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.

 

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.

 

 

“Hell’s Greater Triumphs”

My dear Wormwood,

You mustn’t ask those sorts of questions. If you entertain faulty notions within your own little mind, just imagine how much greater those notions would reflect on the mind of your patient.

“If they are so eager to exterminate each other, why should we intervene at all?”

Firstly, I would have you recall that the humans’ eagerness is a direct result of centuries-worth of painful labor on our part. We started by introducing a sense of general unhappiness into human lives where the vermin ordinarily found such a disgusting sense of joy. We then began to push further the already-present human instinct to elevate one’s own needs over all else. That instinct, nephew, is one of the easily apparent symptoms of Our Father Below’s first fateful touch on primordial humanity so long ago.

The result was inevitably the general hive-mentality that children ultimately bring responsibility into human lives. I will take a moment here, dear nephew, to momentarily reflect on one of Hell’s greater triumphs over the human psyche in recent years. By conditioning humans to never cease thinking of themselves as children, we have created a multitude of fissures for the human race, which previously only children were naïve or immature enough to plunge into. To necessitate such a change we altered both the physical and mental interpretations of an adult in general culture.

A laxity in parental discipline throughout the entirety of a human child’s home life has introduced a general refusal to mature that now stays with human beings throughout their entire lives. This phenomenon is quite evident if you were ever to take a moment to listen in on the average work-or-schoolplace conversation in the world. A human’s inability to either register or care for one person’s words and experiences, and an all-consuming, overpowering need to twist the conversation until the listener is again the talker, is so petty and delectable to the ears of any respectable hellion. Then there is the laughably evident readiness, even eagerness, to take offense at the slightest perceived wrong; the bellicosity behind every gesture and underneath every sentence.

We have coupled this with suffusing into popular culture an attraction to what is ultimately the physique and mindset of a prepubescent boy, a damning combination now strived after by men and women alike, and which is utterly impossible to attain after twelve years of age. The result is a profound abhorrence in the minds of humans at the symptoms of adulthood. This renders any thought or inclination toward responsibility effectively neutralized.

And so, women are hurling themselves every which way out of the path of responsibility. Especially that awful responsibility, that atrophies their bodies, destroys their careers, that burns checkbooks and shatters intimacy, that is motherhood. They think (never overtly) something like this: If only women can fly from the burden of a child until they cross the safe threshold of menopause– or until such a time as we let them decide they will make ready mothers– then they will be successful and happy for the wispy remainder of their mortal lives. We seeded their irresponsibility, now we simply provide mortals with the tools to maintain it.

You know the tool of which I speak.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape

 

Polaroids

The speedometer on the GPS blinks red.

She remembers back to when she felt the terrible, bitter hollow in her stomach when November wind bit at her face and clothes. She remembers the tracts of nauseous suspension that gnawed into her as her toes felt nothing but open air.

She is taking fast, shallow breaths, each one leaving her a little more lightheaded.

She remembers a blurry sky full of lights and planes, and the coldness of the concrete as it seeped into her feet. She can still feel the soft rasp of her dress against her painfully taught skin as it billowed in the uncaring wind. What she cannot remember was what had brought her off the ledge.

She blinks, and finally notices the halted taillights she is barreling towards.

***

Bullets whistled like furious hornets, punching holes through the dirt walls. One sheared past Corbin Gates’s head and snapped a long splinter of ceramic off his helmet, staggering him. He swore and sagged against a wall, his armor gouging the yellow dirt. His ears rang, and his vision blurred.

“Gates, get your head on right!” his sergeant screamed.

Corbin pushed his helmet up and saw his squad disappearing through the exit of the shack. He rushed after them, still dazed. As he emerged, a blinding light shined all around him, accompanied by the painful cacophony of battle. Then his eyes adjusted and he saw his squad piling into the back of a personnel carrier, gesturing wildly for Corbin to run.

“Gates, get in the truck!” he heard someone shout.

Corbin dashed for the vehicle as its wheels began to move. More rounds pummeled the buildings behind him, and billowing clouds of dirt and cement dust filled the air. A jagged trail of bullet holes raced after him along the walls as he sprinted for the open hatch. The vehicle began to pick up speed until it matched Corbin’s pace. For a pair of heartbeats, neither the soldier nor the vehicle could gain any ground. Then, with a final lunge, Corbin grasped the edge of the hatch and heaved himself inside as the carrier accelerated, rumbling out of the ruined town which seethed like a hive.

***

Mary was horrified. “They shot you in the head?” she whispered into the webcam as she saw the long, hollow scar across the surface of Corbin’s helmet.

