Category Archives: Novella

The face of romance part two

“Yes? But I mean diet coke isn’t that bad. I’m a Pepsi girl myself but I don’t look down on diet coke. My parents are actually big diet coke fans.” It’s adorable that she doesn’t know what’s coming next.

“Oh yeah? Big fans huh? Well do they typically take their diet coke with Mentos?” I produce an opened pack of Mentos and set them on the table.

“I see, we’re doing the diet coke and Mentos thing next. That’s cool.” I put a hand to my chest as if I’ve been struck.

“I’m hurt, after that fantastic display of nutritious mayhem you think I’d do something as normal as the diet coke and Mentos experiment?” I pick up the six pack and show her the bottoms of the bottles. “See how I’ve taped them up so you can’t see the bottoms? That’s because one of these suckers has a Mentos in the bottom.” I set the pack down in front of her. “And you’ve got to figure out which one.”

“What? No they don’t. You can’t drop a Mentos in there without it exploding. There’s no way you could’ve stowed one in here.” I’m happy that she’s still in the immersive bubble I’ve provided her, and happy that she’s taking a genuine interest in what I’m doing for her.

“Ordinarily, maybe you’re right, but I’ve got a trick.” I produce a pack of those mint flavored breath freshening strips that dissolve on your tongue. “I wrapped the Mentos in these little mint flavored strips and then dropped it in. That way it didn’t make contact with the diet coke right away, but the strip is dissolved now.”

“So why hasn’t it already exploded?” She explains, picking up the bottles and examining them one at a time. “I’ve seen the videos, there’s no way these bottles could contain that massive amount of expanding foam that the Mentos would cause.”

“The reaction needs air to proceed.” I told her. “So right now it’ll just sit quietly, but as soon as you pop the cork on one of those bad boys, it’s all over.”

She puts the bottle she’s holding down and thinks about it for a second. “Wait a minute, the Mentos displaced a little soda when you dropped it in. I can just pull an Archimedes and put them next to each other to measure the water level.” I’m grateful for the fact that she didn’t. It wouldn’t have worked, but her unwillingness to spoil my trick tells me she wants to play, even if she could cheat and figure out the answer.

“I thought of that. If you were to line them all up you’d find that no two have the same amount of diet coke in them. The difference is miniscule, but I took the liberty of shuffling the water levels by opening them all up, and dumping little teaspoons of diet coke from another bottle into the five that didn’t have the Mentos.”

Jennifer looks at the rubber bands still on the table, the watermelon that’s been cut in half, and the little bits and pieces of the fruit that had been destroyed in the prime of its life. Then she looks at the diet coke, and the opened pack of Mentos on the table.

“Jason, you have way too much time on your hands.” She declares.

“I know, so waste a little with me.” I tap the bottles of diet coke. “Make your first choice.”

She mulls it over, tipping the bottles up to look at the bottoms again, placing a few side by side to gauge the water level. She even shakes a few to see if she can hear the Mentos rattling around. It’s all for nothing. I made sure there was no way she was going to figure this out. She bites her lip, but then a lightbulb goes off behind her eyes.

“Aha!” She declares. “I’ve got it.” She slams down the bottle she’s been examining and rounds on me. “You know which one has the Mentos don’t you?” I nod.

“Yup, you caught me. Which is why you’re going to pick which bottles I open as well.”

“But that’s the trick. All I have to do is read your expression really carefully and you’re going to let me know which of these little bottles you’ve rigged to blow.” She claps her hands excitedly. I love seeing her like this. So care free, so joyful, being with her is like watching a kid get excited for the first snow of the year. Only better because I knew that I was the one doing this for her. I was making it snow.

“You can certainly try princess, but I have to keep a poker face for a living. Do your worst.” I know talking about work is a mistake as soon as the words are out of my mouth.

“Oh yeah, that reminds me. What do you do for a living?”

I knew this. I knew this. I had practiced this. Me and Ryan had a cover story for just these sorts of situations. I just couldn’t remember for the life of me what it was.

“I help people.” I say as casually as I can. It’s a lame response and I know it, so I do what worked last time. I misdirect. “And you’re stalling, pick a bottle princess.” She raises an eyebrow as she extends a hand out over the bottles.

She passes her hand back and forth over the soda containers, intensely  studying my reaction as she does so. She’s getting playful with it, pretending to go for one bottle, but then changing her mind and reaching for another. Like everything else she’s done, it’s adorable. It doesn’t’ do her any good though, my poker face is phenomenal.

“You’re good.” She says at last, randomly pulling over a bottle to herself.

“Point it at your face.” I tell her.

“What? That wasn’t part of the rules.” She objects.

“Clearly you’ve never played Russian roulette before. You have to point the dangerous object at yourself. If people playing real Russian roulette just fired off rounds into the air it wouldn’t have a reputation as a phenomenally unintelligent thing to do, but it does, so you will.” She puts her hand on the cap but doesn’t twist it off.

“Come on, as soon as you undo this one you’ll get to pick one out for me.” That motivates her, she quickly rips off the cap, wincing as she does so, and to her relief, nothing happens.

“Hey, you’re a lucky girl. Now pick one out for me.”

“Hold on a second.” She says, putting the now open bottle back on the table. “Now you’re the one who is stalling. I asked you what you do for a leaving and I’d be curious to know what kind of profession involves both having a great poker face, and also helping people.” She’s leaning into the conversation and her eyes are doing this playful dance on her forehead. It’s like she thinks they’ll hypnotize me into giving her an answer, and in a way they do.

“I work in a medical office.” I say. I think it’s true. Ryan tells me there’s a lot of medical equipment in the building so I think it’s a medical facility.

“A medical office.” She replies, not convinced. “What kind of medicine are you doing that requires you to keep a poker face?”

I try to think of a kind of medicine with a funny name or that works with embarrassing parts of the body, but my mind isn’t quick enough. “Well you know people come in with some pretty heavy issues. If somebody’s got something big they have to get off their chest then you can’t exactly break down in front of them.” I can see the crack that suddenly appears in her otherwise perfect mood. I know she’s just been reminded of what happened earlier today and I’m kicking myself.

Part of me wants to finish what I’ve started and just tell her. She’s had a few laughs. She knows that I’m a nice guy, and this would be the perfect Segway into that conversation. Maybe we could even have a session while we were out here.

The crack in her mood widens and the silence is starting to drag on noticeably. I can’t do it. I can’t bring her down again. Not so soon after bringing her up.

“But hey, you haven’t told me what you do for a living yet.” I point out. “Why don’t you pass me a bottle and tell me about it.”

No longer caring about trying to figure me out, she just gestures to the nearest bottle. I pick it up and get ready to open it, but I pause, waiting for her to start her story.

“Now you tell me what you do and I’ll see if I can add a punctuation mark to your story.” If I had been thinking I would’ve realized I already knew what she did. If I had been thinking I would realize that she and her roommate both wanted to go into the same field, and they probably worked together. If I had been thinking I wouldn’t have had to watch her struggle with trying to put on a brave face in front of me.

She was a trooper for sure. If I didn’t work with people who struggled with grief for a living I might not have seen it. The slight droop in the lips, the decrease in eye contact, but I did work with grievers for a living, and I knew before she spoke a word that she was thinking of Sarah.

“Well uh, I played a lot of volleyball in college.” I had to think fast. I had to snap her out of this. She was about to dig herself a deep emotional hole and I had to stop her. I want to pop the cap off the bottle and spray Mentos and coke foam everywhere, but this is the wrong bottle.

“And I just liked really being outside and doing athletic stuff.” She glances to the side, an indicator that she doesn’t want to have this conversation, and I seize the opportunity to grab a Mentos from the open sleeve and hide it in my palm.

“So I figured, hey, I could do this for a living.” I rip the top off and quickly dump the Mentos inside and raise the now erupting bottle to my face.

“Om, nom, nom, nom.” I say as the sticky sweet mixture sprays a surprisingly strong stream right at my mouth and eyes. I have to close my eyes as the foaming liquid works its way up my nose, into my mouth, and even some in my ear canal.

It’s over quickly, and as I sputter out the dietary soda and mint candy I hear that Jennifer is laughing again.

“Hah! That’s what you get for making the watermelon explode in my hands.” I’m mentally sighing with relief that happy Jennifer is back, but outwardly I have to pretend I’m annoyed.

“I totally did not make it explode in your hands. It was total chance, and besides. This is way worse. I mean look at me.” My front is so soaked a passerby might have thought I got sprayed by a hose. “I think it might’ve even got in my phone.” With genuine concern for my mobile device I pull out my phone to make sure it’s still okay.

When I hit the unlock button it mercifully comes to life, but I don’t even have time to be relieved. Because I see that I have one text from Ryan. ‘Tell me you’re not dating a client’.

I manage to keep my face from shifting, but not by a very large margin. Jennifer is laughing hard enough that she doesn’t notice I’ve suddenly gone stuff.

“Is it damaged?” She says, drumming her feet on the ground in mirth.

“My ego? Completely destroyed, but the phone is fine.” I slip it back into my pocket and start doing mental damage control.

‘She doesn’t know anything. I’m fine. Ryan doesn’t necessarily know anything. I mean, unless he had me followed me or something. I just need to call him back and explain everything is okay.

“What’s up next skipper?” She asks, starting to settle down. “Are we going to use dry ice to shatter bananas?” It’s a really good idea, but I need to wrap this date up, and wrap it up now.

“Something work related just came up actually, so as lame as it is we’re going to have to pick this up.” I gesture to the mess of soda, watermelon bits, and rubber bands soaked in fruit juice. Jennifer sticks out her lower lips and mock pouts.

“Aww, but I was having fun.” She says. I shrug, trying to make myself seem relaxed, and not like I might be getting fired from my job as soon as this date is over.

“Sorry, duty calls. I can pick it up myself though. It’s fine. You should go home and think about how you’re going to convince me to go on another date.” I start putting caps on bottles as she stands up.

“Oh I’m supposed to convince you? I thought the gentlemen always pursued the lady.” She’s got her fists on her hips and is rocking side to side like a target blowing in the breeze.

“Most gentlemen don’t have their own personal collection of weapons of mass destruction. This sort of special treatment doesn’t grow on trees you know. You got to work for it. So go on home, and think about how you’ll talk me into it.” She slithers back down for a minute and looks at me as I try and focus on cleaning up.

“Well, I’ll need your phone number first.” I quickly spit it out. Then she folds her hands and loses the spunky push pull dynamic. “Then I’ll just let you know that this is genuinely the most fun I have had in quite some time. I don’t want to put anything on you on the first date, but I really needed this right now, and I want to at some point let you know how much this meant to me.” That catches me off guard, and when she leans in and kisses me on the cheek it catches me even more off guard.

You would think that since I had already felt her lips on my forehead twice the cheek wouldn’t make that much difference. I mean. It’s only a few inches away, and it’s still not really a full romantic kiss. Why would it matter? But it does. I’m not sure why. Maybe the skin is more sensitive there, or maybe not. It’s probably the vulnerability that it entailed. She was trusting me with her emotions. She was letting me know that she believed I would buoy her up, and keep buoying her up.

“I’ll call you later yeah?” She says.

“For sure.” I say. I pause my clean up to watch her walk off. She turns to wave goodbye just as she passes out of sight, and I return her wave.

Her meekness right at the end had calmed my nerves about Ryan and his text, once she’s out of sight I hurriedly shove every bit of trash into a large bag I have with me, throw it in a nearby garbage receptacle, and call Ryan. Right before I hit dial I see that his text is ninety minutes old.

“Where are you right now?” Ryan asks.

“Out for a walk.” I say. It’s true enough. I’m walking back to my car as I tell him this. ‘He doesn’t know anything for sure’. I tell myself. ‘Play it cool and you can get out of this’.

“Sure you are, her name was Jennifer right?” I put a hand to my forehead. The thought occurs to me to try and keep up with my paper thin charade, but if I’m going to be seeing her again anyway then it’s sort of pointless. If things went well enough with Jennifer they’d find out eventually. I might as well come clean. Who knows, maybe if I just cut straight to the point Ryan would go easier on me.

“Yeah Ryan, it was Jennifer. The last girl I saw for the day.” I hear a disappointed sigh come through the phone. It’s like that sigh your parents would give you when you handed them a report card with a low grade point average. It was the, ‘you can do better than this’, sigh.

“Look Jason, how long have we been working together?” He asks. I can tell he’s really going to give a speech. If it was going to be a short reprimand he would’ve already laid it out.

“Seven years Ryan, two in high school, four in college, one year post college.” I inform him.

“How the time does fly. I could’ve sworn it wasn’t a day over four, but look Jason. I know you didn’t sign any kind of agreement about this sort of thing. There’s no rule that says you can’t date somebody whose come to see you, but man, it’s real unprofessional. This sort of thing happens very often at all, and you could be out of a job.”

“I know. I know.” I say, hand still to forehead. I find a bench to sit down. This is not the kind of conversation you have while you’re out and walking. “But I didn’t know she was going to come and see me. A friend set us up before she ever came into my office. It felt weird, but things happened so fast and I just wanted to make her happy.” Ryan sighs again.

“Alright Jason, I trust you, but this is not going to make things easy. Why don’t you come in a little early tomorrow and we’ll smooth things out okay?” I feel the conversation move toward a conclusion, and it doesn’t sound like I’m getting fired.

“Sounds good Ryan, sure thing, first thing tomorrow morning, bright and early.” I think I let a little too much happiness into my voice because Ryan sighs, for the third time during this conversation. “You sound too chipper. Did you kiss her?” He asks bluntly.

“No, no, nothing like that.” It’s probably the most adamantly I’ve ever denied kissing a girl. “Totally G rated Disney type stuff.”

“Are you going to see her again?” Ryan asks.

“Uh yeah, I think so.” I tell him.

“When she said goodbye it wasn’t like a polite formal thing. She didn’t use the word friend at any point.” Despite the seriousness of our conversation I’m a little offended that Ryan is doubting my dating skills so much.

“No I’m pretty sure she was into me. I’m expecting a call from her before too much longer.” I hear the fourth sigh of the conversation. He really should work on a more original way to express his disappointment. After the third sigh it really started to lose its expressive power.

“Okay, okay, we can still make this work.” Ryan says. “Just uh, just come in early tomorrow okay?”

“Will do.” I say.

“Alright Jason, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Ryan says.

“Goodnight Ryan.” I move my thumb to end the call when I hear some frantic protest on the other hand.

“Wait! Shoot, shoot shoot, did you tell her what you do? Does she know you’re a shifter?” Ryan asked.

“No, no, we talked a little bit about jobs, but I kind of figured that would be a sensitive topic so I just said I worked in a medical office.” Now I was genuinely offended. I understood that this could be a big deal, but it wasn’t like I was a doctor, and I almost never had repeat patients. In fact, therapists typically came down pretty hard on anyone who went to see a shifter more than once. It could be therapeutic to say goodbye when you missed the chance, but anything else and you were just fooling yourself into thinking that the shifter was actually your friend.

The more I think about it the more Ryan’s reaction seems out of place. He really should have given me enough credit to know I wouldn’t talk about being a shifter, and we didn’t have a doctor patient relationship. It was more like getting an MRI and getting the technician’s number. It probably wasn’t something I should make a habit out of, but it definitely wasn’t as career ending as Ryan was making it out to be.

“Okay, okay, that’s good. I think we’re good. Well, anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow Jason.”

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The face of romance

“Goodbye John.” The griever said, touching my forehead to theirs as they left. It had been a long day, their must’ve been a large accident or something. That’s what usually caused a rush like this. A large number of people didn’t get the opportunity to say their final words to a loved one before they passed, and needed me to duplicate their appearance so they could have a chance to get give a proper farewell.

