Dear Nate

You were even younger than me when it happened, so I’m sure you wouldn’t remember, but my brother wrecked in almost exactly the same place when he was still in high school. Rolled his truck, over and over again. By the time it stopped moving, it looked like a piñata. He walked away without a scratch. Now, a decade later, we both know how that curve in the road broke a different family’s hearts.

You were pretty much the only one in school I didn’t know, and people loved you so much, I’m sure I was the only one you didn’t know. But I still felt it when you left. Now, when people go outside, even breathing seems louder than it did when you were here. Because we’re all in a hush. Because people are slower with their words now, and their tempers. And their cars.

I hear they’ll be putting on a 5k to help your family. I’m not good at much, but that’s something I can do for you. I know that kind of pain is something you’re familiar with; even though we didn’t do it at the same time, everybody’s talking about how you ran track. So I know you know the struggle of fitting school into sports and putting up with Holzhauer and fundraisers and only eating carbs. I know you know the pit that forms in your stomach every time you lace up your spikes. Every day, I struggle with the people you struggled with. That’s as close as I can come to knowing you. That’s as close as I come to feeling you. When I grind my spikes into the rubber and set, just like I know you did.

I feel you when I pass those two tree trunks on my way home, like you must have done a thousand times, when they were still whole. When I groan at the speed limit on 301, like you probably did that day. But now I stick to it. Not for my sake, but for yours.

It’s sunny and 75 degrees out now, so unlike the blizzard that it seems like a lifetime ago. But that’s just Ohio. It’s impossible not to think of you when the roads are shiny and the plows outnumber the cars, but we all have to remind ourselves on a day like today that it’s only been a few weeks. But we’re reminded.

You’re on walls and windows, you’re on doors and bumpers. You’re on everyone’s bio; on every cafe’s tip jar. And you’re in everybody’s head. God, let you be home. Above us, keeping us safe. It would feel cozier if you were. Though I guess in a way, you’re here no matter what. You’re carved around the trunks of those two trees that bid all of us to slow down and buckle up. You gaze up from the tripod marks left in the pavement outside the school by news crews, telling us to be gracious with each other. Because you never know when the drive home is going to be farther than you thought.

 

Need You

Corbin ripped open another coagulant packet with his teeth and quickly poured the powder into the puncture hole that ran neatly through the ribcage of the Pvt. laying beneath him in the dust. The soldier was overtaken by a spasm and thrashed beneath Corbin’s knee. Grimacing, Corbin shouted, “Sully! I need help!”

Several seconds later, another soldier slid to Corbin’s side. “Yeah?” he yelled.

“Hold him down.”

Sully grabbed the wounded soldier and pinned him to the earth. Corbin went to work immediately. His hands didn’t shake. He could have been operating on himself and his hands wouldn’t have shaken. He finished, pouring iodine over the wound. Then he plunged a wad of gauze into the puncture and taped a heavy bandage over it.

“I’ll get him to the corpsmen!” Corbin yelled. “Here, you’re empty!” As he hoisted the limp man onto his shoulders, Corbin handed Sully his rifle.

Seizing the fresh weapon, Sully raced off to the front line as Corbin carried the hurt soldier away from the firefight, towards his battalion’s staging area. It seemed the slowest sprint of Corbin’s life. A stray burst of bullets drummed into a concrete wall a few yards to Corbin’s left, toppling the feeble construction in a billow of dust and cement chunks.

Just as the makeshift base came into view through the maze of Yemeni streets, Corbin heard a hollow whistle above him. Without slowing, he glanced upward into the sky, and could just see the speeding blur of mortar shell as it arced over him and struck the ground at his feet.

***

A metallic boom shook the Emergency Room as the ambulance-bay doors swung open and struck the walls. A pair of paramedics rushed a gurney through the E.R. towards the elevator. On the gurney was a pregnant woman. Her face was beet-red and she was breathing sharply through nearly closed lips. Her whole body was tensed in place on the gurney. A trauma surgeon waiting on standby in the E.R. rushed to the paramedics.

“What have we got?” she asked as she helped wheel the woman to the elevators.

“Mary, 28, three centimeters dilated.”