Corbin made a face as he realized he had forgotten to take his helmet off. He unstrapped it from his chin and let it fall to the ground, out of camera view. Mary could hear it rocking back and forth on the floor. Corbin inhaled, then replied playfully, “Yeah they did. Just gave me a headache though.”

Mary wasn’t amused. A flicker of static rolled across the screen of her laptop, momentarily distorting Corbin’s face.

“They shot you in the head,” she repeated as the image resolved.

Corbin looked away from the screen. “Not really,” he murmured.

Mary stared expectantly. Corbin sighed. “Helmet, not head,” he finally said.

“Baby, you know what I meant,” Mary said. “They shot you in the head!”

Her anger came on stronger than she expected. “What would’ve happened if you were an inch to the right?”

Corbin fake-guffawed. “Then I’d be very dead right now. But I’m not, because I wasn’t, because I dodged it.”

Mary pursed her lips to hide her smile at his incongruity, but her eyes remained angry. “And how many times can you dodge it before something kills you? she demanded. “I am not going to be a single mother- I can’t- this baby needs someone more than a stranger who comes home once a tour. Or a VA-funded education because you forgot to dodge it when it mattered!”

Corbin gazed knowingly at her flushed face, then, gently, “Dodged it.”

It wasn’t funny, but Mary couldn’t help but laugh in a release of pent-up emotion that was also a baring of teeth.

***

Corbin shuffled to the barracks, battered and exhausted from day after day of fighting. One of the men in his squad lay sprawled over a cot, reading a magazine. The soldier scoffed when Corbin entered. “The second we get back, you’re running to find a laptop. I think you must’ve forgotten what it is we’re doing here.”

Corbin’s mouth twisted, and he said, “Lay off, Sully; I just got shot in the head.”

Corbin moved to his own cot and unfastened his armor as Sully glowered at him. Sully cocked his head as he noticed the corner of a photograph pull away from behind Corbin’s shoulder pad. Sully knew even before he saw it that it was a polaroid of Mary, and presently the photo rested precariously over the heap of Kevlar and nylon on the floor next to Corbin as he fell face-first into bed, exposing the mat of bruises and welts along his back and legs. Corbin was asleep almost instantly, but not before he had reached over and crossed another hash mark on the back of the picture, counting off the days until he went home.

***

Mary shut her computer with a wordless exclamation. She ran her hands through her hair and inhaled poignantly. Corbin had always been exasperating. She thought of just how many different kinds of difficult he was. She had always found his stubbornness endearing- even when she was furious, and right then she hated that he knew that.

Stressed, Mary walked down the hallway of their apartment, one hand on her belly, the other on the small of her back. She glanced sidelong into the kitchen as she passed, wishing she could still drink; she couldn’t shake the image behind her eyes of Corbin being an inch to the right. Over and over, she saw a bullet splitting into the fiber of his helmet and ending the love of her life. Mary felt sick; maybe it was a good thing she couldn’t drink. Blowing a strand of copper hair out of her eyes in what was more of a sigh than anything, she snatched her keys and slipped out of the apartment.

As Corbin’s day was ending on the other side of the world, Mary braced herself for another draining shift at the hospital. She wanted to call in sick, but she needed what money she could earn before her maternity leave kicked in; Corbin’s checks only cleared so fast from Afghanistan. The steps down to the street jostled her overburdened hips, and she grimaced. She slumped into her car, glaring at the polaroid of her and Corbin that leaned against his old ball cap on the dash. With a deep breath, she picked it up and added another hash mark to the back of it. But seeing Corbin’s face renewed her worry. She pressed her forehead to the steering wheel and groaned; she couldn’t lose anyone else.

As she pulled out, she eyed the small, faded scar that wrapped down her thumb and along the side of her wrist. She still remembered the auto accident that had killed her parents and left her broken and alone in the world. She remembered the pain that had driven her to the roof, looking down at the sleepy streets below, willing her stubborn body to take another step. But she hadn’t. And she had found Corbin.

The speedometer on her GPS blinked red.

She braked hard, biting off a curse. Horns blared, and she had to swerve up onto the curb to avoid hitting the car in front of her. A violent bump sent a painful jolt through the car. The vehicle came to rest halfway over the sidewalk. Mary’s wide eyes stared unfocusedly in shocked silence as her already quickened breathing doubled. Warm blood rushed to her face, along with tears of anxiety, and she struggled not to heave. What’s wrong with me? she thought, almost gasping.