I took a few breaths to clear my head, confirmed with Ryan that this griever had been the last one, and slipped back into my normal appearance. Only, I couldn’t. Everything still seemed fluid. My nose kept changing its mind about what size it wanted to be. My hair shifted between various shades of brown and black. Even my eyes danced from one color to the next. They couldn’t even agree on one color between the two of them. I looked like a Husky with different colored eyes.

A mirror didn’t help. It only seemed to illustrate my problem, allowing me to look on with growing dismay as my facial features seemed to change faster than the numbers on a slot machine.

Facebook, I had a Facebook. There must be a picture of me on there somewhere. I log into my profile and am greeted with Ryan’s face on my profile. It was a joke at the time. ‘ha ha, look Ryan. I’m you!’. It didn’t seem so funny now. I open up my past profile pictures and find that every single one is me playing a joke, and even my tagged photos all look like different people.

Some are promotional from work, others are just me goofing around and showing off for my friends. I think some might be me, but there are too many different faces all tagged as me for me to even begin to sort out which is the real me.

I snap my phone shut. This can’t be real. How can I not remember? I always remembered. I tried to do it by muscle memory. ‘Okay, work is done, griever leaves. I confirm with Ryan that I’m done, and I……’ Nothing, the face I slip into is not even human. ‘Come on, one more time, work is done. I confirm with Ryan and…..’ I’m too preoccupied with my Husky eyes, and give myself a dog’s face.

‘I’ve got a date tonight. How will she even know it’s me? Oh wait, maybe I sent her a face pic.’ I scan through my phone again, hoping that I’ve sent somebody a photo of my face, only to come up empty handed again. Apparently I like playing games with my face through text as well.

I’m starting to panic now. ‘Is there no record of my face anywhere? Driver’s license, of course, I had to take a proper photo for a driver’s license.’ Feeling a sense of relief well up inside me I pull out my wallet and extract my driver’s license.

My stomach feels like it’s going to fall out when instead of a photo I see. Government licensed shape shifter, appearance variable. I forgot that because my face could be anyone’s they had told me I didn’t need to take a photo.

I start to crumble into a ball. If even the government doesn’t have a photo of me, then there really is no hope.

“Hey Jason.” Ryan calls out to me from the next room. “Buddy I know you’re off for the day but we’ve got one more. Are you up for one last griever?”

I rise to my feet. Ryan has already displayed a photo of the loved one on the monitors. Underneath her face is my personal motto. It’s not my face that matters, but the person behind it. I had almost forgotten. It is not my nose or my eyes that make me who I am. It’s my heart and soul, and those never change.

“Absolutely Ryan, it’s not trouble at all. Send the griever in.”

I rapidly scanned the file Ryan attached with the deceased’s photo. It detailed her physical appearance so I could duplicate it, and gave a brief bio on the person coming to grieve. Our research team was fantastic about deciphering information concerning the relationship between the griever and the departed. Many of them were retired law enforcement who could find out a lot about someone without having to badger them for information. It allowed me to know as much as possible about the whole situation without the griever having to be pestered a lot about the obviously delicate subject of the departed.

The griever was a twenty something female, just out of college, and the departed was her roommate. That fact stung me. I knew that meant she was going to be heading back to an empty apartment for the next few weeks, or maybe even next few months.

I examined the scan of her friend and used a mirror to insure I exactly duplicated her features. The griever would be coming in any second, so I absorbed the last few details about how the two had known each other through a collegiate sports team, and shared aspirations to be gym teachers.

One of the researchers managed to find a few sound bites of the departed, and I begin an audio loop of her in my earpiece so I can begin to formulate a way to duplicate her voice. Having her vocal chords certainly helps, but there’s more to speech than just physical structure. The voice is like any instrument. You can’t just have the equipment, you have to know how to play it as well. Thankfully, this was my job, and I am something of a master at duplicating vocal patterns as long as I can have a few sound bites to work from. The door to my office begins to turn. I checked my appearance one last time as the door opens and the young lady walks in.

Oddly enough, Ryan doesn’t send me any photos of the griever. It usually doesn’t matter because I’m not going to duplicate their appearance. It’s no more important for me to know the appearance of the griever than it is for an employer to know the appearance of someone they’re interviewing. That is, unless the person they’re interviewing just happens to be the same person they’re going on a date with later.

When a shape shifter gets surprised they have a tendency to rapidly shift through different appearances. I’m very grateful that I’ve been doing this since high school and have developed the professionalism necessary to maintain my appearance even under extreme emotional duress.

“Hey.” She says. ‘I don’t even know her name.’ I realize. I can’t think of what to say, but I know how to look, and this isn’t about me saying anything anyway. They’re not here because they want to pretend their loved one is still alive. They’re here to say goodbye. So usually I just listen, and adopt a very practiced expression of hope and understanding. I’ve been told by some of the people who trained me that it’s a bit like one of those movies where the protagonist is dying, but doesn’t want anyone to be sad. Right before they go they show you this expression that says ‘it’s going to be okay’. That’s what I aim for, and expressing that very specific emotion is now almost second nature for me.

She’s still standing in the doorway, so I gesture to the seat in front of me. I walk out from behind my desk and sit in another chair facing the one I’ve indicated she should take.

This can be an understandably awkward situation, and I typically have to guide the griever through the first few steps. It’s all about body language, and patience. They’re here to talk, and I’m here to listen.

She shuffles her feet for a bit, glancing nervously at me like she thinks I might bite, but I just keep making gentle eye contact and waiting. I lean back in the chair to communicate my ease to her.

The young lady scrounges up the courage and comes over to sit beside me. She doesn’t say anything right away, but that’s normal. She may have planned something out in her head in advance, but it’s just like giving someone important news in real life. Once you’re actually sitting in front of the person everything you planned on saying tends to go out the window.

“I watered your cactus.” She finally says. I twitch my lips ever so slightly outwards to indicate the hint of a smile. She takes this little bit of active listening as permission to continue. “It’s silly I know. I’m not even sure you’re supposed to water cactuses, cacti, whatever you call them. What am I doing? I don’t even know the plural for it and I’m trying to take care of it.” She snorts a little, finding humor in the ridiculousness of it. I can hear that there’s starting to be some excess mucus building up from her tear ducts that’s being funneled to her nose. “It’s just like when you would go to Europe you know? I would take care of your stuff for when you get back. Which is stupid. I mean, because you’re not coming back.” Her eyes are starting to go red now.

I lean in to the conversation now, folding my hands so that they rest just a few inches from hers. “It’s like if I just keep acting like you’re going to come back then you will, and I know you’re not, but I still feel like you’re going to. Like if I just keep trying to show you that I care then one day I’ll look up and you’ll come walking through the door, shouting ‘sup’ to me as you hang up your lacrosse gear. Just like you did in college.” She wipes away her first tear. “You remember college? Man we were bad, but we had so much fun. I still remember how you spiked the coaches coffee with a ghost pepper. He turned so red, and boy did you run laps.” She laughs a bit again as she wipes away the second tear.

“I just wanted to have more memories like that with you. You were only 23. We were supposed to go to Ireland together, and give embarrassing speeches at each other’s’ weddings.” There’s a steady stream now, and her sentences are punctuated with heavy breathing and snorting sounds as she tries to hold back the mucus that is now starting to come out of her nose.

“I miss you so much.” Her voice cracks on the last word. I take her hands in mine and maintain a firm but gentle pressure as the waterworks really start to flow. She slumps forward and I touch my forehead to hers. There’s some small corner of my brain that starts using the physical contact to stir up some unprofessional feelings, but my need to be here for her squashes it. I’m here for her, not for me.

It’s several seconds before she can calm down enough to continue. I just keep maintaining that steady supportive pressure through her hands as we have our heads pressed together.

“And I know we’re going to have part soon. I mean, I guess that’s the point of this. So we can part ways on friendlier terms?” She pulls her head back so she can make eye contact. The impact that her outpouring of emotion has had on her makeup is substantial, but I keep that supportive gaze on her eyes as she finishes her thought.

“I want you to know that I’ve always thought of you as a sister, and I’m going to be there for your family as they go through this. I’m going to make sure that your memory makes them stronger, that it makes all of us stronger. You won’t be forgotten Sarah. I promise. I’ll carry your memory.” She snorts again, thinking of something funny, but still crying as she thinks of it. “Even when I’m too old and sick to remember it myself. I’ll make other people remember it for me and tell me about you.” She kisses me on the forehead.

“I’ll miss you Sarah. I loved you like my own sister, and I’ll always remember you.” She touches my cheek and takes a big shuddering breath.

I touch her cheek back and say, in Sarah’s voice. “Thank you.”

We sit for several long moments like that. I now have one hand on her shoulder, the other is holding her hand, and I’m looking at her while she’s staring at my shoes. Her breathing is agitated, like she’s trying to catch her breath, but it slowly returns to normal.

After her breathing steadies she releases the hand that’s holding mine and removes my other hand from her shoulder. I fold my hands in front of me as she begins to compose herself. She becomes aware of how wet her face is, and begins wiping it with her hands, and producing handkerchiefs to clean herself up.

There’s a glass of water nearby for such occasions. She takes a few sips and pats herself down with the handkerchief one more time.

Finally, she makes eye contact again. Her eyes look like she’s been pepper sprayed, but no tears are coming. “Goodbye Sarah.” She says. A final tear rolls down her cheek as she bends over to kiss me on the forehead one more time.

She stands up and straightens her clothes out, observing all the moist spots. She hasn’t composed herself enough to be embarrassed by it, and she shouldn’t be embarrassed anyway. Our waiting room is perpetually full of people who are a bit of a mess.

The girl, whose name I still don’t know, walks to the door. She turns the knob, and as she opens it, turns back. I’m still maintaining my appearance and my supportive facial expression.

“Thank you.” She says, this time I know she’s addressing me, and not her friend. I don’t respond verbally, but just give a slight nod of my head to indicate to her that I understand. Reaching for her handkerchief she closes the door.

I exhale loudly, thankful that the walls are soundproof. “What are the odds?” I ask the ceiling. “I should go buy a lottery ticket or something.” I slip into Ryan’s appearance subconsciously. I’m thinking about how she must be thanking Ryan and me for our work.

“Well, I guess this means I’m not taking her to see that new Nicholas Sparks movie.” I had already read the reviews. He managed to kill off all three protagonists in this one.

Then it really hits me. “The date!” I exclaim. I’ve only got two hours to prepare, and I’m going to be stuck in this office for the next twenty to give Ryan time to gracefully clear the waiting room. Clients always felt weird about seeing me afterwards, it stalled out the grieving process somewhat if they saw me as someone other than the person they had lost. So I had to wait until Ryan had a chance to clear everyone out.

I dash over to my computer and start fumbling through the file, desperately trying to find a date that would work. One of her other friends had set us up, so I knew very little about the girl.

Volleyball was clearly out. Come to think of it, they probably did a lot of sports together in college. Best to steer clear of any kind of athletic activity. They were doing reruns of ‘The Land Before Time’. That was Definitely out. Matter of fact, it was a depressing time for movies in general. Best to just skip the movie portion of the date.

Dinner somewhere? That was too cliché, this girl needed something special. I was going to be the first real social interaction she had after dealing with the death of her friend, I really had to go all out for her. If not because I wanted to see her, then just because she really needed to have a good time right now.

It had to be something really far out there, something that would completely get her mind off things. Something that she had never done before and couldn’t possibly be something that her friend or her had ever done together. Video games were too common, so they were out. TV and movies were definitely out, way too normal. Rock climbing was too athletic, dancing was definitely something that her and Sarah had done together at some point. Girls liked doing that kind of thing.

I mentally go through every date that I’ve ever had seen middle school. Every prom, every dance, every football game, every social, every time I have ever showed a girl how to enjoy life, and I come up short. Nothing seems to work.

Then I suddenly remember something me and my guy friends used to do in high school. It was dumb. For sure it was dumb, entirely juvenile. But maybe that’s just what she needed right now. I started to smile a little. There was also no way she had done this with her friend.

I checked my watch, it was almost time for me to make my exit. When Ryan opens the door I take off like a shot, shouting some hurried explanation over my shoulder as I race for the stairs. There’s no time to lose. I’ve got a few stops to make, and a whole lot of rubber bands to purchase.

I hectically dash through several stores to pick up what I need. I’m so preoccupied that my face starts flipping features at one of the checkouts. I don’t notice until I see that the cashier is looking at me like I’m a ghost. She’s reaching for the phone to call security when I pull out my wallet.

“Ma’am, it’s okay. I’m a certified shifter. See, this is my license.” She takes the card and flips it over, shuddering as she does so.

“There’s nothing to worry about. I’m just going to finish checking out and I’ll be on my way.” With a trembling hand she passes back the license to me. Shifters aren’t very common, and usually people only hear about us if they’ve been referred from a therapist.

“Well, um, could you uh, just um.” She fumbled with some of my purchases as she stared gawking at me. “Pick one?” She finally asked.

Feeling very unprofessional I put a hand to my face to help myself concentrate. I became aware of the unfortunate fact that I still didn’t know what my face was, and I was going to have to have a face for her.

Normally I went with people from the office. They were basically family to me, and if anyone mistook me for one of them they usually understood. Or I could just pretend to be one of them, but that was not going to work today. I was going to meet with someone who would have to associate a face with me and no one else.

“Sorry, yes, just hang on a second.” I tell the cashier as I pull out my phone. I need to concentrate. I need to find a face to model and find it quick.

A celebrity was my first thought. They’re all good looking, so that would probably score me some points, but there was the obvious flaw of people recognizing it, and I think the whole ‘well isn’t that a strange coincidence’ line would wear thin after a while. It had to be someone decent looking and somebody neither I nor she would know.

Reddit! Perfect, I would go on /r/fitness, scroll through a few pages to find somebody without much karma, and look for a pic. They would probably be good looking, and in all probability we would never meet him.

I begin furiously searching for a post with a pic of the OP when the cashier says. “How were you going to pay for this?” The cashier asks. I didn’t buy much and I’ve just been standing here, one hand on my face, holding up the line, for some time now.

I finally happen upon the perfect post. He’s about my age, attractive, and I can honestly say I’ve never met him before. He looked vaguely Australian, at least he had the hat for it, so as a yank I was probably pretty safe.

There’s a good face pic in his pull-up tutorial. I quickly memorize his face, forward the page to my gmail, and adopt my new face.

The cashier is gawking again. Even knowing what she was going to see, she still didn’t quite believe it.

I’m tempted to become a cat to really mess with her, but I restrain myself. The cashier doesn’t say the typical ‘thank you for coming here, you have this many reward points’ but. So I just wish her well, and be on my way.

I have to call the girl to let her know the change of plans. I came up with a lame excuse for not going to see the movie and just told her to meet me at a popular nearby park. There was no hint of sorrow in her voice, and she was very understanding about the change of venue.

Good, everything going to plan so far.

I just barely have enough time to get home, change, make sure I’ve got the facial features down so they won’t slip while I’m on the date, and dash right back out the door.

My arrival at the park only precedes hers by a few minutes, and I’ve only just laid everything out when she walks up.

Instinctively I want to wave her over, but then I remember that neither of us knows what the other one looks like. A bit of an oversight on our part. It was a pretty normal thing to exchange photos before meeting, but I guess, me being me, I don’t really think about these things, and she was probably too preoccupied to think about it.

I pretend not to notice her and instead focus on my setup as she walks over. I’m hoping the oddness of my setup will clue her in that I’m her date.

“Hey?” She waves as she gets closer. “Am I supposed to be meeting you?” She asks. I fidget with one of the items and then stand up to return her wave.

“If you’re supposed to be meeting the most dashingly handsome man on the east coast, then yes.” I say.

She laughs. “No actually I’m supposed to be meeting the world’s humblest man for dinner.”

“You’ve come to the right place.” I exclaim, pointing a thumb at my chest. “World’s humblest man at your service.” I give a little bow and stretch out a hand to shake hers. “I’m Jason, glad to meet you.” I want to bite my tongue as soon as the words are out.