“She shouldn’t be in this much pain.”

“Minor car crash set her in labor.”

“Okay; we have to check for trauma. Let’s get her to delivery, call in Dr. Schmitt and a trauma team.”

“Got it.”

“Mary? How we doin’?”

“Tense,” Mary gasped.

“Can you feel your toes?”

There was an unintelligible response.

“What’s that, Mary?”

“I n– need Corbin.”

“Okay. Who’s Corbin–”

The nurse’s voice was lost as Dr. Schmitt rushed to the gurney. “What have we got?”

“Minor car accident– she’s at three centimeters. Abdominal pain.”

“Okay. Here– this room right here. Yeah, she isn’t gonna do this naturally. Prep her for an epidural.”

“On it.”

“Trauma team’s here.”

***

The blast knocked out Corbin’s hearing and struck him like a hammer, but he refused to let it topple them over; at this point, the Pvt.’s compromised ribcage would probably have been crushed by the impact of being dropped. Lurching forward and sidestepping the coal-red crater, Corbin rushed through the smoke and covered the remaining distance to the compound gates.

Corbin rushed into the drab medical tent picketed just inside the fence, gagging as he was hit with the palpable reek of blood and rot. He deposited the Pvt. with the medics and left, picking up a new rifle as he prepared to rejoin Sully on the front line.

“Gates!” yelled an intense voice.

Corbin turned to look, and saw a commander running to him holding a satellite phone.

“A nurse called for you from your wife’s phone. She’s in labor. And it- she’s- they said she’s okay, but I guess she was in a car accident on the way to the hospital.

Panic branched through Corbin’s spine. “Wel- Ho… c-can I talk to her?”

Before the commander could respond, the cry, “Sully’s been hit!” blared in Corbin’s earpiece. Corbin’s eyed widened and he glanced at the commander, who heard it too.

Corbin’s feet started towards the front, then swiveled back. The already muted sound of gunfire in the distance faded away as he thought about the woman lying in pain in the hospital. He remembered the first time she hiccupped, “I love you,” on the sidewalk in front of a bar in D.C.

At the same time, he thought of the soldier bleeding in the dust somewhere. He remembered the man who pulled him out of a burning car what seemed like a lifetime ago. Corbin glanced once more at the commander, still holding the phone in his hand. I can’t help Mary, he thought. Sully needs me.

“We’re taking heavy losses— they’ve got a technical!” The voice was hysterical.

Corbin swore, then turned to race back to the front line.

“Gates,” the commander started. Corbin was already gone.

“Get ordinance on that technical,” he yelled over his shoulder as he ran.

Corbin rounded a corner into an alley that emptied into a little meat market ahead. Emerging, he saw several things at once. Firstly, his squad was hunkered behind a low wall along one edge of the market. At the other edge, the Yemenis had parked a truck-mounted machine gun— whose gunner was spraying a hail of rounds down the square. Lastly, Sully had somehow been pinned to a wall by a spur of rebar through his thigh. Corbin raced to Sully, emptying his magazine in the direction of the truck as he moved. All the while, a huge ovoid shadow spiraled around the market walls.

He grabbed Sully and ripped him free of the rebar—hoping he hadn’t torn an artery—and threw them both to the ground, rolling them into a culvert. The moment he did, the technical and its occupants burst open in a fiery hail of parts, machine and human. The market was shredded with splinters of rubble and bone.

There was a moment of shocked silence as the survivors outside of the culvert collected themselves. Then the gunfire resumed. Ignoring it, Corbin tended Sully.

***

“No… something’s wrong. Baby’s cocked.”

“It’s already too low for a cesarean.” A nurse pressed a hand to Mary’s belly.

“I may have to cut her.”

“You are NOT cutting me.” Mary forced past her clenched teeth.

“Then push this thing out!”

“Schmitt, she’s delirious; Cut her.”

***

As Corbin cut a shallow incision across the hole in Sully’s thigh, it finally clicked that his squad had retreated. There hadn’t been gunfire for several minutes. They left us, he thought.

As he locked the clamps open, Corbin peeked out and saw dozens of boots through the market stalls as insurgents picked the bodies of the Americans clean. Ducking back down, Corbin focused on Sully’s leg.