Long, agonizing minutes passed. Gradually, the attack receded. Only once she had regained enough breath to clear her head did she notice the pronounced discomfort in her abdomen; her entire body was tense and refused to relax. She realized with stupid shock that it wasn’t just a panic attack. Then, the contractions started.

The Beginning of the Idea of a Quest

The sky was empty and the moon was full, shining beams of iridescent light onto the earth below. The rays struck the trees and set them dancing like quicksilver in the slight wind. The moonlight played upon the rolling fields with liquid brilliance, setting them ablaze with motion and subdued white fire, each blade of grass a little flame in the inferno. Other than the breeze and the chorus of the July crickets, the night was still and silent.

Then an explosion pierced the air and filled the night with screams.

Daisy had been asleep until that very moment. It was nothing like a restful sleep- she had been twitching back and forth all night to some subconscious tension which haunted her dreams. She attributed the restlessness to stress, and had no reason to suspect it was anything more; her husband Tom was sleeping fine.

Then the men came. They wore kerchiefs over their faces so that only their eyes were visible- gleaming with cold malice. They carried revolvers that whistled menacingly as they were waved through the air. They spoke no threats, no curses, nothing at all. They simply shattered the oaken door to the bedroom and poured through in an explosion of skittering fragments and tramping, spurred boots. The room was filled immediately with the heated odor of several bodies packed close together, accompanied by the subtle but sharp scent of human fear as Daisy and her husband were torn from the bed and locked in merciless arms.

Daisy cried out, hysteria coloring her voice, and scratched at her assailants, tearing their masks and bloodying their faces. Tom roared and tried to dislodge the men crammed around him, but there were so very many. Two or three men crashed backwards, but they were immediately replaced by others. The steel spine of a revolver whipped Tom across the jaw, spattering blood onto the wall, and he went limp. The assailants began to drag him from the room. Daisy renewed her fuss and kicked wildly into the air. A sharp slap dimmed her furor and momentarily stole her vision. She felt herself being lifted up and into the air, and then her attacker threw her across the room. She struck the bedroom window- an array of cracks shooting throughout the glass- then crumpled to the floor. She looked through wincing eyes to see the last of the assailants disappearing out the bedroom door holding one of Tom’s legs.

Fortunately, the cacophony had awoken the entire household; servants and masters alike found themselves in a rush of movement and noise as a mass of men poured through the old manor. Arming themselves, the residents pursued the assailants into the yard, where the men’s restless horses were tied to the fence.

Daisy struggled to her feet as the report of gunshots raged outside. A stray bullet whistled through the window, missing Daisy by inches. The already compromised pane collapsed on itself, loosing fragments of glass onto the wood floor with a sound like a thousand little icicles breaking at once. Daisy hurried out of the room, past the frightened people in the long, broad hallway, down the splintered mahogany staircase and out the bullet-riddled double doors of the manor.

When she saw the scene before her, she thought she was back in the war. A mess of turfed, bloodstained loam and writhing bodies covered the yard. The assailants lay dead or dying, their horses scattered around the yard or prancing fearfully in the distance. The manor’s residents appeared hammered, but not beaten, and one of them made his way to Daisy.

“Where’s Tom?” She demanded, her emotion making her drawl even thicker.

“He’s gone, miss.” The burly man replied. “We- I- it’s….” He started over. “One of those bandits, we missed ‘im. He had Tom.”

Daisy felt her knees weaken, but at the same time, she was elated that at least Tom was still alive; that was more than she had hoped upon seeing the carnage outside. All the same, she knew a posse would take ages to start the search for him.

Steeling herself, she snatched the man’s revolver from his grasp, darted to the nearest horse, leaped onto it, and drove her heels into its ribs. The animal rushed forward, leaped over the fence, and galloped down the road. The residents behind her called out, but she was gone. Daisy well knew her foolishness, but she wasn’t about to sit and weep when Tom was at the mercy of a kidnapper. Whatever the men’s reasons for taking him, Daisy was going to get him back.

 

 

Leadership

I think of a good leader as a teacher with a switch; as someone who stands as an example to his followers and then expects them to follow that example- not because of a title, but because he’s earned that much respect. But a leader is also willing to reprimand the people under him for their errors or hubris or any other fault that may undermine the group as a whole.

One example of a good leader would be Ralph from Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a novel about a marooned group of English schoolboys. While not a good leader in every sense, he was still principally good in that his main concern was the well-being of those under him. Ralph’s priorities revolved around finding a way home for himself and his people, and ensuring the boys’ society didn’t devolve in the meantime. Even though he was underprepared and overburdened, Ralph still showed many traits of a good leader; he did his best to stay composed and avoid impulsiveness. He listened to others’ advice and acted on it when he felt it would help. He tried to present an example of maturity for the other boys to follow. While they were times his rule was largely ineffective due to his young age or the growing hysteria of the marooned boys, ultimately, it was Ralph’s leadership that enabled some of the boys to return home.

