I almost forgot.” She waddled over to her cloak, rummaged through the pockets and pulled out a letter. “The postman left it at my house by mistake.” She handed it to Kori.

“Robbie!” Kori ripped open the letter without a moment’s hesitation. “It’s been almost two weeks,” she said. “Why doesn’t he just use the internet?” She started reading to herself, but Avery grabbed it.

“Wow, it’s a big one,” he said.

“Read!” Kori demanded.

Avery glared at her before beginning.

Dear Kori, Avery, Gil, Aunt Stella, and of course, Max,

“He loves you, too,” Gil said, opening his hand to Max. Max swallowed the almonds in two bites. Gil grabbed him by the snout and kissed him.

Avery cleared his throat and began to read.

Hey guys. Sorry I haven’t written, but so much has happened. I guess in order to do it justice, I have to start from the beginning, so bear with me while I recount it, plus all that I’ve left out over the last few months. Maybe then you’ll understand the decision I’m about to make. ”

“Uh-oh,” Kori said. “Here it comes.”

Life in hell continues. It’s so hot (average 120 degrees Farenheit) that you have to wear gloves to hold a weapon or even a screwdriver. You always have to wear a mask on your face because the sand is so brutal and you have to eat hovering over your food because the flies are so bad in the daytime. It’s the same at night with mosquitos. We went today to Karbala today, a holy site of the Shiites and former wetland (before Sadaam drained it), to test the water. We left behind a portable water tester so the people could use it. Water is really their most precious commodity here, much more important than oil. And they have so little of it.

But it’s not all bad news. I met a girl. Truly the most amazing woman.

“See. Told ya.”

“Sshhh,” Gil put a finger to his lips and gave Kori the hairy eyeball. Avery continued:

Her name is Amara Mir Ahmad. She lives in Baghdad. Her paternal grandfather comes from a group of people known as the Ma’adan. Maybe I should tell you a little about them, especially her father and grandfather, so you’ll understand what these people are going through and how it effects me.

The Ma’adan, also called the Marsh Arabs, live on the water in the middle of the desert. Some people say their home is what the bible refers to as the legendary Garden of Eden. Nobody knows for sure if it’s Eden, but they do know that it used to be the largest wetland ecosystem in the world, measuring 20,000 kilometers which is about 7,500 square miles. But that was before Saddam Hussein dried it all up.

Kori, you remember studying about Mesopotamia and the Cradle of Civilization in art history? It’s the area where the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers meet. On today’s map, it’s between Baghdad in the north and Basra in the south. The Sumerians lived there. They were the first people to build dams and irrigate crops. The Marsh Arabs can trace their roots back to those people and have been living the same way for the last five thousand years. They harvest reeds, grow date palms, rice, millet, fish, and raise water buffalo. They build their houses on artificial islands by fencing off some of the marsh and building it up so it stays clear of the tide of the marsh waters. Then they layer mud, woven mats and these giant reeds that grow everywhere in the marshes. Their houses sit on top of all this stuff and they add layers every year to compensate for settling and to make sure their floor stays dry.

Can you imagine? Living on water like that. To go to your next door neighbor’s you need to paddle over in your mashuf, a small canoe. Some of the villagers have larger boats, but everyone has at least a mashuf . People travel everywhere like this. There’s no sidewalks. You can’t drive. They make the boats from qasab, these humongous reeds that grow in the marshes and which they also use to build houses. Everything revolves around the water, the fishing, the water buffalo, the rice and millet, even getting goods to market. When the water started drying up, fishermen, reed makers and the other tradesmen were wading through hip-deep mud carrying their goods to market on their backs. It was terrible.

“Wow, that’s really sad,” Gil said.

“Enough of the history lesson,”  Kori said. “Get to the point.”

“Could you keep your mouth shut and listen, please,” Avery said. Kori grunted, but said nothing further.

Amara’s grandfather, Ajrim Mir Ahmad, left his home long before any of Saddam’s draining campaign, but the rest of Amara’s family, stayed behind.