Holding a flashlight between his teeth, Corbin pressed himself flat onto his belly to reach the damage. Sully’s artery had been partially—but not fully—torn, creating a halfpipe-shaped gouge. Corbin used his thumb and forefinger to pull both sides of the artery together, creating a ridge, and clumsily ran five stitches through the resulting seam. Sully gurgled in pain through the rag in his mouth. Even mended, large beads of blood kept seeping from the inner flesh of the incision. Quickly, Corbin poured his last pack of coagulant in the wound, unlocked the clamps, took the gag from Sully’s mouth, and wrapped it tightly around his thigh.

By now the insurgents were on all sides of them. Even behind them in the buildings on their side of the street. Corbin looked at Sully, who nodded. Covering it with both hands, Corbin popped the button on Sully’s holster and slid the freed weapon into his hand. Likewise Sully found a magazine in a back pouch of Corbin’s pack. “That’s not gonna be quiet,” Sully whispered.

A cluster of footfalls was growing louder and nearer. “Ready?” Corbin asked.

“Yeah,” Sully groaned.

As he was pulled to his feet, Sully slapped the magazine into Corbin’s rifle. The rifle locked with a metallic slam. The insurgents tensed and whipped toward the noise. A hail of gunfire erupted through the market.

***

“Get it to the NICU.”

“Blood pressure’s falling.”

“NICU has no open units.”

“Then wheel a back-up unit from the basement!”

“Schmitt, she’s not breathing.”

“Get the baby out of here.”

“She’s flatlining.”

“Gel the paddles.”

“I’m not done closing her up.”

“Yes, you are. Clear.”

“No-”

“Clear!”

***

A dead weight fell against Corbin’s back, smearing his neck and shoulders with moist warmth. Corbin shrugged it off him, knowing full well it was Sully. He didn’t stop shooting. He could feel his chest plate splitting further and further open, the shards of ceramic pushing into his skin as they cracked into smaller and smaller pieces. The strike of the rounds against his armor quickly turned from dull pings to wet crunches. Still he kept shooting, until the receiver clicked on his rifle.

By then Corbin’s diaphragm was so traumatized that he hadn’t breathed properly in minutes.

Finally, a round caught him in the armpit, under his vest, and punched a hole through his torso. The force of the impact and sudden loss of nervous function bore him straight into the ground. He fell largely overtop of Sully, so that as Corbin looked up he saw Sully’s blank face, upside down, next to his own.

Ribs fractured, lungs filling, Corbin looked for the already-flown spirit of his best friend in the glass of Sully’s eyes. Diaphragm hemorrhaging, he lay a hand on Sully’s armor and gripped it like a lifeline.

“I’m… right behind you… buddy.” he choked out.

He pried the pistol from Sully’s hand. The insurgents had been nearing warily for the past minute, hoping him dead.

Corbin pushed himself to his knees, gun raised, face empty.

One final burst of gunfire erupted in the sleepy little meat market in Samir, Yemen.

Epilogue

“Good news,” said Dr. Schmitt as he entered the nursery holding a clipboard. “The baby’s green across the board. He’s cleared to leave as soon as you are.”

An exhausted voice cracked as it said, “He looks nothing like me.” But it was a chuckle.

The chuckle turned into a trembling sob. In between gasps came the whisper, “I can’t do this.”

Schmitt stirred uncomfortably. A look of pity and concern flashed across his face, then, “She thought you could.”

There was no answer.

“Listen, you’ve been through a significant trauma,” Schmitt eventually offered. “There’s no reason to do this on your own. If you need, I can refer an excellent therapist.”

“That’s not what I need.”

Schmitt nodded, understanding. “Well, if you change your mind.”

Corbin looked up from the baby in his arms.

“I need her.”

The Necklace

The rotors beat the air outside in a great whooshing drumbeat. Whirls of snow and icy air billow past the windows as I slide my boots into the straps on my snowboard. The pilot turns and nods at me through the cockpit door, giving a thumbs up. I pull my scarf and goggles over my face. Giddy, I slide open the outer doors and push myself from the helicopter. Falling blindly through the gales of snow, I brace myself, knowing the ground is coming up fast.