I shouldn’t have used my name. She knows that the shifter she just met was a Jason. I’ve given myself away.

“Jason.” She says, shaking my hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m Jennifer.” She looks momentarily like she’s remembering something from a dream she had. “That’s funny. I think I just met a Jason earlier.”

“I’d love to meet the chap.” I say, fumbling for something to distract her. ‘I’ve got to misdirect her. I’ve got to misdirect her’. I glance behind me and realize I’ve laid out the perfect distraction.

“But unless he’s got a few hundred rubber bands and a watermelon I think you’ll find I’m much more interesting company.” I step to the side and gesture at the almost 700 rubber bands and the small sized watermelon I’ve laid out.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” She says, putting her fists on her hips in disbelief. “What on earth are you going to do with several hundred rubber bands and a watermelon?” She asks. I mentally congratulate myself on my distraction. “Make a giant slingshot?”

“Better.” I say, sitting down and patting the seat next to me. She obediently sits down, staring fixedly at the watermelon as if expecting it to suddenly turn into a carriage. “We’re going to make a bomb.”

She tried to stand up when I said the word bomb, but I anticipated this, and caught her elbow.

“Oh come on you big baby, it won’t be that bad.” I could sense she didn’t really want to leave because she sat back down quickly. “Here, it’s easy. You just take a couple rubber bands.” I picked up a few to demonstrate.

“Stretch’em out, and then wrap it around the watermelon.” The rubber bands twanged into place around the middle of the melon making a slight thunking sound.

“See? Easy as pie.” I shove a few rubber bands her direction. She picks up two rubber bands and just like I showed her, twangs them into place around the large green fruit.

“Not so bad.” She says, gaining a measure of confidence.

“Not yet.” I smile maliciously at her, before she can think about that too much I pick up another four bands and slide them into place around the middle of the melon. “9.” I count off. She picks up another two.

“Eleven.” She says after wrapping them around the melon. Soon we get caught up in a contest of who could put the most rubbed bands around the melon. We’re shoving each other out of the way in an effort to put the most on.

“100.” I intone. She doesn’t even blink, just putting on more and more bands.

“200.” I count off after several more minutes. She starts to slow down a bit. “Is this dangerous?” She asks. “203

“You can’t ask that now. 207. We’re already over 200 rubber bands in!”

“210.” She replies. “Seriously though, is this going to hurt?” She asks.

“214. You’re slowing down chica, and you’ll be fine.” She’s still somewhat boisterous as we continue to create our own little WMD, until we get to about 300.

“303.” I count off.

“No really, that’s like a lot of rubber bands. Have you done this before?” She asks, forgetting to count off.

“Have you ever lived before? 310.” She tries to pull back a bit, but we are just starting to get to the point where it’s fun.

“Coward! Be ye woman or be ye melon! 314.” I pass the watermelon to her and she rapidly throws on a measly two bands before quickly passing it back to me.

“Say it!” I shout as I grab four more elastic bands.

“316!” She squeaks.

“320!” I shout, enthusiastically applying my processed rubber to the green ball. We press on as more and more bands pile on.

“Oh my gosh, it’s starting to flatten out. Does it normally do that? 389.” It’s true. The melon has now lost its spherical shape.

“393, and yes, we’re getting close now. Any minute this thing is going to be in your hands, and then suddenly it won’t be.” I do my best to sound like I’m telling a ghost story.

“395.” She spurts out, pulling away from the melon as soon as the rubber bands are on, like it’s a bee that might sting her.

Just before I launch into my grand finale speech, I take just a few heartbeats to take her in. I see in her face excitement, joy, loosely veiled as fear, and hope for what was about to what happen. It was everything that had been missing from her face when last I had seen it. She mistakes my pause for hesitation, and now it’s her turn to goad me on.

“Hey, you got me into this, if I have to keep this up then so do you.” I’ve never been so happy to be taunted by a girl.

“Right you are lass.” I quickly throw on five bands and shove the ticking time bomb to her.

“400.” I declare. We’re getting very near to the end of it. Any rubber band could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It’s like a game of hot potato now. Each of us applies our few pieces of elastic and then immediately passes the device on to the other person so they don’t get caught in the explosion.

“472.” I count off, by the time the words are out of my mouth Jennifer is already adding her own.

“474.” She spits out.

“478.”

“480.”

“484.”

“486, hey.” She says.

“490.” I cut her off.

“There’s a little juice flowing down the….” One instant the watermelon is in her hand. The next it’s not. There’s a great squelching sound, and she’s gaping at the empty air where the watermelon used to be. Half of the melon is cut quite smoothly in front of her. Like a great cook has neatly sliced it down the middle. The rest of it is in bits and pieces everywhere.

On her face, every bit of worry, every trace of fear, is gone. In that moment she has forgotten all the trauma of earlier, and is now, for just a few fleeting instances, a kid again. She’s staring at the pieces of melon that are scattered around the table and on the nearby grass. I’m just staring at her. I want to make her feel whatever she’s feeling right now for as long as possible.

I wipe a piece of juice from her forehead, and she turns to address me.

“That was awesome!” She starts bouncing up and down like a kid that’s just gotten just what they wanted for Christmas.

“Well then, let’s see if we can go for double or nothing.” I pull a six pack of diet coke from underneath the bench.

“Ever heard of Russian roulette?”

Baby Team Six part two

Side note to the audience, this is still very much over the top and cheesy, that is all, enjoy!

Hey guys, quick side note, went back and did some work with part one. No real major changes, but I decided since the prompt said GAME+ to add achievements, and rambaby is going for a no kill run this life. So if you see bolded text, those are Life Score achievement pops. Enjoy!

“Wake up and smell the cocoa puffs John.” Ryan tells me. “Evil waits for no baby.” I snap awake expecting a delicious and well balanced breakfast. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that there’s no cereal. Ryan has instead prepared my favorite dish for me, victory.

I’m no longer in the barracks. I’m in a gym, laying in the middle of a wrestling mat. Ryan is sitting at a table with a clipboard. Next to him is a line of soldiers that stretches to the doors, and from what I can see, around the building.

“These boys don’t think you’re for real John. You’re going to be heading up this outfit, and it looks like you need to earn some respect so I organized this little meet and greet for you.” As Ryan turns to address the first hulking beast of a man in line I make a mental note that somebody changed my diaper and put me in some pajamas while I was asleep. Ryan still has his same old sense of humor.

“Sergeant Brooker, what is your military experience?” Brooker listed off an impressive list of accommodations, tours of duty, and tier one outfits he had served with. I didn’t pay much attention. His war experience was clearly readable in the many scars that crisscrossed his face. I mentally stored one of the countries he had served in for a future one liner.

“And this man thinks he can take me on?” I ask.

“Yes sir!” The man shouts, staring me down as he does so.

He addressed me as sir? Ryan must’ve told them my rank. I start sucking on my thumb and with my free hand wave at him for to approach. Sergeant Brooker looks at Ryan for confirmation.

“Are you really going to let me have a go at the little potty trained terror?” He asks.

“He’s not potty trained.” Ryan informs sergeant Brooker. “He’s wearing a diaper son. You might want to take that into consideration when you’re taking him down.”

“I am too potty trained!” I shout indignantly, thumb still in mouth.

I just think diapers are more comfortable is all. I only get to wear them without stigma for a few more months, might as well get the most out of them.

“Go get’em sergeant Brooker. Show your commanding officer what you’re made of.” Sergeant Brooker walks slowly into the circle on the mat that indicated the boundary for the fighting area. It wasn’t the confident kind of slow walk, nor even the careful slow walk of someone sizing up an opponent. It was the ‘Somebody is going to stop this any second now right?’ Kind of slow walk. He had challenged me not because he wanted a piece of me, but because he expected someone to decline the fight. He hadn’t anticipated actually getting pitted against a two year old.

Tier one military units are trained for a lot of things, but toddler combat was one of the few things they don’t teach you. He walked right up to me and just stared down at me. I continued sucking my thumb as I looked back up at him. He was obviously considering what the best way to take me down without hurting me was. I was burdened with no such worries.

He apparently thought picking me up would help somehow. As he bent down to pick me up I headbutted him in the throat, if I had done this as an adult, it would have likely caused permanent damage. As a toddler, it merely meant he had a little trouble breathing all of the sudden. I took advantage of this moment to leap onto his shoulders and apply a chokehold with my legs. Sergeant Brooks tapped out after only 3 seconds.

20LS:Knuckle sandwich for breakfast, score a takedown within five minutes of waking up

“Next!” I shout, as I release sergeant Brooks. “You did alright son.” I tell him in my squeaky prepubescent voice. “I would’ve been worried if you punched a baby in the face without any kind of hesitation. They don’t make babies like me in Egypt do they son?” Sergeant Brooks stares at me like he’s seen, well, like he’s just seen a toddler take down an elite career soldier.

“No, no sir they don’t.” He croaks out through his bruised throat.

“Too right they don’t, now scooch to one side lad. I’ve got some of your friends to show off for.”

“Corporal Wallerstedt.” Ryan indicates the next gentlemen to step up, and once again begins his long list of qualifications for this individual. I try and crack my knuckles but it’s really hard to do with my under developed fingers. It’s hard to look intimidating as a two year old, and that innocent thumb sucking technique won’t work twice. These guys know I mean business now. I’m going to have to try harder with this next guy.

As Ryan finishes I wave the guy over and drop into a fighting stance. I’m probably half this guy’s height, and less than third his weight. This was going to take some doing, but I still had one advantage. My opponent had no experience fighting people my size, but I had plenty of experience fighting people his size.

As corporal Wallerstedt steps into the ring he also adopts a fighting stance, and he has enough respect to bow to me. It’s a sign he has respect for my skill, and I return the bow, and thus the respect. It’s not this guy’s fault he’s about to get owned by a two year old. They just don’t train people for that.

Wallerstedt tries to use his reach to his advantage by throwing out a sidekick. It’s a good idea, but he doesn’t count on me rolling under his leg and jabbing my shoulder into his knee. He is off balance and surprised by the speed of my roll. He collapses onto his front, and I pin his right arm behind him.

This is a mistake as he’s so much stronger than me he just pulls his arm away, but I correct quickly and throw another leg chokehold when he tries to stand up. I feel uncreative using the same takedown, but with my weak arms it’s really my only way of forcing these guys to tap out.

“Looks like you just got baby sat.” I inform Wallerstedt from on top of his head as soon as he taps out. “I could do this all day. Keep them coming Ryan!” Ryan is grinning like a fool as he waves up the next soldier.

“I’ll set them up John. You knock them down.” After I had taken down sergeant Brooks a few of the soldiers in line had left their places and come to sit with their recently beaten comrade. After I had taken out the corporal Wallerstedt about a quarter of them left their spots in line. Half were remaining after I felled the third tier one operative, about a quarter were left after the fourth fight, and by the time I had bested the sixth person, who was one of the outfits female operatives, everyone had sat in a circle around the gym mat.

“Ladies and gentlemen.” Ryan announced. He put down his clipboard and began to walk around the group. I stood at attention and watched him as he made his way around the circle.“As you can see the reports were accurate. You are addressing the nearest thing to the physical embodiment of martial prowess that has ever walked the face of the earth. This little baby, as so many of you called him the morning during the debriefing is in fact captain Francis Timothy Walker reborn. We don’t know how or why, but as you’ve clearly seen, no other mind could’ve found a way to take down not one, but six tier one operatives each with several years of experience under their belt.”

“Some of you thought this assignment was a joke. It isn’t. It’s deadly serious.” I happened to be checking to make sure my diaper was still dry at this point. I quickly pretended to be dusting my legs off. “You were assembled because you come from the elite of the elite, the best of the best as the saying goes. We found that John Doe was the only man fit to lead you into combat. The mission this unit was assembled for is of the utmost secrecy and importance. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re about go where no baby, and no tier one operative has gone before. Dismissed.” The soldiers quickly and efficiently jog out of the building at the final order from Ryan.

“You seem to be in an inspiring mood.” I tell Ryan as he joins me in the middle of the mat.

“I wasn’t exaggerating John. There’s been some troubling information that’s come up through the intelligence community. Someone is planning something big, something bold. Something that is designed to cause so much chaos that someone very important will get an itchy nuclear trigger finger. We need your team to find out what it is.”

“That’s who those guys were that came after me this morning?” I ask.

“Possibly, we’re still interrogating them, but they’re not cracking. These guys are good. They very well could be behind it, but we can’t know for sure. Walk with me John.” He says, leading me into a nearby hallway. “We’re going to get you kitted out for your mission.” We go through a few security checkpoints guarded by more soldiers, and into what I can only describe as a cross between a toy shop and a gun store.

“What on earth is all this?” I ask pointing at a wrack of baby supplies such as diapers and pacifiers. Ryan being the learn by doing kind of guy picks up a light blue pacifier and hands it to me.

“Put it in and hold your nose.” I’m perplexed, but Ryan and I have been through more operations that almost got us killed then most people have been to the dentists. Which I guess isn’t much for some people, but the point is I trust the guy, so I put the pacifier in and plug my nose. Ryan throws something at my feet that produces a cloud of green gas. He has strategically taken several large steps back so the gas doesn’t hit him.

“Take a breath through the pacifier.” Ryan advises me. I oblige and too my surprise find that I haven’t just inhaled a large lung full of ominous green gas.

“That will filter any gas that isn’t corrosive enough to cause damage to your eyes.” The gas gets sucked into the ceiling by some ventilation system. I remove the pacifier and inspect it.

“I’m impressed. I never would’ve guessed that this thing doubled as a partial gas mask.” It looks exactly like an ordinary pacifier, and believe me, I’ve seen a lot of pacifiers. My mom has not understood which cereal I wanted to eat for breakfast so many times.

“It also comes in tactical colors.” Ryan informs me. “Not that we think you’ll want one of those. The whole point is to blend in.” He walks back to the table and picks up an ordinary looking bottle full of milk.

“I don’t suppose I can drink this?” I ask as he tosses it back to me.

“I don’t think you should, give the lid three good bites and then toss it that way.” He points towards a sealed steel bunker at the end of the room. I oblige him and give the lid a few good chomps. I’m somewhat mournful as I toss the bottle to Ryan. It’s past my breakfast time.

Ryan chucks the bottle into the bunker at the end of the room. The bottle sails through the only open door, which promptly slams shut behind him. No sooner does it click shut then the whole stainless steel room lifts off the ground and comes crashing down into several different pieces.

“That room had walls of solid steel three inches thick and was cryo-welded to the floor.” It now looks like a giant stepped on it. Or like a very angry toddler kicked it over.

“So rambaby wasn’t enough. You had to turn him into 00diaper.” I comment sarcastically to Ryan. He was grinning like a fool again.

“You should’ve seen the faces on the government contractors when we asked them to design this stuff. We spent an entire two hour meeting convincing them that this wasn’t a joke and we actually wanted Kevlar footy pajamas.” Kevlar footy pajamas, the Navy SEAL in me rejoiced at the idea of fully body Kevlar protection. It would provide excellent protection from all manner of bullets and bladed weapons. The special operative in me loved the idea of having minimized weak spots. The little kid in me rejoiced at the idea of pajamas that would keep you super warm when you went to bed, and had those little plastic things on your feet that let you slide around on linoleum floors.

“Do they come with dinosaur designs?” I asked, hopping up and down, scanning the shelves for the mystical pajamas. “I really want raptor ones. My mom got me triceratops footy pajamas for my birthday and you know they were cool and all, so I couldn’t get mad because she really put a lot of thought into it, but I really want raptor pajamas.” Ryan put a hand over his heart like what I said hurt him.

“What kind of tier one operative walks around in triceratops footy pajamas? They aren’t even a predator.” He reached up onto a high shelf and pulled out a set of velociraptor footy pajamas that were just my size. “We also have T. Rex as a backup.” I give off a little squeak that would have very likely undermined my authority with the troops, and practically trip over myself taking them from his hands and slipping into them.