In contrast to Ralph’s good and well-intentioned leadership, there was Jack’s. Jack ruled not by right or by example, but by intimidation. He used the promise of fun to woo some of the boys away from Ralph’s society, and then the promise of pain to keep them from leaving his own. In some ways Jack was a capable leader: he wasn’t afraid to make tough decisions or give orders, and he was always the first to volunteer for dangerous work. However, these qualities were offset by Jack’s startling lack of compassion for others, his debauchery, and the way his temper dominated his thinking. It was Jack’s flimsy rule and selfishness that led to the eventual downfall of the boys’ society.

Of the two examples, of course I would want to say I’m more like Ralph, but honestly the subject is too personal to view objectively. I’ve heard so many vastly differing opinions on a single person’s leadership skills that I know better than to think the question of whether somebody is a good leader or not can be anything other than subjective. So with as little subjectivity as possible, I would say in some cases I make a decent leader and in other instances I shouldn’t even try. I’ve heard that my best friend and I were more the leaders of our team than the actual captain, but I also know that I can be stubborn and write people off almost as an instinct.

Titus 1:7 says that a good leader “…must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine (there’s the teacher part) and also to rebuke those who contradict it. For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers (and there’s the part about carrying a switch).”

“Hell’s Finest Scalpel”

My dear Wormwood,

I, too, am pleased with the developing situation in Europe. A rising tide of Islamic migrants will undoubtedly see a rise in European converts for their god. One of the chief duties of Hell, as you should by now know (and is widely recognized among our colleagues), is to encourage the practicing of devout religions among mankind. Do not mistake me, I do not mean every devout religion; obviously Christianity is to be made in its every facet inconsequential* in our patients’ minds. And even the vaguely tethered branches of skewed Christianity that have survived through millennia of hate and fire (despite our best efforts at their extirpation) are, when in their pure and ardent forms, damaging to our cause. Not because they of themselves lead souls to the Enemy’s gates, but because they encourage the kinds of charity and critical thinking that we strive to block out of human minds. But barring that, religion, when utilized properly, is Hell’s finest scalpel.

The devout religions that we should and do encourage have done us very little harm over the course of history, while a great tonnage of ignorant lives has been taken by Hell in profit. I am talking, mainly, of the myriad Eastern religions that have been used to justify every ridiculous human fantasy from animal-worship to polygamy to genocide. And need I even mention our two greatest weapons where Western religion is concerned? Atheism and Materialism, no matter that their practitioners (at least, the ones who are competent enough to recognize that they are practitioners) adorably insist they aren’t religious, are religions that have been utilized by Hell for decades to ensnare the “intellectuals” of mankind.

I feel I should clarify what I mean by inconsequential; you are growing to be quite an adept hellion, but you are young, and the last thing I want is for you to ignore, or, worse, to attempt to entirely smother any thoughts of Christianity in your patient. In the first place, as I have said many times before, the Enemy will probably not allow you to block out all thoughts of Him– He is self-admittedly a jealous kind, after all.

The aim is not to deflect every possible thought from your patient’s mind that revolves around faith. Rather, block any thought that might stimulate his conscience, waking him from the dreamy quagmire you have so meticulously woven around his soul. Do not for any reason allow him to think of the wrath one base action would incur on him from the Enemy; rather, let him dwell on those actions that he perceives should “please his ‘Father'”. So long as there is no cause for your man to be alarmed at the gaps in his spiritual armor, there also is no cause for him to seek repentance. So then, Christianity does us good as long as it is conditioned. Work the thought of it to be subconsciously viewed as inconsequential but not entirely irrelevant, for as you have so plainly seen in the last few decades, a man who considers himself to be “right with Jesus”, but still acts a pagan, is some of the easiest prey Hell has known.

And that is what I mean by all this tiresome talk- that the humans in our charge must in no way feel as though there is an imminent need or relevant reason to, say, confess their sins in fervent prayer. It has been proven to us countless times that the man who attends church on Sunday only to mindlessly frequent his favorite brothel on Monday is unconsciously experiencing just the type of gradual and unsuspecting damnation that we desire. This is the method of choice for Hell’s seasoned tempters (I do hope you note this), and has for centuries provided a steady flow of comfortable souls into the glorious, insatiable, deserving maw of Our Father Below,

Your affectionate uncle

Screwtape