I land with a painful jolt, but the ground is steep, and I’m already moving. The din of the helicopter recedes as I speed down the mountain, which is bare for quite a while before sprouting a line of pine trees farther below. This is the only time I don’t mind the snow; here, where you can come as close as you can to flying without leaving the ground. The rushing of the wind sounds far away and muted through the scarf, and this high up, my ears are popped anyway.

The treeline is approaching rapidly, and the weathered pines behind it are mazelike and close together. But I knew what I signed up for when I booked the helicopter ride. I’m ready for this. Straightening slightly to catch more drag, I coast into the trees, swerving in long arcs to slow my descent. I know not to be misled by the sudden appearance of the trees; it’s still a long way down. I press a hand tightly against my coat and feel the sharp edge of my grandmother’s necklace. Good, it’s still there.

A low branch snaps off against my sleeve. I need to pay more attention. The woods are getting thicker. Weaving around a heap of toppled evergreens, I straighten my legs and stretch my back out in an effortless curve. I imagine I look something like a motorcycle racer rounding a bend, the way I’m hanging over the ground.

As I round the pile of fallen trees, I start to pull upright. Then something strikes the board so hard my toes go numb. The world reels around me as I tumble forward, head first, arms waving. I see a puff of snow rising off the hidden root I just stuck before I complete my revolution and my back hits the ground. A purple light flashes around the edges of my vision and black crop circles dance over my eyes. My sight clears in time for me to see the splash of white that shoots into the air all around me from hitting the ground. And in the center of the snowy wave, hung suspended in the air above me, is my grandmother’s necklace.

Then the world catches up, and I’m moving again, sliding through the woods down the mountainside as the necklace whistles through the air above. Momentum carries the necklace in the same direction as I’m moving. I dig my board into the snow, rising partway off the ground, and swipe at the necklace. I miss by a hairsbreadth and hit the ground again, now noticing the pine I’m undoubtedly going to connect with. I smash into the base of the trunk with a splintering crack, and the crop circles return, along with a pain like a migraine throughout my head. The impact sends me spinning diagonally through the trees and I strike another one, this time with my hip. My right side goes numb, and the jolt lifts me off the ground and propels me forward. In the periphery of my vision, I see a thread of silver cutting a thin line through the snow. It’s not far off, I can get to it.

I angle my legs to land board-first and ready myself to snatch the tumbling necklace as I speed past it. Just before I land back on the ground, a sizable pine bough seemingly stretches out from nowhere and catches me in the front of my ribcage. What breath I have left is knocked out of me. The bough splits in half and I move straight through it as I’m thrown down violently into the snow, my ribs bruised and my ears ringing. Gravity doesn’t care that I can’t see or hear or breath, and pulls me relentlessly down the mountain. I raise my head above the flurry of white and can still see the clear trail carved through the snow by grandma’s necklace. Raising my arms and legs off the ground, I cast my weight forward, aiming to intercept it.

Ten feet… five feet….

I stretch out as far as I can and seize the chain. Only now do I realize that I’ve barreled out of the trees and am heading straight for the edge of a precipice.

 

 

Anemic

The old man tried to wipe the sooty dust from his face, succeeding only in leaving a grey smear across his forehead. I helped him roll his sleeve up his shaking arm. He was nervous, but I didn’t really care. I was in a hurry to get the needle in between explosions. As soon as the walls and shelves lined with blood vials stopped shaking I slid the needle in and taped it down. The old man winced, crimping his already-ancient visage into a hundred crisscrossed lines. He was lucky to look so old; no one could tell the difference between a German and a Pole with a face that looked a hundred. He was a Pole, so maybe he was. Not exactly prime donor material. And after living in this city for the past two weeks, I’m sure he was malnourished and probably anemic. But we needed every pint of blood we could get.