“Normally I would dramatically shoot you at this point to demonstrate their bullet stopping potential, but your skin is really sensitive to bruising and I’m not sure your bone structure can withstand a shot without fracturing. I mean, your pajamas will stop bullets, at least anything at or below a 5.56 round, but it’s still going to do a lot of damages.”

“So for now it would be best if I didn’t get shot.” I surmise. Ryan shrugs “If you can.” I spy something out of the corner of my eye. I slide over on my footy pajamas and point.

“Please tell me that those are real.” There on the low hanging shelf next to some ninja stars that are stained green is a box of my favorite O shaped cereal.

“Well, sort of, you remember that green smoke I threw at you when you first came in here? All I did to generate that cloud was throw a few of those at your feet.” I open the box and carefully pull out a handful of multi-colored cereal.

More in the comments

“Oh yeah, I was wondering about those.” I pick one up and twirl it between my fingers. Despite the fact that the last time I did this I was three feet taller the piece of metal flits easily from finger to finger.

“I’d be careful with those. They’re tipped with poison that’ll drop someone twice your size almost before they feel the pin prick, so be careful with them. I’m not 100% sure how your small physiology will respond to that volume of toxin. An adult will process it out of their system fast enough to avoid any lasting damage. I don’t know if the same can be said for you.” I carefully replace the ninja star and look around the rest of the bizarre armory.

“I’m noticing that there aren’t any guns.” I say.

“Yes, we did some testing and concluded it would be impractical to give you firearms for several reasons. First, they would draw too much attention. Footy pajamas are normal for a two year old, and even ninja stars aren’t an abnormal toy for little boys, but guns, even if we tried to make them look fake. They would be too obvious. Rifles were completely out of the question, and even if you paint it and stick on one of those orange pieces, a firearm still looks like a firearm. To add on to that, they’re too large for you to handle smoothly, we would have to give you lower caliber rounds, and very downsized pistols in order for you to be able to shoot them with any degree of accuracy. All in all, the take down power of the kind of pistol we might be able to give you wasn’t worth the attention it would draw. We thought it would be best to give you a number of light weight options for stealthy takedowns. After all, half the point of you being you is that people don’t check babies for dangerous weapons.”

During Ryan’s rather longwinded explanation about the lack of guns I inspect my footy pajamas more thoroughly. I notice that there are several pockets that look as if they were designed to hold some of the gear laid out here. There’s a compartment for the pacifier, one for the ninja stars, and one that looks just right for a cereal holder.

I fill up a container with cereal while he’s talking and stow it in the appropriate pocket.

“I know you’re eager to get on to training.” Ryan says. “But we figured we would start with Close Quarters Combat as it’s going to be the skill that has changed most with your new body.” “I agree.” I say, slipping a few ninja stars into side pockets. “I don’t expect to be training with these anytime soon as I am sure I’m still fairly skilled in their use.” I throw one of the ninja stars and it imbeds right in the middle of the forehead of a dummy that was setup about ten meters away. I had to put a lot of arc on it because my wrist is not that strong, but that just makes my point even more thoroughly. “However I do expect that those bad guys are going to come swooping in at any moment. If they’re half as deadly and well networked as you make them out to be then they’re probably staging an attack on this place as we speak.”

“You underestimate us.” Ryan says, slightly offended by my statement. “Still, you’re right. We learned a long time ago that you should always take your opponent seriously and not get too confident in your own power. Besides, everyone else on this base is either armed or could be armed in moments.” Ryan had been carrying two pistols on him the entire time. I stow the pacifier in the last available pocket and zip everything up.

5LS: Silent but deadly, acquire your new stealth gear

I wonder if there was somewhere I could go see my total score. “Ready for breakfast, I mean training, ready for training.” I correct myself. Ryan laughs.

“We’ve got you covered old friend. It is past your breakfast time isn’t it? Let’s go hit the mess hall.”

The mess hall is practically empty when we show up, just a few guys who were on duty during the morning meal grabbing a quick bite before heading back to their bunks for some shut eye.

Ryan grabs bacon, eggs, and toast. I’ve been thinking about milk and cereal all morning, and find that someone has conveniently left out a bowl with milk and orange juice on the side. I thank the chef who no doubt had the foresight to provide an age appropriate meal, and sit down with my old comrade.

“Are we still using that old deal?” I ask Ryan as I pour milk over my cereal and start stuffing my face.

Ryan is meticulously cutting up his food into bite size chunks.

“You mean the one where we don’t talk about current missions during meals? Absolutely, nobody else on this base is going to do anything but talk about missions. Both of us need someone to talk about other stuff with.”

“Awesome!” I’m relieved that it’s not going to have to be all fate of the world all the time with Ryan. “On that note, how did they drag you into this? You retired a few months before I did. You’ve been out of the game a while man, how did they get you back in?” Ryan takes a few measured bites of his eggs.

“Isn’t it obvious? I came back for you John. When they told me that they had created a new and exciting outfit I turned them down. It wasn’t until they mentioned you that I took them up on it. I knew you would want a friend in all of this, and who better than the man who remembered to bring the extra flashbangs on the smash and grab ops because he knew you tended to leave them behind.”

“That was one time alright? Can’t a guy make a mistake? And what about you, mister forgets to turn his safety off when he’s sighting his rifle? Besides, we were snipers. We weren’t supposed to get close enough to use flashbangs. Remember when we took down that African warlord? The one who was killing all of those babies? Didn’t need flashbangs then did we?” A few soldiers on a nearby bench hear me mention this op. One of them leans over to ask me a question.

“You guys were on the golden lion op? I heard that you had to crawl through a snake infested jungle for two days to get into location for the shot.” Technically speaking we probably shouldn’t be discussing classified ops, but my existence was probably officially denied by the government, and Ryan was old enough that most of his enemies probably thought he was dead anyway. What were they going to do? Fire us?

“You heard right soldier.” Ryan responds. “John here even had a python crawl over him.”

“And on top of that we had to take the shot with old Russian tech rifles from the second world war so they wouldn’t know it was an American job. Speaking of Russian tech, you remember the Siberian op Ryan?”

As we start swapping old war stories soldiers slowly start to congregate around us. I notice as more and more of them start asking questions that they are not just Americans. It seems most of the NATO countries and a few of the non-NATO American friendly countries have sent representatives here as well. I’m particularly glad to see some Swedish troops in the ranks. Winter warfare is my Achilles heel and there are none better than the swedes at doing black ops in the snow.

Me and Ryan talk about everything from basic training to selection for the tier one groups, to active duty, to retirement. I’ve had these memories swimming around in my head for two years and it’s great to finally get to share them with people who understand and appreciate them. The other soldiers join in with stories of their own in a giant story swap that would probably make any intelligence officer pull his hair out. It’s great to hear what the community has been up to since my retirement and rebirth. When the time for breakfast has passed and we have to head back to the gym for CQC training I’m feeling rejuvenated both body and soul. It’s going to be a good day.

When we enter the gym I find that the mat is surrounded by six of the largest soldiers that I’ve seen yet.

“You did well against those guys this morning.” Ryan says, taking up a position on the outside of the mat. “But there were two major problems with your fighting style. First, you were defensive and reactionary. If you had made the first move on those guys they would’ve thrown you around the mat. Second, you could only take them on one at a time. We’re going to be dropping you into some hairy situations and you need to be able to handle yourself against large groups of combatants.” He indicates the men standing around the mat. “We will start with just six today.” Just six he says, any one of these guys was at least triple my body weight. If we were going by body mass the equivalent challenge for adult me would have been a crowd of 24 equally sized men. This was going to be fun.

“We’ll start with two at a time and work up from there. James, Phillip, have a go at him. You saw what he was capable of this morning, you don’t need to hold back. John, would you care to relieve yourself of your personal arsenal? This is unarmed combat.” I remember the men breaking into my parent’s house. How much easier would it have been to just throw a handful of knock out gas pellets at them. I’m loathe to relinquish my personal weaponry so soon after having acquired it, but I dip into my pockets and reluctantly pull out the equipment. It’s fortunate that I did, at that exact moment there are a series of rolling explosions that shake the base. A siren wails and a voice comes over some loud speakers.

“Full alert, full alert, battle stations, base under attack. Repeat, full alert, base under attack, battle stations.” The six men bolt for their weapons which they’ve left at the side of the gym and Ryan pulls out his pistol as he shoots a question I don’t hear into a walkie talke he’s produced from a back pocket.

“John!” He shouts. “It looks like your first mission is going to be a little sooner than we anticipated.” I place my pacifier in my mouth and ready a handful of cereal.

“It’s play time, let’s go make some friends.” The six gentlemen who were going to be my assailants moments before report back in full combat gear.

“Ready for orders sir.” They intone in unison.

“You’re up John.” Ryan says, drawing a pistol and falling into position behind me. “Show these guys that all they’ve done by coming here is to wake a sleeping baby and fill him with rage.” I ready a ninja star and take position at the front of the troops.

“Gas masks on, roll up this mat and you three take up positions behind it. You other three take up defensive positions on the sides of the gym. Ryan, you’ve got the door we just came from. Stay out of sight and take down anyone who tries to flank us. These guys are coming for me. You can bet they know where I am so you can bet they’re going to be here any second. Let’s roll out the welcome wagon boys.” The troopers are good, by the time I’ve finished giving orders they’re already in position. I take up position behind the mat with them.

“Tangos at the door.” One of the troopers whispers to me.

“Copy, non-lethal shots if you can. We want live prisoners to get information if at all possible.”

“Roger.” The soldiers confirm with me silently. I toss a handful of pellets at the door so that when the enemy squad breaks in they are immediately dazed by the cloud of green smoke. The troopers are efficient as always. Quick controlled shots from the men behind the mat drop the door breachers, and the men on the side quickly close in to cuff them. The enemy is down before they ever get to fire a single bullet.

“Stow them against the wall and return to your positions. You can bet there will be more of these guys. See that Ryan?” Ryan doesn’t respond.

“Ryan come in.” Still no response. I turn around just in time to see two men in combat gear that is all too familiar to me at this point.

“Flank!” I shout as they bring their rifles up. I loose two ninja stars just in time. They drop, and their buddies behind them are so surprised that they don’t see the next two coming. I only brought four, so the fifth guy bringing up the rear gets a swift kick to the knees and a chokehold applied with more force than is strictly speaking necessary.

“Ryan!” I shout, ducking into the hallway where the five men have come from. Ryan is slumped against a wall, a half dozen other enemy combatants sprawled at his feet.

“Sorry John.” He croaks. He’s in a bad way.

“Medic!” I shout. “We need a medic!” I’m at his side in a heartbeat, trying desperately to apply pressure on his wounds, but there’s just too many.

“Medic!” I shout again. One of my own squad comes through the door already producing bandages and tourniquets.

“It’s alright John.” Ryan says. “I had a good run. You know I did.”

“Medic!” I shout a third time, even though the medic is already at my side and treating wounds as fast as he can.

“Got something to ask you old friend. Will you write the letter to my wife and kids? I want them to hear from someone who knew them, and who knew me. I don’t want some generic government goodbye letter. I want it to be personal. It’ll really help them pull through. Will you do that for me John?” His voice is so weak I can barely hear it. I grab one of his hands and hold on because it’s all I can think to do. I hear gunfire from the gym behind us, but I’m not paying attention.

“Absolutely, you know I will Ryan. I’ll. I’ll. I’ll write them the best last letter that ever was.” Ryan nods and closes his eyes.

“Go do what you do best John.” He says, and then his hand goes limp.

Life long friends 100LS: Be the best friend a man ever had

Little kids often only have enough space in their heads for one emotion at a time, and with those words Ryan kicks out all sadness and replaces it with a burning desire to go repay the fools who’ve done this to my oldest friend.

I rush back to the gym, ninja stars and gas pellets at the ready, to find that the men I left there have already cleaned everything up.

“To the door! We’re going on the offensive. Stack up!” The troops comply and within seconds we’re bursting through the door and onto the base. It’s a sorry sight with many buildings burning and casualties from both sides everywhere, but no guns are out. Teams are sweeping to the base perimeter, but no one is firing a shot. There are no enemy helicopters and troop transports pulling in. The fighting is already done.

“No! No it can’t be done already!” I shout. My troops have dutifully take cover in nearby positions. They’re ready for a second attack that will not come.

“This isn’t fair!” I shout. There should be enemies for me to take my vengeance out on. It can’t be done already.

“Sir, it’s for you.” One of the troops hands me his headset.

“Thanks trooper.” I say, putting it on.

“Ready to take the fight to them?” A scrambled voice comes over the headset.

“Just tell me where they are.”

Baby Team Six part one

Book project Number 3! This is not the mysterious third book project I keep alluding to. That is now project number four. I’ll say briefly that the mystery project is now to the point where I’m looking for an agent. Now then, this is a new comedy project that just started today due to a very inspiring prompt over at reddit.com/r/writingprompts. It’ll be five parts, and probably a bit shorter than unhooked. Parts will come out every 3-4 days, with the first part coming out this Saturday at about noon EST. Now then onto Baby Team Six part. Fair warning, I am a big fan of cheesy action movies.

After death a text window pops up: Welcome to new game+. You will begin you life anew, but retain all knowledge, skills, currency, and items you choose to carry over. The challenge and enemies will be adapted to your level accordingly.

Life was okay until I turned two. The body and brain can’t utilize past knowledge much before then. But once I turned two, oh boy.

“Jerry somebody’s broken in.” I heard my mom whisper to my dad.

What? I don’t remember our house ever being broken into. And my parents would’ve told me about that at some point for sure. Our family didn’t keep secrets like that.

“I told you I should’ve gotten that Glock.” My dad whispers back. I can hear voices downstairs now. Several of them, and several bolts being pulled back to chamber rounds in what sounds like are very large guns.

“We’ve got to protect the baby.” My mom tells my dad.

No, this baby’s got to protect you. I roll out of my bed and hit the ground. Thankfully being a baby I am very light weight and therefore make very little noise. I run to the top of the stairs before my dad can open his door to sneak over to my room.

I move noiselessly to the base of the stairs and peak around the corner.

A normal person would be scared at a group of thugs stacking up on the stairwell like a SWAT team. A normal person would’ve probably begged for their life when they saw all the assaults rifles, shotguns, and body armor. A normal toddler would’ve wet themselves and passed out. But a normal toddler also didn’t do three tours in Afghanistan.

“It’s him!” The first one shouts, bringing his gun to bear. I’m too weak to fight him directly so I dive under him, pulling the pin on one of his grenades as I duck under.

“Don’t let…” I cut the second guy off with a strategic punch to his reproductive organs, and sprint into a nearby bathroom, jumping into the tub and covering my head just in time to hear the grenade go off.

This is going to be an interesting childhood.”

Life was rough enough as a SEAL team six member the first time around. This was going to be a challenge worthy of the world’s deadliest toddler. The time for resting in my cradle and dreaming of Barney was over. The time for sleeping in safe houses and dreaming of bullets had begun.

I stood up and dusted myself off as I hopped out of the tub. My parents were not made of the tougher stuff that I had been created from. They were still upstairs, no doubt wondering if they were being bombed. A hand grenade explosion inside is loud enough to damage you’re hearing. I stride through the aftermath of the handheld explosive and take note of my fallen foes.

They bear no insignia, but there equipment is a little too advanced for just a random group of thieves. I’d finish going through them later. My parents were probably terrified out of their minds right now.

There’s still some smoke from the explosion whisping about me like a cloak when I stride into my parents room. They’re cowering underneath the bed. I can’t blame them. They probably thought the Germans had come back for thirds from Uncle Sam.

I knelt down next to the bed, sticking my head underneath. I make eye contact with my quivering father and while the smoke continues to drip off me I tell him.