“How many more pages are there to that letter?” Kori asked. “Cause I can come back when he gets to the decision part.” Avery shot her a nasty look. She rolled her eyes and bit at a hangnail.

When Amara’s grandfather first came to Khan Bani Saad, a market town northeast of Baghdad, his family didn’t want him to go. They’d lived in the marshes for centuries. They were a tight-knit community. People didn’t leave. But he felt the need to go so he moved his wife and their young family to Baghdad and became a fish merchant, selling the wares harvested from the marshes by his own people. He became wealthy by Marsh Arab standards, enough so that he could afford to send his four sons to the University of Baghdad. His family grew up educated which is not a luxury that was afforded the Marsh Arabs until the last thirty years. The sons took wives and got jobs in the city.

Amara’s father, the youngest son, became a civil engineer working for the state. He was well-respected until he refused to work on the dam building projects that Saddam started in 1991 – the ones that would eventually drain his ancestral home. He was arrested under the pretense of supporting members of the Shiite uprising. Saddam’s soldiers came in the middle of the night and took him away. Amara was eight at the time. She hid in the shadows clutching her younger brother and holding his mouth shut to keep him from crying as the soldiers questioned, then beat her father and mother.

The next week, Saddam’s soldiers came and took Amara’s grandfather away. The charge was suspicious behavior and crimes against the state. Amara never saw either one of them again. Her mother supported the family with a state-sanctioned job. She taught English lessons to members of Saddam’s army. Amara believes that had her mother not been some use to Saddam, they would be living with other Iraqis in a refugee camp in Iran.

I tell you all this, not to make you feel sorry for her, but so you will                            understand where she comes from. She’s a brilliant woman. She speaks three                  languages, her native language, English, and believe it or not, Italian, and                              has learned everything her mother has been able to pass on to her. She’s made up her mind to do this thing and I’ve decided to do it with her. It seems more like my calling then enlisting in the army ever did. Mom was right. It’s not about democracy. It’s about what it’s always about – money. So in the true spirit of democracy, I’m voting with my feet.”

“Oh my God, that is sooo like him. Always playing the Goddamn hero. So what, he walks her down the aisle and saves her from a life of oppression?”

“Kori! Mind the child,” Aunt Stella said, cupping her hands over Gil’s ears.  “Anyway, who’s talking about marriage?”

“Robbie is. Don’t you get it. He’s going to marry her. All this cloak and dagger talk about making a decision.”

“Well, I have no idea how you gathered that from his letter. I’m actually not sure what he’s made a decision about,” Aunt Stella said. “Read on, Avery.”

Avery scanned the rest of the letter before continuing.

There’s so much more I want to tell you about Amara, about my life here, about the people. But I want to get this to post and the guy’s leaving right now with the mail. Let me just say that the people here, they really want a democracy, but they’ve been duped. That’s not going to be enough for you to understand, but maybe enough to buy me some grace until I’m home to explain in full. Take care of yourselves as I am not there to take care of you. I know you’ll be fine. Kori, if things get to be too much, lean on Avery. He can handle it. Give Aunt Stella a kiss and Gil an especially big hug for me. Love, Robbie.

“I’m confused.” Aunt Stella said. “Do you think he’s really going to marry her?”

“Of course, he’s going to marry her,” Kori said. “That moron. He has no business getting married yet. He’s freaking twenty-two, for God sakes.”

Everyone turned to look at Kori whose face was shot red with anger. She stood, tipped her chair over in the process, and strode to the sink. She washed her hands with a fury and threw water on her face before covering it with her hand. Her tears landed with several swift plops , cascading and pooling in bunches on the porcelain, indistinguishable from all the other drops of water falling from her dripping face. No one spoke while Kori stood there, fighting back her fear for the brother she knew was no longer ten thousand miles, but light years away.

to be continued. . .

click here to read what came before. . .

copyright 2012