Another shell slammed down somewhere outside, and the free-hanging lightbulbs overhead swung violently, shaking through the billows of dust from upstairs. Leaving a corpsman to pump the old man’s blood, I wiped the sweat from my hands and walked through the thick blankets hung over the shattered doorway to the clinic. The light was blinding. I winced, probably looking much like that old man, and raised a hand. I was standing in the partially-destroyed second story of a brick apartment. It seemed like I was standing inside a huge, gaping mouth. Into the mouth were pouring pairs of medics carrying gurneys. Stepping between the rows of body bags and bustling medics, I walked out of the mouth and down the shifting slope of rubble to the street.

I pulled a cigarette from the carton in my shirt pocket and wound my way through the riven streets, going nowhere in particular. I think I felt it was my duty to remember what we did to that old Pole’s city. I found myself perched on the carcass of a burned-out Sherman. I watched the planes move over the streets like schools of rays in the ocean; slow, ghostly, flying ceaselessly to some unknown destination. I guessed they were on their way to Berlin. Somewhere on the street, I heard the sharp retort of cracking glass.

“Bitte!” came a little voice.

Looking back to earth, I saw a small girl stumbling down the street towards me. She was wearing a coat much too large for her, her feet were bare– and she had been shot. There was a dark bloodstain covering the front of her coat. Swinging down from the tank, I ran to her and scooped her up. I made my way quick as I could back to the clinic. She seemed to be objecting as I climbed the rubble slope back into the apartment. “Got a little girl,” I yelled as I laid her down. One of the medics pulled her coat off as I looked for the bullet wound. To my surprise, there wasn’t one. The girl sat up and repeated the same phrase from when I brought her in. Confused, I looked again at the blood on her coat. It was then that I noticed the gold bars and red band on the arms. It was an officer’s coat.

Abruptly the girl’s face scrunched in confusion and her mouth hung open mid-sentence. “Opa?” she whispered, looking past me.

I turned around, and there was the old man, emerging from the blood bank, still fixing his sleeve. He exclaimed something in Polish and rushed to his granddaughter.

 

 

 

 

 

The Wolves

Shifting streaks of icy sand snaked between the burned-out car frames and across the cracked asphalt of the abandoned road. The high moon, cold and distant, lit little save the twisting ribbons of sand that whistled through the night air. The skeletonized vehicles of an army convoy littered the old road. Somewhere in the shadow of an overturned Humvee, in the crater where the vehicle had passed through a guard rail and fetched in a ditch, the prostrate figure of a man lay motionless in the dust.

***

The high Afghani sun glared fitfully into the window of the Humvee and glinted off the faded, creased polaroid in Corbin’s hand. A younger, more innocent version of himself stared up from the photo, his face grinning from over the shoulder of the girl in his arms. Corbin’s sergeant, Anders, was sitting opposite him, talking; Corbin was pretty sure Anders was telling him a story. It had been a while since Corbin pretended to listen, so he raised his gaze from the picture to pay Anders his attention.

“Anyways, she told me to leave,” Anders said. “It’s not like it wasn’t-”

A bullet passed through the vehicle, punching through the windows on either side. A single shaft of white light filtered through the hole in the bullet’s wake. The beam travelled straight towards Anders’ head, where it should have stopped. It shined right through.

Corbin started and fell sideways in his seat as the sound of the gunshot finally struck the car. Anders, lips still speaking, keeled over dead.

A chorus of yelling filled the vehicle and sounded over the radios. More gunshots rang out and bullets drummed against the Humvees like hail on a steel roof. The convoy skidded to a stop, and as soon as Corbin’s driver stopped the car, Corbin squirmed toward the safe side of the car and kicked the door open. He fell heavily on the ground, his armor both jostling and cushioning him. As he rose, a steady stream of curses poured from his mouth; they hadn’t been expecting anything like this in friendly territory. His gun was in the trunk.

Corbin dashed around the corner of the car and slammed the trunk release. The hatch popped open, and Corbin reached for something– anything– the first gun he could find. Just as his fingers were closing around a grip, a low whistle screamed out over the desert ground. Corbin turned toward the noise in time to see the blooming vapor trail of a rocket as it arced through the air and slammed into the vehicle just behind him. A sphere of light exploded outward, striking Corbin with a shockwave like the world was splitting apart.