“Nobody’s breaking in while this baby’s onboard. Now come out here. You have to start cooking up a cover story. Nobody’s going to believe someone in diapers could do so much damage.”

“Well…..” My mom mumbles.

“I told you the gas fire was an accident. I totally know how to sauté lobster. My fine motor function just hadn’t kicked in yet.” My mom shrugs, clearly not buying my story, but they both exit the bed.

They don’t know about my skills. They can’t possibly know. It broke my mom’s heart the first time I left the military, and I had been eighteen at the time. It would kill her to send off her child before he turns three. And my dad, I wasn’t sure how he would react, but I couldn’t imagine having a son with lethal hands for weapons that still needed diapers some days could be good for his mental health.

Until tonight they had no idea of what I was capable of. Now they would have to learn fast to stay alive.

“What could we possibly tell the police about the men downstairs?” My dad asks.

“Gas leak maybe?” I provide. “We do have a gas stove.”

“It’s in the kitchen though, and they’re in the hallway. At least, I think that’s where the sound came from.” She scowls, suddenly remembering how old I was. “What on earth was that anyway? And what’s all this about a cover story. What happened? Why aren’t you in bed young man?” She puts her hands on her hips in an attempt to give me a stern motherly look. It doesn’t quite have the desired affect.

“Evil never sleeps, and neither should I.” I tell her. “I was defending this castle from the malicious men who lurk in the night. I am not what you think I am. I…” I’m cut off by the sound of the phone ringing. There are now sirens in the distance, but I expected sirens. I didn’t expect anyone to call at this early hour of the morning. We didn’t have any close friends or relatives nearby. Who could possibly be calling us?

“Hello?” My father asks. My mother is still trying to glare at me. Although her heart isn’t in it anymore. Her fists have slid off her hips and she keeps glancing worriedly over at my father.

“What? Yes, he’s here.” My father, looking as if lady fate herself has personally smacked him, hands me the phone.

“This is the doomsday baby. To whom am I speaking?” The person on the other responds through one of those voice scramblers that makes your voice sound super low and intimidating. Hearing it makes me acutely aware of the fact that my own voice won’t change for at least another eight years.

“Who I am is not important. Who I represent is what’s important, and I represent some very powerful people.”

“Like Disney!?” I ask excitedly. I wish I could say I was faking my enthusiasm. My parents has used the Lion King to lull me to sleep.

“Umm. No.” The voice sounds momentarily unsure of itself. “I represent the combined power of the United Nations. There’s no time to explain anything. Those boys who tried to take you out tonight will have backup rolling in any second. We’re sending a chopper to you, but it won’t get there in time. You need to move your family. Now, and ditch the tracking device in your diaper.” Who would put a tracking device in a diaper, that was low. I reach and locate the deivce, thanking my lucky stars that I hadn’t drunken any water before bed. I pull out the blinking red device.

How had my mom missed this thing when she was changing me? I must’ve taken every ounce of action here out of them when I had come into the world. I throw it on the floor and stomp it until the light goes out.

“On it.” I tell the man on the other line.

“Good luck Rambo baby. We’ll see you on the other side.” The line goes dead, as does the power to the house. I look out the window and see that even though the sun is still down the streetlights are off.

They must’ve cut the power to the whole block. The sirens are real close now. I can see flashing lights in the distance. *Oh no, the police are going to get caught in the cross fire.

“Get to the attic!” I order my parents, dashing for the stairs. “There are more coming!”

“Yes…….Dear.” My mom says. I have no time to verify that they are following my instructions. I run to the kitchen and dig through the cabinets. I know what I’m looking for has to be here. Ah, perfect. They won’t know what hit them. I take two bottles of chemicals and start filling some water balloons with their contents, making sure to memorize which water balloon holds which chemical. I fill about ten before I hear the police pull in out front. I’m not sure this will be enough, but I’m out of time. I throw the water balloons into two small plastic buckets. The kind that are used to build sand castles at the beach, tuck a knife into my diaper, and make for the door.

The officers have just formed a preliminary defensive pereimeter around my house. They’re behind their cars. Their guns are out, and one of them is about to turn on a microphone.

“Get back in your cars!” I shout. “They’re coming!”

“Just make it so us.” The man with the microphone says, his voice booming through the small cul-de-sac. “We’ll protect you from them.

“No you fools.” I say, almost to the line of cars. “I’m here to protect you!”

Just as I say this I reach the line of vehicles. Two black vans come tearing up the street, jack knifing about ten meters from our position. The side doors roll open as the police turn to see who the newcomers are.

They’re greeted with the rattle of automatic weapons as a couple of floor mounted belt fed LMGs open up on the unsuspecting officers. The men in uniform dive for cover as a hail of led thunders down on their cars. Thankfully they’re well enough trained to know that the engine block is their best protection, and a quick once over of the police response tells me most have suffered only minor wounds.

I place the two buckets of water balloon chemical bombs in front of the officer with the microphone.

“You need to throw these at the van!” I shout over the roar of the AK-47s that have joined in with the LMGs.

“What!” He shouts back. “Kid this is no time for a water balloon fight!”

“These aren’t ordinary water balloons!” I yell. “Besides, it’s not like your troopers are throwing anything else at them!” It’s true. All of his officers are still bunkered down behind their vehicles, waiting for a lull in the oncoming fire. I don’t think a single retaliatory bullet has been fired. “You need to throw them because my young arms can’t throw that far!”

“Alright kid.” He reluctantly reaches down and picks one up.

“Make sure you throw them all at the same spot!” I yell as he pitches the first one. It splatters right in front of the LMG of the left vehicle to no effect. The LMG gunner notices him and sends a series of bullets right through the spot that the policemen’s head had occupied moments before.

“It didn’t work!” He yells. “And I nearly got my head taken off!”

“Just one more!” I yell, handing him a balloon filled with the second kind of chemical. “This balloon has a different chemical that the first one needs to react!” He stares at the balloon in his hand. I can tell he’s wondering if it’s worth it. The last one had nearly cost him his life. Why should he try again?

“How old are you?!” He asks.

“Two!” I hold up two fingers in the peace sign like my mommy taught me. That convinces him. He should try again because no ordinary two year old fills water balloons with deadly chemical agents.

The officer pitches the second water balloon right where the first one landed, and this time he’s rewarded for his efforts. A large plume of orange smoke rises as soon as the second balloon splashes onto the remains of the first.

A cloud of the poison materializes, but the LMG gunner whose van the cloud is appearing in front of, doesn’t notice until it reaches his face. He doubles over coughing after only inhaling a couple of breaths. The gun he was manning goes silent.

“Throw the rest!” I shout. The officer sitting next to me needs no encouragements. I hand him balloons, and he throws as fast as he can. It’s a miracle he doesn’t get mowed down by the remaining LMG, or the squad of troops who have taken up positions in the surrounding cars.

The entire section of street the two vans are parked in soon becomes blurry behind a haze of orange smoke. Enemy gunfire beings to die down, and friendly gunfire rises to fill the gap. The officers begin peeking over the hoods of their car and taking potshots at the enemy.

“Run for it!” I hear one of the enemy shout. Many foes lay sprawled out on the ground, and when the vans speed off, they leave many of their comrades behind.

As the officers begin to cheer. I grab the nearest officer by the belt to get his attention.

“What is it kid?” He asks.

“That’s a deadly chemical spill down there. You guys need to evacuate these houses and get those downed men to a hospital as soon as possible. The gas will soon dissipate and you need to get chemical response teams here to neutralize it.” The officer looks confused that a two year old is telling him this, but one look at the downed men where the vans used to be kicks him into gear. Some of them are coughing, but if any of them are going to survive the police need to act quick. They may be bad guys, but they’re still people. They also happen to have highly valuable information about whose sending these hit squads.

As ambulances speed onto the scene, and the police begin resuscitating the downed hitmen, I hear a chopper on approach. The lead officer walks over to me as the chopper appears, circling overhead.

“Kid, who are you?” He asks. Now that his blood pressure was returning to normal after the firefight he was fully comprehending just how crazy it was that a little kid ran out of a house with chemical bombs and instructed pinned down officers in their use. Two year olds should be worrying about how to pronounce the word ‘chemicals’, not throwing them at people, and in lethal doses to boot. To say nothing of the fact that this little kid had maintained a cool head under the withering fire of multiple assault rifles and a brace of high powered Light Machine Guns.

The chopper descends, and someone throws a rope ladder out of the side. I grab a hold of it and begin to be pulled skyward. I cast an eye on the remaining pockets of orange chemical fumes as I give my response.

“I’m the baby whose gas does more than just stink.” The officer either can’t think of a response, or I don’t hear it over the chopper’s whirring blades. I give him a salute as I ascend the ladder and pile into the waiting helicopter.

There are several highly armed men and women inside who throw me respectful salutes as I slide into my seat.

“You guys must really want me alive.” I say over the headset that’s handed to me.

“Yes sir.” The man across from me barks. He’s at least twenty times my age. The grey is starting to show in his stubble.

“So you’re not going to believe I’m just some cuddly kid that was at the right place at the right time?” I throw on my most innocent face.

“Sir, we know you didn’t need the police to handle those terrorists.” The older man replies curtly.

“Terrorists you say?” I scratch my chin. “What would terrorists want with me?”

“HQ on the line.” A female voice pipes in. It looks like it’s one of the pilots.

“Patch them through.” I say, tapping the appropriate button on my headset.

“Glad to have you with us Mr. Doe.” A scrambled voice tells me over my headset.

“I don’t know any Mr. Doe. You must have the wrong number.”

“I’m quite certain I telephoned the proper top secret stealth chopper whose existence I am legally bound to deny. My mother taught me to always check the numbers twice.” The scrambler isn’t strong enough to mask the sarcasm.

Stealth chopper? This thing was loud enough to wake up everybody on the block. Then again, the non-stealth military choppers I was used to would’ve woken up everybody in half the town.

“Well you better check again because I don’t know any Mr. Doe.” I retort.

“There won’t be, because you don’t exist yet. We’re in the process of changing your name to John Doe. It should be finalized within the hour.”

“You can change my name?” I ask. “Who are you guys?”

“We can do many things Mr. Doe, or shall I call you Rambo baby? Well no matter. It would be careful to list the things we can’t do Rambaby. We are powerful people. It’s not safe enough to discuss who we are over this radio connection, but all will be revealed as soon as you land.”

“This is all a little sudden. You guys couldn’t have called a few days ahead to my parents. Just a courtesy call, ‘Hey, Mr. and Mrs. Rambaby what’s your schedule like Tuesday? Free? Excellent, you’re going to be assaulted by some terrorists and you might want to make them snacks or something’. It’s the sort of thing polite people do.” My comment earns some snickers form the soldiers in the helicopter.

“Polite people don’t use voice scramblers and send noisy choppers into the middle of sleeping neighborhoods to wake up people’s dogs. We prefer the term professional Mr. Doe, and like I said, all will be explained to you as soon as you land. I’m surprised you haven’t asked why we’ve changed your name for you though. That was what this call was about.”

“To protect my family right? The same reason why Batman doesn’t go by his first name. Although now that you mention it, why didn’t you just give me a codename? As I recall it was you who named me Rambaby.”

“Because codenames are for people who go home to families. New names are for people who will be associated with us more permanently. Meditate on the meaning of that for the remainder of your trip.” The headset switches back to the channel that the helicopter crew is usuing, and I can hear the tail end of a conversation about me they’ve been having.

“Like the grim reaper but in a family friendly package.” The first female pilot says.

“And cuddly.” The second one adds.

“You should set her up with your niece.” The first one suggests.

I was married in my last life, to a woman. We had four children, all of them were biological, and all of them were mine. Intellectually I am acutely aware of the biological and emotional benefits of a close relationship with a female. However, developmentally, I still think girls are icky.

“What do you think about dinosaurs?” I ask the man with the stubble across from me in an effort to change the subject so I don’t have to hear any more about girls. The adult type girls were fine, like the pilots. It was the ones closer to my age I didn’t want to hear about.

“Coolest things ever to walk the planet.” He responds without missing a beat. “Got a favorite?” He leans forward, propping his elbows up on the rifle that’s laying in his lap.

“Velociraptor.” I say. “They’re so quick and smart. And those claws! Raptor claws have got to be the most awesome dinosaur fossils ever. I wanted one for my birthday but my parents said I was too little. I’d poke an eye out or something.”

“Good old raptors, nice choice, but I think you have to go with the king.” He presses his elbows against his chest and waves his hands around to simulate really short arms.

“T. Rex?” I ask.

“Absolutely.” He says, returning to his leaned in position. “Baddest predator to ever walk the earth. I asked my wife for a tooth fossil for our anniversary but she got me a leather massage chair instead.”

“Dude, you got ripped off!” One of the other men in the chopper chimes in over the comm channel.

“I know right.” He says, turning to face the soldier who had spoken up. “I mean my call sign is Rex, and everything.”

“Boys, you know this is an official military channel right?” One of the female pilots asks. “Every word that’s spoken on her is heavily encrypted and sealed as top secret. You’re supposed to talk about important stuff.”

“T. Rex is important.” The man with the stubble exclaims. “That’s what I’m saying. T. Rex doesn’t get enough respect.”

“A bet a raptor could take down a T. Rex.” I say, rejoining the conversation.

“Ouch.” The man says, grabbing his side to illustrate that he’s pretending my words physically hurt him. “That’s a low blow kid.”

“Well, maybe not any raptor, but the right raptor, in the right place at the right time. Don’t get me wrong, T. Rex is super dangerous, but that’s why the raptor might win. Things that are big and scary tend to underestimate the little guy.” The stubbly solider appreciates the not so subtle subtext of my words.

“I’m with you kid. It’s why we’ve put such an effort to bring you in, but just remember.” He sits up straight and gets serious for a second. “These people that are after you. They know what you’re capable of, and you can’t always count on your deceiving appearances.” I nod appreciatively. It’s solid advice. Not that I had really used that tactic this morning, but I would have to keep from relying on it.

The chatter dies down to quick bursts of military speak between the pilots and some far off control tower. I take the opportunity to observe the awesome view that the chopper affords. I have memories of sky diving from low earth orbit, and the ‘me’ in my memories isn’t impressed by skimming the treeline in a chopper, but kid ‘me’ thinks this is the coolest thing ever.

My parents were planning on taking me to the county fair next week. The ferris wheel would’ve gotten me about as high as this helicopter, but it wouldn’t have been even ten percent as awesome. This was a great way to experience heights for the first time.

“Hey.” I address the stubbly solider whose been keeping me company. “What’s going to happen to my parents?” I feel kind of selfish for not mentioning them earlier. The immediate danger was dealt with, and the police had arrived. I think I even saw SWAT pulling up to my house, but now that I had quiet moment I wanted to know what became of them.

“They’re being escorted to a safe location. Don’t worry. They’ll be safe.” The man assures me. “We’re not going to let the world’s most dangerous toddler become an orphan.”

“Will I get to see them again?” I ask. A momentary surge in childhood emotion prompting me to express an uncharacteristically weak emotion.

“I don’t know kid.” The stubbly man says. A trace of a frown entering his face. “I just don’t know.” That saddens me, and I have to distract myself with the awesome view once again.

The sun is coming up, and it’s not long before we fly into a landing strip on a military base. There’s at least a hundred fully armed men and women in formation to greet us as we land. My escort from the chopper exits the chopper and fans out to take up defensive positions. It’s just for show of course. Probably some tradition of this outfit. I liked it. It showed that these people took their missions seriously. Well, except for the dino talk.

“Greetings commander Francis Timothy Walker. Captain of the sniper detachment from red team of seal team six. Honorably discharged after twenty years of service to serve as contract advisor and instructor for the training of future SEALs. Died January 2nd 2013 in a hospital bed, surrounded by his family and loved ones.” The man addressing me snapped to a salute. My jaw dropped, this was the first thing tonight to truly surprise me.