His unconscious body was flung against his Humvee as the car was sent skidding by the explosion. It careened into a ditch– Corbin tumbling after it– where it overturned and ground itself into the earth, pinning Corbin’s body beneath five thousand pounds of metal.

Insurgents poured into the mess of the convoy, stripping the bodies of anything useful and killing the survivors. A boy wrapped in rags and strapped down with ammunition and a rifle taller than he was meandered into the ditch and rummaged around in the smoldering wreckage of Corbin’s Humvee. He reached inside the car and pulled the body of the driver partway out. He scoured the deceased soldier, then Corbin, and, convinced they were dead, wandered off. He never noticed the small distress beacon that slid onto the ground from the driver’s dead grasp, strobing gently, before it was smashed into the dust as the body toppled over.

***

The stinging sensation of sand whipping against Corbin’s taut skin found its way into his troubled dreams and pulled him awake. Groaning, he raised his head. In front of him, the body of his driver slumped out of the car, half in the dirt, the other half suspended upside down by his seatbelt. All along the road to Corbin’s left stretched a line of destroyed vehicles. Alarmed, he tried to rise, but felt a constricting numbness in his right arm that held him down. He looked to find it lodged under a car frame, in a little crevice where the vehicle’s cargo rack met the roof. Breathing sharply, Corbin tried to pull himself free, but the frame refused to budge. Panic and confusion set in at once, and he tried again to dislodge his arm, pulling until his ulna felt ready to snap. Then a sound not his own shattered the night’s calm. Corbin immediately stopped struggling and pressed himself tightly to the ground. Within the walls of his base it was always a chilling but distant sound, something that lost a sense of realism when heard from the safe side of a steel fence. Now though, it was near and very real.

The wolves were out tonight.

The sound seemed right in front of his face. Two huge creatures, lithe and muscular, crept out from behind a pair of car frames. Anders’ blood cracked on Corbin’s face as he grimaced. He tried to sit up but the tension against his ulna awkwardly pulled him back down. The first one rushed for Corbin, and without another conscious thought, he threw the entirety of his weight against his arm. A crack instantly shot through the entire bone, which held for an instant before splitting in two with a revolting crack, snapping one end like a spring out of Corbin’s forearm. His wrist was wrenched unnaturally to the side as the buckled bone sent waves of anguish throughout his crooked limb.

The pain was so profound that it passed from recognition as pain. With eyes bloodshot and utterly blind, and ears ringing out protests so loud Corbin couldn’t even hear his own screaming, he slid his twitching arm free of the car and raised it at the animal just as it crashed into him. A sickening squelch rose into the air as the spur of dagger-like bone caught the animal in the breast, skewering its heart. The beast collapsed onto Corbin– twisting his ravaged limb further out of place– and its dead jowls clacked together over harmless teeth as a slap of putrid warmth from within the animal’s unclenching throat cloyed at Corbin’s increasingly crazed eyes.

But then the other one was on him, trying to reach him around the body of the first, its claws tearing away at its companion, its jaws close enough that Corbin felt the volumes of air against his face that were displaced whenever they snapped together. With teeth that likely killed dozens just inches from his face, eyes blazing like an inferno with a hunger for his living body, pinned under the corpse of the monster he had just murdered with nothing but his sundered arm, which was sending shrieks like tearing metal into his brainstem, the madness finally set in.

Corbin released an insane roar and lunged forward. The snapping teeth caught the corner of Corbin’s mouth, slicing sideways as he moved forward and tearing a gash through his cheek. But then Corbin’s face was past the maw and his own teeth punched deep into a bundle of writhing muscle and artery. A taste like the smell of coins rushed between Corbin’s teeth and down his throat. He gagged but bit down harder. The ringing had died down enough now for Corbin to hear the monster release a gurgled, agonized yelp that sounded far too human. It thrashed violently, tearing itself off of Corbin’s teeth and leaving a hunk of its own flesh in Corbin’s mouth. But then there was nothing to keep the animal’s life from flowing out of its body, and it collapsed almost instantly, releasing horrifying keens and twitching its muscular limbs over the swirling dust.

His head slammed backward onto the dust, as he spat out fur and gore. The wolf wouldn’t die. Its keens burrowed into Corbin’s eardrums and filled the world with pain. Corbin writhed under the heavy body, his back so arched that his spine didn’t touch the ground, hating the animal struggling next to him for refusing to give him quiet. Just as the cries seemed about to die out, they bloomed louder than ever. There seemed to be the faintest echo of words now. Corbin wearily twisted his head to look. Glassed-over eyes stared back at him from the lifeless animal, yet there were clearly words being spoken. Now Corbin was sure he was losing his mind. Then he heard his name.

Confused, he struggled halfway out from under the first wolf and sat up. Flashlight beams assaulted Corbin’s eyes and lit the wreck. Exclamations of disgust at the sight of three bodies and Corbin’s living corpse floated out from the desert. Americans. “Found the beacon,” one of them said, turning over the body of the driver.

Corbin let out a sigh of profoundest relief as strong arms lifted the animal’s body off him, allowing him to take a deep breath again.

After a handful of heartbeats, Lori lands heavily, stumbling, sending a flurry of decaying twigs and leaves in every direction. The impact knocks her breath from her chest but she doesn’t stop. She careens forward, half blind, gasping. Eventually she sucks in a decent breath, and she starts sprinting again. Behind her, hesitant to follow her over the stone bluff, the thing squats on the peak of the rock face, splitting the stones on the ground as it howls its rage over the miles of winding foothills.

***

Lori handled the divorce even worse than most children. Mostly because she hated being dropped off at her father’s workplace. She spent every Friday waiting in the break room of Daddy’s work, doing homework as she eyed the clock, watching men and women come and go. It was always the same routine for those people: they would remove their gloves, slide their masks down onto their necks, and grab another cup of coffee or an energy shot before leaving her alone again.

She had recently decided they weren’t doctors.

She came to this conclusion the day she saw a woman doctor with blood on her arm strapped to a gurney and being wheeled madly down the hallway outside the door to the break room. Lori had snuck to the door and cracked it open, watching the group of people around the woman as they frantically yelled at the cameras in the hallway to open the triple-set of doors to the lobby. Lori had crept slowly out of the break room and peered down the hallway and past the lobby in time to see the woman doctor disappear inside an ambulance.

Lori had never liked the sight of blood, but she knew doctors weren’t supposed to be bothered by it. She wondered why the woman in bloody scrubs had been taken away by an ambulance. If everybody in the building was a doctor, why couldn’t they have just helped her there? She and her father got home extra late that night because he took three showers at work before he came to get her.

***

Lori knows that if she keeps moving downhill she will at some point strike the road that winds up the mountain to her father’s facility. Her legs and head are splitting with pain from the fall, and even in her pitiable state of confused shock, she knows that those injuries are the least of her worries. Her passage is painfully loud in the muted silence of the woods; the snapping crunch of her footfalls echoes off every rock and tree. Already she has been running for an eternity, and she searches constantly through the trees for the first glint of asphalt or perhaps even the lights of a police cruiser. Heaven knows they’ll be coming. Finally, Lori spots a break in the trees. Chest heaving, legs bulging from knotted muscles, eyes cloudy and throbbing from the shock to her head, she bursts from the treeline….

And onto an outcrop of rock that projects from the roots of the forest and out into the air before falling off in a sheer cliff-face.

Lori shrieks and slides to a stop, pushing several pieces of loose shale clear off the cliff. Looking out over the distant forest, Lori is struck by the realization that in her hurried flight, she must have wound downhill in the wrong direction. The road is on the other side of the mountain. Before her stretches miles of wilderness.

Somewhere in the woods behind her, she can hear the thing getting closer.

***

Something had gotten out. Lori knew it the second the alarm started blaring. She figured out what this place was a moment too late. The masks, the doors, the woman with bloody scrubs. It wasn’t her blood, was it? Lori had tried to run before the alarms even went off. It was a good thing too, because once the security system took over, every door in the facility was sealed tight. Lori had made it to the lobby before the building locked down.