When I had accepted my mission to be sent back I had expected a lot of craziness. The late night intruders were obviously the upgraded enemies. The secret government outfit seemed kind of par for the course, but seeing my old spotter still alive was breath taking. I hadn’t known he was still alive, and he had greeted me with my full name and rank. How had he known it was me.

“Ryan.” I say, running forward and leaping up to hug him. The way he hugged me, spinning me around like a favorite uncle, was unprofessional, but somehow appropriate. He sets me down and ruffles my hair affectionately.

“We’ve been waiting a long time for you Francis.” Somebody coughs that I don’t see. “I mean John. We’ve been keeping track of you for a while John.” He emphasizes the word John each time he says it.

“What do you mean? How did you guys know? Is this common knowledge?” We start walking towards one of the barracks as we talk. To a casual bystander it may have looked like a grandfather taking his grandson out for a walk. Not two of the world’s most cunning special operations operatives discussing intelligence on a very important op, me.

“We’ve known for about 18 months. You remember when you were six months old and your parents thought you had cancer so they took you in for an MRI?”

“Oh yeah, I remember that, but the tests came back negative.” I say.

“See that’s weird.” He says as he opens the door to the barracks.

“That the tests were negative?” I ask.

“No.” He responds. “That you remember. You really shouldn’t have that good of a long term memory yet. Anyway, the results from the test were, shall we say eye opening? Eye opening enough that they eventually made it to some of our boys who monitor these things. We had a devil of a time getting the medical community to bury the matter. We had to bribe a lot of people to keep that data under wraps, but as soon as we got the report we started watching you.” We walked over to the bunk that was to be mine. He didn’t have to tell me it was going to be my bunk. I don’t think anybody else in the military was allowed to sleep with their teddy bear and a fuzzy power ranger’s blanket.

“We did a lot of digging. We went through your parent’s employment history, medical history, family history, and interviewed dozens of their friends and relations. That all turned up nothing. There was absolutely nothing about your parents that could have created that remarkable brain in your skull.” He pulled back the blanket as if preparing to tuck me in.

“Then one of our boys had the bright idea to compare the MRI to other brain scans of soldiers. We didn’t think we would get such a close match to yours. We thought we’d get some correlations, maybe something to tell us what we were working with. When it turned out that your brain, I mean your current brain, was an almost exact match to your old brain, we didn’t believe it. We thought it was a coincidence, a fluke, a random chance.”

“What changed your mind?” I asked, sitting down on my bunk as Ryan sat on the bunk next to me.

“We bugged your room. It wasn’t legal, but I had a hunch, and we’re a black ops outfit anyway. Legal is more of a cautionary word than a hard rule. You talked in your sleep. Not much, just whispering a few words. Not many, and nothing too conspicuous, but we started cross referencing your night time rants with your old files, and every single word you spoke was a codename for an operation. Your parents would think they were meaningless, that you had heard them from a movie or from one of your friends, but we knew better. So we watched you. We didn’t know what to do with such a discovery so we waited. We waited for over a year until the people watching your crib’s camera feed reported the sound of a grenade going off.”

“Yeah about that.” I say, stifling a yawn. It’s been a heck of a day, and I was up to early. My two year old metabolism is telling me to go back to bed. “How did those people know about me? You guys I get. It makes sense, but they didn’t have access to my records or my brain scan. How could they have known?” Ryan shrugs.

“We don’t know John. We were hoping you could tell us.”

“Well I don’t know nothing.” I say. “Do you at least know who they are?”

“We’re working on it John, but for now you’ve got to rest. Go to sleep.”

“Sleep, I’m (Yawn) fine.” I cover my mouth in a vain attempt to hide my sleepiness. My bed does look awfully soft and warm.

“Sure you are. You may be a big strong navy SEAL on the inside, but on the outside you’re a two year old who missed his nap time, and you’re going to be very grumpy if you don’t go beddy-by.” He gently pushes me down into the mattress and I instinctively snuggle down into the covers.

“But I need to start finding bad guys.” I say, but my eyes have already closed.

“We’ll wake you up in a few hours John, and when you do we’re going to teach you to fight.”

“I already know….how……to fight.” I say, beginning to drift into unconsciousness.

“You know how to fight like a man John, but when you wake up. We’re going to teach you to fight like a baby. Rest now, the fun begins when you wake up.”

Letters to my father part 6

She’s wonderful. You couldn’t ask for a better girl dad. Her hair is long and flowing. It’s the color of chocolate. Her eyes are the color of the sky on a clear summer’s day. She’s elegant, funny, smart, and beautiful. Her voice could charm the birds from the trees, and her smile could tame a wild bear. She’s perfect, and perfect for you. You are going to marry a princess dad.”

                It’s over. It’s finally over. I’ve done it. Now I get to meet her. I get to meet a girl and instantly now it’s mean to be. No stressing over tiny faults that you don’t know if you can live with. No doubting how she feels. This is for real, and this is happening.

I don’t really need to tell you what to do. You could sweep her off her feet all on your own. So I’ll just as you have needed to learn to man up and become strong enough for her. She’s needed to learn to let go. Help her let go dad.” Cryptic, as usual for my daughter, but I kind of preferred it that way. I wanted to figure this out partly on my own, and I could craft a date for her that she would never forget.

“Now for the goods. You’ve done your job dad. You’ve come to the end of the journey, and now it’s time to reap the rewards. There’s a bridge in the regional park that crosses a large stream. She will be there at 1:00 tomorrow. Sweep her off her feet dad. You have a golden opportunity. You know for certain this this woman is going to be your wife. Use that knowledge, don’t hold back. Make this moment worth all the struggle.” No pressure, but that was okay. I could do this. This is what I’ve been working to achieve. I have a date, a time, and a general description. This is going to happen. It’s actually going to happen. I begin planning what I’m going to do as I continue to read.

I hate to tarnish such a happy moment, but because this is where you and your wife start, it’s time for me to step away. Our family is going to start in about thirteen hours, and I can’t be there to make it happen. That is for you to do, and it is for me to leave you to do it.” I notice there are some watermarks on the letter. This wasn’t easy for her to write.

If only you knew how many letters I’ve written you. These were the final drafts. I cannot tell you how many times I had to travel back and amend something because it turned sour later on. You know all those times it felt like I was reading your mind? I had to write the letter, send it, wait for you to read it, and then come up and ask you about it. You were so surprised whenever I talked to you. You hit your head on the attic rafters so many times when I made you jump. I have had to travel back and forth so many times for this, and now this is it, the final letter. So much time, so much energy, and now it’s all done.” She had to have dozens of instances in the letters where she had seemed to be reading my thoughts. She had to come back hundreds of times at least, and for my wife too no doubt.

I’m actually really terrible at goodbyes. I thought this one would be better because it’s not in person, but it’s not. I’m trying to think of more stuff to say just so I don’t have to stop writing. I shouldn’t though. I need to not drag this out. You’ve got to go to bed so you can be bright eyed and bushy tailed for your wife tomorrow. Okay, it’s okay. I’ll see you in three years dad. Love her like crazy. Go make a family.”

I felt like I had lost a friend. Whenever things had gotten hard she had been there for me. She had made me smile with her little games, and made me feel better when I couldn’t make myself feel better. No one had ever made me feel wanted and special like she had. Now she was gone. I didn’t know what that last letter held, but I wouldn’t know for three years. A lot could happen in three years. Maybe the letter would be a short thank you. She had written those before, or maybe some tiny little advice to set me straight with something. Maybe it would be a full letter like this one. I didn’t know, it didn’t change the way I felt.

It hits me just how much effort she has put into this. She has come back so often, and she must’ve always been watching from the shadows. She kept a careful eye on me to know just what I needed to hear, and when I needed to hear it. This was a labor of love that trumped anything else that I had experienced.

I remember the other letter in my wallet. I want to trade it out and put this one in instead, but that wouldn’t be right. This letter was meant to be a goodbye. Goodbye meant you went your own way. It wasn’t good to dwell on the past. I would keep her uplifting forward looking letter in my pocket, and put this one in the chest.

After I stow the letter I stand up and exhale. The punchline has been told. The story has had its ending, now it’s time to move on. I’ll always carry the memory of what she’s done for me.

The bridge that I’m going to meet my future on is a mile down the trail from the parking lot, and the walk gives me time to appreciate the scenery. The park is a forest that borders on a lake. The trail wraps through the woods alongside the lake, and affords a view of the sparkling water. The sun is reflecting off the water in such a way that makes it seem as if there is treasure at the bottom of the lake that is glinting in the afternoon sunlight. The water is calm, with a family or two of ducks lazily cruising across it.

The trees are splashed with autumn colors. There are deep reds, bright orangs, and dark greens throughout. Squirrels dart among the branches, some male squirrels are chasing female squirrels, subtly reminding me of why I’m here.

The path runs into the creek, and runs parallel next to it down to where it reaches the bridge. The stream isn’t deep, shallow enough to wade across. There are numerous large stones stones in it that suggest it’s possible to walk across without getting your feet way, but it would be a risky endeavor.

At last I see the bridge in the distance. It’s a plain wooden bridge that arches majestically over the running waters. On it is a lone figure, facing away from me. I can see long hair on this figure. It’s her.

I walk to the bridge reverently, as if I’m in a church. There is a tension in the air. A magic that has been building since I set foot on the path. Now it is coalescing into something special, and I dare not make any sudden move for fear of dissipating that magic.

If she hears me coming she gives no sign, and I stop at the foot of the bridge.

“Are you ready to begin forever?” I ask her.

She turns around, and I stop breathing. The sun is shining through a gap in the trees, and it lights up her face. She almost seems to glow in the golden beams, and everything Sarah said was true. Her smile could stop a wild boar’s charge, and right now she is smiling for all she’s worth.

Wordlessly, she runs to me and leaps into my arms. I catch her in an arm chair, and spin her round and round. She wraps her hands around my neck and I see that her eyes are like clear blue Caribbean water. It’s fitting, this girl seems like to be the living embodiment of the warmth and light of a Caribbean beach.

“Angelica.” I say. Her name flows off my tongue like honey.

“I’m ready.” She tells me.

“Then let’s get started princess.” I’m highly thankful for all my exercise. She’s light as a feather in my arms, and I can easily carry her most of the way back to my car.

“There’s so much I want to talk about.” She tells me.

“Let’s start with Sarah.” I suggest.

“Our daughter.” She confirms. “So you got the letters too?” She asks.

“All eighteen of them. It took me seven months to go through them.”

“Same here. I got twenty-two letters, but they took me the same time to go through.”

“It was a heck of a thing to go through that.” I say. “So many new skills to learn.

“Skills?” She asks. “Mine were mostly about dealing with old baggage. So many people who hurt me, and letting the hurt go. There was a little bit of learning, but mostly it was dealing with emotions.”

“I guess we had different issues to resolve.”

“So what kind of skills did you work on?” My future wife asks.

“A bunch of stuff, some of it suggested by her, some of it was on my own initiative.” I start to tell her what they were, then I get an evil idea. “But you’ll have to find out what those are later. We’re going to take part in some right now. Did Sarah tell you that I would help you let go?” I ask.

“Yes, she said you would help me loosen my grip on my past.” I want to borrow my daughter’s time travel so I can go back and fix whatever has scarred my wife. I had physical traits that had needed fixing, but she had emotional ones. I did not envy her for the path she had to walk these last seven months.

“Well. We are about to get a jump on that. Are you afraid of heights?” She nods. “What the dark?” She nods. “Perfect.” I say.

“That’s rather vague and not exactly comforting.” She tells me.

“Sarah taught me how to speak like that.” I respond. “Speaking, of Sarah, she also taught me how to do this whole courtship thing. On that note, I’ve got a question for you. You get three wishes, but you can’t wish for anything that you could buy or sell, and you can’t wish for anything generous. These wishes have to be about you, and for things without any monetary values.” She tilts her head back.

“That’s a tough one. What would you wish for?” She asks back.

“Oh no, you’re not getting off that easily. I don’t want to contaminate your way of thinking with my wishes. I want to know you Angelica, all of you. So tell me what you would wish for.”

“Well, that’s a little hard, because Sarah and you have already given me so much that I want. I guess I would wish to be able to help her when she time travels. Go with her and try to alleviate some the work load. She did so much for us that I would want to give some back. Is that a bad wish?” She asks.

“Not at all.” I say.

“Okay, then my second wish would be to help you during your journey. I know it wasn’t easy for you, and I want to go back and help you along in whatever way I can. Too cheesy?” She asks.

“No such thing.” I tell her.

“Good, then my last wish is that this is going to work between us. So that Sarah doesn’t have to go back in time and fix things again, and the three of us can just be together.”

“I gave you three wishes.” I say. “And you managed to wish for three things that would help others.”

“I know, that violates one of the rules you gave me.” She says.

“No, no, it’s good, because I know that’s what you want. I didn’t say that it couldn’t help others, just that it had to be about you. Sarah did a great job with your personality babe.” I tell her.

“She didn’t do so bad with you either. You carried us all the way back to my car.” She exclaims.

“I have been working out a little.” I humble brag. I put her down and open her door for her. She curtsies, and we drive off.

“Where are we going?” She asks excitedly, like a little kid trying to find out what they got for Christmas.

“Someplace I found while I was out exploring the woods.” I say.

“That’s not helpful.” She said.

“You wouldn’t want me to spoil the surprise would you? Come on this is exactly how Sarah talks to us in our letters. She can’t be here physically for this event, so I thought I’d make her a part of it spiritually.”

“That’s sweet.” Angelica says. “But that’s not how Sarah talked to me.”

“Really?” I say. “She always had this super playful attitude with me. We were always playing these mind games with each other. She would challenge me to do something and would always give me these hard deadlines and powerful hard hitting words to motivate me, with just the right mix of support to keep me going.” I wish she could be here for this. This is her great reward, and she’s not here for it. I am glad to have someone to talk to about Sarah. Marriage fixing daughters who time travel were not a common topic of conversation at the office.

“That’s not at all how Sarah talked to me.” My future wife responds. “With me they were very long very emotional letters that helped explain why things were and why they had to change. She would validate my emotions and explain why things happened the way they did, or apologized that they went badly. She was my shoulder to cry on, and her gift to me was her understanding. We slowly worked through all of my baggage and helped me to find closure with how things were in my life. She helped me to make a clean emotional slate so you could come along and fill it.”

“She’s even more amazing than I thought.” I say. “For me she was a motivational speaker and coach. For you she was a friend and a confidant. I thought she just happened to have a personality that fit well with mine, but she’s complicated and flexible enough to not only give me what I need, but what you need as well.”

“That’s our girl.” Angelica says.

“Our girl.” I echo. “That’s weird to say isn’t it?” Angelica nods.

“But she is our girl, or will be. I’m not sure what the proper grammar is for people who exist in multiple places in time simultanesouly, or actually I guess she doesn’t exist yet.”

“It’s so profoundly confusing.” I say. “Let me back up to something you said earlier. You confirmed for me that Sarah told you I would help you let go of this emotional stuff right?”

“That’s right.” Angelica says. “You would help me to move on.”

“That’s also different from me, because I’m at the end of my path. I’m done. She already told me in her letter that I’m what I need to be, but you’re not finished yet.”

“I guess she knew that somewhere deep down every princess wants to be rescued by a prince charming, so she left just enough baggage for you to rescue me from.”

“She’ got to be a psychologist or something.” I say. “We’re here, and I think you’ll find that I took our daughters advice to help you ‘let go’ a bit literally.”

I grab a couple duffle bags full of gear, and a short hike later we are on the edge of wide hole that goes down about four stories.

“You can’t really see from up here.” I tell Angelica. “But there’s a cave at this bottom of this hole. We are going to rappel down into it and then make our way through the cave.”

“I’m sorry; we’re going to do what to get down into this hole?” Angelica asks.