The screams coming from down the corridor filled Lori’s ears. The receptionist in the lobby was hysterical, screaming into a dead phone line and shaking like an epileptic. She had pulled a small revolver from a drawer in her desk, but even young Lori could see that she didn’t know how to use it. Lori tried the front doors and found them locked. The screams were getting louder. Lori searched desperately for a way out, trying to see in the poor illumination of the glaring emergency lighting. Her eyes locked on a fire kit.

“Grab the extinguisher!” Lori screamed, rising to her feet. The receptionist obeyed, running to the kit and smashing the glass window with the butt of her revolver. Lori snatched the extinguisher from her and shoved it behind the push-bar of the lobby doors. Then she took the receptionist by the hand and they moved to a safe distance.

“Shoot it.” Lori instructed. The woman took aim as well as she could despite her shaking hands. She pulled the trigger just as the hallway doors behind them burst open.

The extinguisher exploded, fracturing the glass and blowing off the push bar. But the two girls weren’t looking at those doors. Lori watched as the thing slammed into the receptionist and bore her into the ground, knocking Lori over and sending her skidding over the floor and into the fractured glass.

Lori shattered through the doorway as a single, choked cry sounded from the building. There was nothing she could do for the dying woman inside. Lori turned and fled for her life.

***

She closes her eyes as the thing barrels out of the treeline. This is the end for her. Then, of all the things she expects to hear or feel, she hears her name, called by a familiar voice. She cracks one eye open in time to see her father exit the woods after the thing. He slams into it just before it reaches Lori, pushing it off course and sending it plummeting swiftly over the edge. It releases one last keel of rage and then is lost in the trees below. Lori’s foot slips and she almost tumbles after the creature, but her father grabs her hand and pulls her into a protective hug.

“Gotcha,” he whispers.

“This was your fault to begin with!” Lori screams, spinning them both around and pushing him off the ledge.

Marginally Creative Writing

In his persuasive LA Times essay “Let There be Dark,” editorialist Paul Bogard shines a little light on our human need for darkness. He argues that ubiquitous light pollution throughout the country is not only reducing our quality of life by depriving the sky of its natural beauty, but also by creating a host of pollution-related health problems.

Bogard employs his own personal experiences to connect with his audience, fondly recalling the profound darkness and starry skies of his childhood home in Minnesota. He talks on how 8 in 10 American children will never know a night sky dark enough for the milky way galaxy. Bogard also quotes the World Health Organization in stating that sleep deprivation caused by light pollution is now known to be a probable carcinogen, and links other disorders such as obesity, diabetes, and depression. He maintains that in a world growing 6% brighter every year, even the world’s ecology is becoming increasingly unstable as the nocturnal creatures that pollinate fields and protect against disease are growing increasingly disoriented. He offers some hope though, in addressing the steps being taken to reduce light emission the world over, such as LED replacements and automatic shut-off switches in large, bright cities such as Paris.

Bogard points out that without darkness, we are losing a natural treasure along the same lines as the Grand Canyon or Yosemite. He warns of the part the every-day consumer plays in the reduction of darkness. Every night, people reach for their devices, light their homes, and turn on their headlights. Bogard concedes that recent changes for good are a result more of a desire to reduce energy consumption, although their side effects are beneficial to the environment. He argues that we will never truly address the problem of light pollution until we become aware of the irreplaceable value and beauty of the darkness we are losing.

Bogard uses powerful and often melodic language when trying to communicate to his readers the country’s dire situation. He recalls days spent under “sugary spreads of stars,” and laments the probability that modern youth will grow up in a world without that sky that inspired works like Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” He states that “every religious tradition has considered darkness invaluable for a soulful life, and the chance to witness the universe has inspired artists, philosophers and everyday stargazers since time began.”

Paul Bogard, despite obviously holding the subject near his heart, still gives objective and excellent points regarding the invaluableness of darkness. He gives stark predictions on the future of a country enshrouded in light, supported by existing data supporting his thesis that darkness is a necessary part of life. He gives startling links to light pollution and health and ecological problems, and illustrates all the religious and cultural significance of darkness in human history. He ends his essay by positing that the problem of vanishing darkness will never be solved until there is a wide acknowledging of said problem. Ultimately, Bogard hopes for a coordinated effort to stem the rise of light pollution and return to the nation the beauty and calm of the nights our grandfathers knew.