“Rappel.” I say. “You’re going to put on a harness, we are going to run some rope through it. I’m going to tie that rope to a tree, and then I’m going to lower you down.”

“I’m going to have to fall down into this hole.” She surmised.

“At a controller rate, but yes.” I say.

“I have a thing with heights.” She says. “I mean is there another entrance? Could we walk down. I’m really not comfortable doing this kind of thing, and like, have you done this before?”

“Yes.” I reply.

“With this specific cave?” She asks.

“You know what sweetie.” I drop the duffle bags, and tilt her chin up. I then grab both of her hands and squeeze hard enough that it’s almost uncomfortable. I maintain fierce eye contact with her and make sure my face shows the full weight of my words.

“This isn’t about you knowing exactly how safe or dangerous this is. This isn’t about how much experience I have, how good the gear is, how often people get into accidents about this. This is about me being the man you’re going to spend the rest of your life with.”

“I know, but could we just maybe start with something smaller?

“Babe, I would sooner jump off that cliff without any gear on than put you in the smallest degree of danger. Our marriage is going to be built on mutual trust. Show me that trust now. I swear on my honor as a man and your future husband that I will not let you come to any harm.”

She bite her lip and nods. As quick as I can I tie the rope to the tree, put her harness on, and clip her in. Before she can change her mind I’m walking her to the side of the cliff.

“You’re going to lean back, and put your feet flat against the wall.” I tell her. “It’ll all be over in a minute.” She’s biting her lip too hard to respond. “On the count of three.” I tell her. “One, two…” I lean close to her. “I’m not them. You’re safe with me…3” She leans back, and I catch my wife.

I hear her let out a giant breath of air, and slowly let her down to the bottom. As soon as I feel slack in the rope, signaling that she has hit bottom, I grab a duffle bag, the rope, and clip myself in, practically diving over the side to reach her in time.

She’s at the bottom of the cliff with her arms wrapped around herself. She’s shaking.

“It’s okay.” I say as I hit bottom, hastily unclipping myself to wrap her in a hug. “Thank you.” I say.

“Sarah chose her words well.” She tells me. “When you said three, and I fell, it was like I was letting go of myself and falling into you.” Her face gets angry for a moment. “Don’t mess me up.” She orders.

“Never.” I respond. “Come on, we’ve got a walk to do.” I pull out a couple helmets and headlamps, and walk her to the cave entrance.

“Now we got one more thing we’ve got to do.”

“After that fall, this shouldn’t be that bad.” Angelica tells me.

“I thought you might say that.” I say, flipping on my headlamp. Angelica flips her own headlamp on.

“That’s why you’re doing it without your light on.” I reach over and flip her headlamp off. She wants to say something. She’s biting her lip and inhales sharply, but she doesn’t say anything.

“Okay, let’s go princess.” I take her hand, and we walk into the darkness.

Caves are funny places. They’re very muddy, cold, typically damp, and of course, dark. There are many fears you cannot have if you are in a cave, claustrophobia, fear of the dark, arachnophobia, fear of snakes, you can’t be a hypochondriac, or be sensitive to getting cold or muddy, because caves are cold, dark, wet, cramped, dirty places that often have snakes, spiders, and plenty of other nasty creatures. If it has haunted children’s nightmares, there’s at least a small chance of finding it in a cave. Fun fact, Ebola came from a cave.

I know all of this, and I know Angelica is running through these horrible scenarios in her head. She’s imagining each in ever increasing detail, mixing and matching to create the maximum possible fear.

I feel none of this, and I have a way to show her what I see in a cave. I find a spot where the ceiling gets low, and we have to get on our hands and knees. Partway through this crawl space I stop and pull Angelica close. We are both curled into balls with our knees almost reaching the ceiling, or feet on one wall, and our backs on one wall.

“I’m going to turn my light off.” I tell her, and reach out to grab her other hand. “It’s going to be okay.” She’s still got her lip in her mouth, and doesn’t respond.

The light goes out, and I feel her squeeze my hands even tighter. I don’t blame her. Cave darkness is absolute. When you’re on the surface there’s usually some light coming from somewhere, even if it’s faint. With time your eyes adjust and make use of the light. In cave darkness there is no light at all. I hold my hand up to touch my nose, and I don’t see it.

It can also be very quiet. You could hear a pin drop half a football pitch away. Our breathing suddenly seems very loud now that we aren’t moving. It was in this cave that I discovered that blinking makes a very small sound. It’s quiet enough that even the electric buzzing that lightbulbs cause drowns it out, but in caves, you can hear yourself blink.

“There’s a funny thing about being underground.” I say. “Your brain is deprived of most of its primary senses. You can’t see anything at all, the smell of mud is so prevalent that your brain filters it out, and you’re left with smelling nothing, and it’s so quiet that if you stop moving and hold your breath you could almost hear your heart beating.” This does little to comfort her, but I’m not done yet.

“Your brain does an odd thing when it’s deprived like this. See, your brain likes to fill in gaps in information. It’s what allows you to see your blind spot. What we have done is create a blindspot, and now our brains will soon try to fill it in with all sorts of stuff.” Her grip loosens slightly.

“If you just observe yourself and don’t try and control it, your brain will relax and create a flow of imagination. You can play with that flow. I imagine that I’m not in a cave. I’m out under the stars. I see myself floating in a giant sea of black surrounded on all sides by tiny little points of light. I feel myself rotate around to look at all the different points.” I let this image sink into her head, and her grip loosens a little more. “I now imagine us together floating in this far off space.” Her grip loosens entirely, and she no longer feels afraid.

I then partake in one of the great joys of being in a cave. Many things about it like the tight spaces and the darkness can be replicated elsewhere, but I’ve yet to experience this thing anywhere but deep inside the earth, cave singing.

I start singing a song about flying around with someone and exploring the world. My voice reverberates through the cave. The cave walls and passages my voice depth and a unique sound that is not quite an echo. The total lack of other sounds allows the listener to hear a vast array of subtle fluctuations in my voice that would not be audible anywhere else. Every twist of my lips or motion of my tongue is clearly heard. One can almost imagine the exact moves my mouth must be making to create the sounds.

Then my voice does something else, it begins to fill the gaps in our visual imagination. The brain has nothing to work with buy my voice, so it makes my voice fill all the senses. The void we were hovering in suddenly becomes a starlit quest of rapid flying travel through faraway places and far off wonders.

It is a song I have heard many times, and that I had memorized long before I had ever seen our daughter’s letters. It depicts a journey together, with me and my future wife. That image of a journey blots out all else. Angelica turns to cuddle into me, listening to my voice. The cave is forgotten now. There are no low ceilings or muddy walls, there is just the two of us, and the adventure I am singing about.

The song winds down to a close, and silence resumes, but it is not an empty silence any longer. The images and dreams I have painted linger on, and make the dark not a veil that hides untold horrors, but a canvas on which to give life to the deep desires of the heart.

I am about to ask Angelica how she feels, but she answers me before I can ask. She answers me, with a song. I had nearly forgotten Sarah’s talk of my wife’s angelic voice. I understand it now. It is high and clear, different from my low full voice. It rings through the tunnels and speaks of a time of waiting. Of wanting something dearly, so bad that it hurts, and of almost giving up hope.

Then the song changes when she sings of finally finding that which she’s been looking for all along, and it’s everything she always hoped it would be. I have never heard that song before, nor would I ever hear anyone but her sing it again, because it’s her song. I don’t know if she wrote it ahead of time, or was inspired to make it up now, but it’s her song. No, it’s our song.

The song closes, and the silence descends again. Now the darkness is alive with romantic tones. It dances with the possibility of unbound dreams that have become reality.

I still hear her voice, even though there is not so much as an echo of it. I see the movements her lips must have made, going up and down, curving to make the air she was breathing out into words.

I reach out and place a finger on her lips, feeling the softness. She has them closed, and I slide the back of my finger because the back is more sensitive and I wanted to feel everything about them.

I feel a finger on my lips do the same thing, tracing a line all the way around, from the top to the bottom and back again.

I put one hand on the back of her head, and another on her shoulder. I pull her towards me, and she comes. It’s slow, and I can’t see in the dark, but I know our eyes are closed.

Her lips come as a surprise. It’s hard to gauge distance, but I suddenly feel warmth and moisture on my own lips. Her upper lip is between mine, and her lower one wraps around my lower lip. She’s soft, there is not much tension in her lips, and I match it with the strength of my own.

There in that moment, we are joined. I hear a great beast roar in my chest as everything in me says ‘yes, I can protect this woman. She is mine, and I am hers’. Her softness compliments my strength as for a few precious spaces in time we become one.

When we part I grab her cheeks, and kiss first her forehead, and then both her cheeks. She leans her head onto my shoulder, and I wrap an arm around her waist. I don’t know how long we sat there like that, but any amount of time would’ve been too short.

I can’t think of anything poetic enough to end the moment with, but I know it’s got to end because the sun might be setting, and it will be difficult to find our way back to the car in the night. I wordlessly shift my shoulder, and flip my light back on.

We both flinch and blink away after images. It felt like someone shoved a star in our faces.

“So soon?” She asks.

“All good things must come to an end.” I say. “But this thankfully isn’t an end. We will get to do this many more times. We just have to take a brief break.”

We make our way through the cave, and now it’s a joyous occasion. We point out cave formations that look like our favorite movie characters, and skip rocks across the small underground ponds we find.

There are a few points where the tunnel we are walking through crosses a river, and I carry her across them so she doesn’t get wet. Whenever I pick her up I bow and say “M’lady.” Offering my arms.

“Thank you my knight.” She responds with a british accent as she delicately sits in my arms.

We play prince and princess, pretending that through these caves are dragons and golden treasures. We must escape, but we must also find the treasure. I pause whenever there is a bend in the path, and feign fear as I peak around the corner to make sure the coast is clear. Playing make believe wasn’t something I had done since I could count my age on my fingers, but it felt right with her. It was like being a kid again.

Angelica had entered the cave closed up with fear, and she exits it bursting with happiness, and begging to go back again.

We hike back another mile or so to my vehicle, and I think that right now everything is as it should be. Our tasks are done. I have surely made Angelica let go of whatever she was holding on to, and now we belong to each other.

Our story has reached its perfection. Then, as Angelica has her eyes closed and is just leaning me on, trusting me to guide her through the trees back to the car, I realize it’s not perfect.

Everything should be perfect. Angelica is here, and both of us are falling head over heels for each other. Then why is there still a letter left?

“Angelica.” I say.

“Hmmm?” She responds.

“Did Sarah leave you any more letters?” She shakes her head.

“The last one told me to meet you here, why? Do you have a letter left?” She asks.

“Yes, and it’s for three years in the future.” I say.

“That’s strange. Do you have any idea what it could be?”

“She usually wrote to teach me something in order to make me a better person, or to comfort me in a time of sorrow.”

“Well I guess you still have one lesson left to learn.” Angelica says. Her dismissal of the other alternative does not escape my notice. She’s right though. She’s trying to tell me that that letter won’t be a part of our lives for another three years. I let it go, and we she changes the subject.

We spend the rest of the day enjoying each other’s company, she cooks me dinner, and I take her home at the end of the night. For the next year we spend many days like this. We explore many new things together. I am glad to have her at my side as I lead her through adventure after adventure. She continually amazes me with her grace and beauty in all things.

She begins to hang out with my family, discussing boys with Grace, and girls with James. She tries to discuss girls with Andy, but finds that he prefers a silent game of chess or some other strategy game. This too she obliges, making sure to study chess strategies before she pays my family a visit.

The happiness we have is tainted only by the letter. It hands over our relationship like a giant question mark. We spend many nights discussing what it could hold. We plan out our lives several years in advance, and begin to set our lives in order to avert any possible financial or medical crisis.

Both of us undergo rigorous testing and investigate our family trees to try and find where this mystery problem will come from. We take advanced defensive and evasive driving courses. We inspect our homes and vehicles regularly, becoming masters of maintenance and repair. We remodel our homes and upgrade our cars without ever having to consult contractors or engineers because we already know everything they could tell us.

Still, we find no answers, having explored all other possible options, Angelica finally says what I’ve been too afraid to say.

“It’s the baby.” Sarah said.

“What are you talking about?” I ask, feigning ignorance.

“We both know in about another year we’re going to marry, that leaves a little over one year until the letter. What can you think of that tends to happen a year after marriage?” Both of us had done the math early on. We had pretended that we hadn’t. We fervently pursued all other avenues which a sudden crisis would come from. We had even become responsible for our family’s home and auto repair to insure their safety as well, and both of our families were now on the same preventative diet. Both of us had hoped we would find some hidden time bomb that we could avoid, or at least foresee coming. We could no longer deceive ourselves.

“It could be something sudden.” I say. “There are some tragedies that you just can’t predict.”

“We can keep lying to ourselves all we want, but do you really think the timing is a coincidence?” She asks.

I say the other thing I’ve been avoiding. “It could be you.” I say. “Childbirth is dangerous.”

“I know.” She says. “And I know what I’m getting into. After all Sarah has done for us could I really deny her this?”

“Our first child might not be her.” I say. “She doesn’t say she’s our first born in my letters, maybe our first child…” I can’t finish the sentence

It’s the first and only time we have the conversation. We write a last will and testament together, something that is very uncommon for married people to do, and we both try and forget the conversation.

The time flies as our relationship grows and prospers. I propose to her on a beach in the Caribbean during a family vacation. Dolphins were involved. We anxiously plan a wedding where we invite all of our friends and family together to celebrate us.

We find each day that we are more and more a perfect match made for each other. A match made by our own daughter.

We spend our honeymoon hiking the trails of the grand canyon, and then spending a week on new Zealand beaches.

When we get back we set about making a home and a life together, insuring everything is perfect for the arrival of our daughter.

Sure enough, in early April, we get the news. Angelica is pregnant! We leap for joy, literally, when we get confirmation from the doctor, and proceed to run every single medical test in the book. We schedule every exam possible and run every test. They all come up blank. As far as we can determine, our child is fine.

We discover it’s a girl, and when the nurse shows us our sonogram we name her Sarah. We celebrate her arrival by reading each other’s letters. We had started to read them on the night we met, but it didn’t feel right without Sarah. Now Sarah had joined us, and we thought it was fitting that the first story we read to her was the story of how she had gotten her parents together.

We count down the days to December 25th, as it becomes clearer and clearer that is the day she will be born. The doctors tell us a due date, but we don’t remember what it is, because we know the exact date and time our daughter will be born.

On Christmas morning we don’t open presents, we don’t sing songs. We sit in a car outside an emergency room, and wait for her contractions to start.

The instant she feels them we rush inside and demand a bed. We are shown the room, and it’s the most tense hours of our lives. I glance from my wife, giving her assurance it’s going to be okay, to the doctors to try and read some sign of how the procedure is going, to the clock to see how much longer until 7:53 PM.

We demand constant updates from the doctors as Angelica moves through the birthing process. As ever, everything goes fine. Sarah’s head appears, and she’ not breathing.

The doctors rush her to another room. Angelica goes hysterical and they have to sedate her.

I follow the doctors and wait outside the operating room. I can’t believe it. I didn’t think it would really happen. I look at the look 7:53. I open the letter. On it there is no date, and no signature, just two words.

Turn around.”

I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn to see a nurse in blue scrubs with long brown hair and blue eyes like the sky. Just like her mother

“Hey dad.” She says.

“How, what, why.” I stumble through the words, trying to find the right ones.

“It’s okay.” She says. “I’m going to be alright.” She tells me. As if on cue a baby cries in the next room. She’s alive. She’s breathing.

“I wouldn’t have been able to help you along if I didn’t live through this.” She says.

“My wife.” I say.

“She’s fine. She’ll need you when the sedatives wear off, but there’s nothing wrong with her.” She had appeared like an angel, just in the nick of time to ward off evil.

“Why now?” I ask. “You’ve never appeared before.”

“Besides the obvious?” She says. “Because this is where the cycle begins.”

“The cycle?” I ask.

“The cycle of time travel.” She says. “I can only go back once per lifetime, and so whenever I am born again I will time travel again, so I must instruct you to hand over the letters to her, along with my notes so that she can fix the timeline and make things right between you and mom.”

“You have to grow up every time? I thought time travel was like driving a car between two different locations.” Sarah shakes her head.

“No, it’s more like sending a manned shuttle to Mars, it’s a one way trip.” She informs me.

“So every single time you came back. You had to wait for years for the plan to come to fruition, and when it failed you had to hand over what went wrong to me so I could pass it on to you.” She nods. I ask the big question.

“How many times did you go back?”

“It only ever feels like I’ve been once because I’ve been working off notes from myself, but I do keep a running tally of how many times I’ve tried to make things work.”

“How many?” I ask.

“103.” She says. I’m dumbfounded.

“103.” I repeat.

“Yes.” She says. “And now it’s done. The cycle is complete. It’s time for me to go. Say hi to your daughter. You won’t see me again, but I’ll be watching. You may not see me, but I’ll always be watching.”

The End

For those who simply cannot wait for another book ‘Unhooked’ is also available under novellas https://samgalimore.com/2014/10/16/unhooked-part-one/ as well as two shorter novellas Or one of the shorter novellas https://samgalimore.com/2014/10/12/for-use-in-the-apocaypse-novella-version/ https://samgalimore.com/2014/10/04/man-out-of-time/. I will also be working on another project that’s been sitting in my back pocket for some time now. Thank you for being a part of the creation of this book. Each and every one of you played a part in its creation. May you find peace and warmth in your life, Sam.

Breaking news! Just talked with an independent director last night, and Letters To My Father will be made into an episodic movie! Super excited about this. Many of you asked about a movie, and I guess somebody stepped up to the plate. If you want more details, go and bug reddit.com/u/ulyssesarias . He’s trying to make it as high quality as possible with location shoots and professionals, so he will be starting a kickstarter in a couple weeks, and shooting should start in February or March of next year. I’ll post more as things get closer.

Letters to my father part 5

“What do you mean run away? When did this happen?” I say in disbelieve.

“I mean he’s not here. I don’t know where he is, and I’m scared.” Her voice is shaking.

“Okay, what are the parents doing?” I ask, trying to wrap my head around what’s going on.

“The parents are on a plan to Ireland. They left this morning and won’t be on the ground for another. Brother, I’m scared.” She’s repeating herself. She’s freaked out.

“I know sis. Stay there, I’m coming over right now. Get our other younger brother and sit down in the down kitchen. I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Sun down is in an hour. We will have to move quick to find him. I wish I had known about this before spending most of my time after I got home from my job working on dropping the lines.

I make the nearly one hour drive in thirty minutes, running several stop signs, red lights, and exceeding the speed limit by a very wide margin that has me dodging in and out of traffic. I probably wrack up a couple hundred dollars in tickets from red light cameras and speeding cameras, but by some miracle no cop pulls me over. I blaze into the driveway of my parent’s house and blitz inside.

My sister is red eyed with several used tissues in front of her. My brother is sitting across from her twiddling with his thumbs. Upon seeing me enter my sister runs over and hugs me.

“I don’t know where he went. I was making dinner, and wanted a hand chopping some vegetables up, so I called him, and he didn’t answer. I tried several times and he wouldn’t respond so I looked all through the house, thinking he had headphones on, and he wasn’t anywhere. I tried calling his phone and I find out he left it behind in his room.” He left his cell phone behind. He must really be trying to avoid us. “I called James, thinking he might be hanging out with him, but he said he hasn’t seen little Andy all day. I don’t know when he left or how long he’s been gone.”

“Did he say anything to you today? Has he been upset at you or someone else?” My sister pulls away from me and shakes her head. Her nose is starting to drip.

“I didn’t know anything. We don’t talk much, but he seemed perfectly happy.”

“Alright sis, it’s going to be okay. Come on, have a seat and we’re going to sort this thing out.” I pull her chair out for her, and then sit down next to her to talk.

“James.” I address my younger brother who hasn’t gotten himself lost. “Did you notice anything strange about Andy? Has he been complaining about something in particular, or talking about something excessively?” James shakes his head.

“I haven’t talked to him much recently either, but when I did he seemed perfectly happy. Maybe mom and dad said something to him that set him off.” This isn’t much help.

“Guys, I’m not around much. If I don’t know something about what’s going on I can’t be of any help. You’re telling me you have absolutely no reason why he would do this?” I ask.

“He complained about the food around here a few days ago.” James says. “That’s literally the last thing I remember him saying.”

“It wasn’t my cooking.” Grace said defensively.

“No one is making any accusations. We’re just trying to get the facts straight.” I tell Grace. “You guys really have no ide why this would happen?” They both shake their heads. Clearly our family has communication issues. No one knew what was going on with anyone else, even the people who lived in the same house together. I felt slightly better for not being involved in their lives. None of us were involved in each other’s lives.

“Alright, we’ve got to try and find him. Can either of you drive?” I feel like a horrible person for not even knowing if my own siblings can drive. They both shake their heads again.

“Okay, that’s going to make things harder. Grace, you stay here in case he comes back. You can also call people to try and get information. James, you come with me.”

“Who should I call?” Grace asks.

“Friends, neighbors, anyone, just call anyone who might know something or have seen him. Let them know we’re looking for him. At the very least having more eyes looking out for him is going to help.” Grace is still red eyed and drippy nosed.

“It’s going to be okay Grace.” I tell her, putting an arm around her shoulder. “We’re going to find him. If we don’t hear anything by sundown we will call the police and get them in on the search.” Grace nods her head.

“Okay.” She says. “Thank you for coming big brother.”

“Hey, anything for my siblings.” I say, ruffling her hair affectionately.

“We will be back to check in with you in an hour.” I pat her on the back and stand up. “Let’s go James.” I tell my remaining younger brother. The two of us head to my car and begin cruising the neighborhood.

“Do you know where he might go?” I ask James as we pull out.

“I don’t know man. He could be anywhere.” James dejectedly stares out his window.

“No he can’t.” I respond. “He’s got two legs, not much money, and no car. Does he have a bike? I ask.

“No.” James says.

“Then he could only go so far. Besides. He’s probably not just going to run randomly. He’s smart right?” I hate that I have to ask if my own brother is smart.

“Yes.” James replies.

“Then he’s got a plan. We just need to figure out what his plan is, and we can find him. Now, he might run to somewhere he’s familiar with. He’s got to be upset about something. Maybe he went to his ‘happy place’, so to speak. What I need from you, is where that might be.” James still looked out his window. He must be a big introvert.

“Come on James, I know you guys didn’t talk much, none of us did, but any information at all you can tell me about where he liked to go would help. Where were his stomping grounds? Where does he feel safe?” James pulls himself away from the window.

“I’ll start with the first one. He was good at school right? I see him posting about contests he’s won, teams he’s made it onto, and good grades he’s gotten.” The good grades was a little insensitive to be putting online, but I took it Andy had not yet mastered the social graces. “So let’s go to his school. You guys go to the same school don’t you? Can you show me how to get to it.”

“I’m in high school and he’s in middle school.” James says. Yet another instance of me not knowing anything about my brothers or sister. I want to give myself a by because I’m old enough that I don’t really remember how old high schoolers and middle schoolers are. I know how old he is, but I don’t remember what age equals what grade anymore. “But I know where his school is, make a left here.”

Our parents live several miles outside of town, it takes eight minutes of precious daylight to navigate to the school. I drop James off at the front.

“You wander through the grounds and see if you can find anything. I’m going to take a slow loop around the school in the car and see if I can spot him that way.” I start to pull away when James asks.

“What do I do if I see him.” I hadn’t thought that far in advance, and I think quickly to come up with the answer.

“He’s scared and maybe angry. As much as I hate to say this, treat him like a wild animal. He could bolt, or he could charge you. Approach him slowly, and in as non-threatening a way as you can. Then tell him it’s okay. Tell him he can come home.”

“Okay, I will, thanks big brother.” James calls as he hops a chain link fence onto the school grounds.

“Hurry!” I shout after him. I can see him start to bolt across the school as I pull away.

I can’t imagine what would cause a kid like Andy to run away. He had everything going for him. His scholastics were outstanding. He must have glowing support from the parents. At least, I think he did. He had run away right as they had left. Could it be something the parents said? Or could it be something else.

The parents had left, and then he had. Was it because he felt abandoned? But how could he feel abandoned. He had three great siblings. Grace had been cooking a meal for him. I remember Grace’s cooking. It was top notch. He was in for a treat. Then he had two brothers. James had been, well actually, I think James had been off somewhere else. The way Grace told the story it had sounded like she had been alone, and had to call James to her. Then there was me. I was never around. Could this be my fault? Had I so blotted out my family life that I had alienated my own sibling into doing something reckless and stupid?

I don’t see Andy anywhere. I finish my loop and meet James back in front of the school. He’s sweating hard. He must’ve been sprinting the whole time.

“Did you see him?” Andy isn’t with James, but maybe he had run off and was coming to get me so we could follow in the car.

“I didn’t see anything. If he’s here, I don’t know where he could be.”

“That’s okay. We still have a bit of daylight left. Get in. Have you thought of anywhere else he might go?” I ask James.

“Yeah actually.” James enters the shotgun seat. “Make a right up here.” We speed off.

“He used to go to the ice skating rink a lot.” James tells me.

“Ice skating?” I say in disbelief. “It’s the middle summer, where is he going to go ice skating?”

“At an indoor ice skating rink, it’s a left at the next light.” James says.

“We have an indoor ice skating rink?” I ask in disbelief. “When did we get one of those?”

“Four summers ago, after the winter Olympics.” James replies.

“I didn’t know Andy was an ice skater. How come he never posts about it.” James shrugs.

“I’m not really sure. Maybe because nobody knows he does it. I’ll bet when he goes there no one knows him for being really smart or popular, they just know him as a fellow ice skater. Andy gets a lot of attention, and I don’t think he likes it. He gets to escape all the people trying to talk to him here.”

I’m learning so much about my siblings on the drive. I pull into a parking space quick enough that James involuntarily slams his feet against the floor of the car in the hope that he will hit an imaginary brake pedal.

We both run inside to the front desk.

“Have you seen a little kid about so high.” I ask the lady at the desk, and hold up my hand to show my estimation of Andy’s height.

“More like this height.” James hold up a hand to contradict my own estimation. Andy has grown a lot since last I talked to him.

“Brown hair, he goes by Andy.” I add on to James’ statement.

“Oh yeah, Andy.” The lady says. We both get a glimmer of hope in our eyes. “I Haven’t seen him in three weeks. He normally doesn’t come here a lot during the summer. It’s too crowded he says.” I ball my hand into a fist and have to resist slamming it into the counter.

“Thank you.” I manage to get out, and grab James to leave.

“Anywhere else?” I ask. “We’ve got enough daylight to check maybe one more place. I’m going to make a loop around the parking lot, but I need to know where else he might go.”

“Yeah, yeah, of course.” James says as we both slide into the car. “There’s one more place. I don’t know if he still goes there, but Andy used to really like the local church. You know how the parents make us go? He sticks around a lot afterwards and just sits. I don’t know why, but he likes it.”

“The church with the stain glass window of the guy crossing a river with a lamb on his back?” I ask James as I complete my lap around the parking lot.

“Yeah, that’s the one.” James says.

“Great, hold on.” I run two red lights in order to get there before sundown, but I make it. James goes off running around the church to see if he’s sitting on one of the benches outside. I make my way inside.

Inside the church is empty, no Andy. I walk quickly to the back of the church to check the rooms behind the alter. I whisper Andy’s name into both of the rooms, no response. I should have run through and yelled his name, but somehow it didn’t feel right doing that in a church. It’s so quite and serene I don’t want to be the pebble that disturbs the pond, even if there’s no one there.

I head back outside and meet James.

“Tell me you found him.” I say to James. He has to have found him. This is the last place we can afford to look. The sun is going down. Grace hasn’t called to tells us he returned home. We’ve got maybe two minutes of daylight left. He has to be here.

“Sorry.” James says. “I got nothing.” I do punch the door to the church. He was supposed to be here. It was the last place we could look. Why would he not be here? I want to punch the door again, but I have to pull it together for James.

“That’s okay. We will go home and get the professionals on this. If we can’t find him they can.” I say, but I should’ve been the one to find him. I’m his older brother. It’s my job to take care of him, and in failing to find him I’ve failed. I’m sure Sarah is watching, and it hurts that much more knowing I’ve disappointed her as well.

We pile into the car at a normal walking pace, and head home obeying all traffic laws.

“It’ll be okay.” I tell James again. He doesn’t say anything back.

It’s a full ten minute drive home, and the sunset punctuates are failure. The last rays are just fading in the distance, signaling that our attempt to find him as reached its end. We are forced to give in. Everything closes around here at dark, and the lack of daylight will prevent us from seeing him.

As I turn into our parent’s neighborhood, I see a kid walking up the side of the road with reflective tape all over his shirt. He looks about the same height as James had estimated Andy would be.

“James.” I say, keeping my voice calm as we pull alongside him. “Is that?”

“Andy!” James shouts, opening the car door. I slam on the brakes and put the car in park in the middle of the street.

We both ignore my advice to be deal with Andy cautiously, and rush out of the car to bear hug him before he can get away.

“He gu…” He gets out before I pick him up and crush his lungs, before handing him over to James to do the same.

I spot a plastic bag on the ground. It’s got food in it. He had been getting supplies. I pick up the bag and chuck it as far as I can throw it.

“It’s okay Andy.” I say while James still has him in a bear hug. “You won’t be needing supplies. We are going to take you home and feed you. Grace has been preparing a hero’s dinner at home. Whatever it is that made you run away. We can fix it. We are here for you now Andy.”

James puts Andy down, and it is at this point I see the highly confused and surprised look on Andy’s face.

“Run away?” He asks. “Who ran away?”

His question caught me off guard. “You did Andy.” I say. “You’ve been gone. Your sister is horribly worried, and you’ve picked up supplies for your escape.”

“Escape?” Andy says. James is starting to examine the blades of grass by the sidewalk in an attempt to distance himself from the conversation.

“I wasn’t trying to escape. Those ‘supplies’ were snacks the parents don’t let me eat.” I look in the back. It’s full of soda, chips, candy, and other stuff that parents try to avoid feeding to their kids.

“Well um, I guess it is. Hang on though, you left your cell phone behind. You left without telling anyone, and you were gone for hours.” I think he might be just trying to cover his tracks now that he knows he’s been caught.

“I left my cell phone because I hate people texting and calling me all the time.” Andy says.

“You could’ve just turned it off.” I suggest.

“It feels more liberating to leave it behind.” He says. “As for the leaving without telling and being gone for hours, I was only gone for two hours, because that’s how long it takes to walk to the store and back, and I didn’t tell anyone because none of you guys ever take an interest in what I do.” He says.

Those words hit home. I see James feel them too. Me and him are both in the same boat, Grace too. We are all his older siblings. It’s not his responsibility for him to keep up with us. It’s our responsibility to keep up with him.

“I think we’ve learned our lesson Andy.” I tell him. “We’ve been worried sick over you. Let’s all go home and sort this out.” It’s a silent car ride up the street to the parent’s.

Upon our arrival Andy calls out for Grace. She comes streaking into the room to give Andy his third attempted asphyxiation through hugging of the day. Andy handles it well.

“How did you find him? Where was he?” Grace asks.

“We’ve got to have a talk Grace.” I say. “Let’s meet in the dining room. There are some things we need to go over.” Grace catches the somber tone in my voice. She nods, thinking she understand what’s going on. She puts on arm around Andy.

Once we are all seated around the dining I start off.

“First things first, Grace, Andy didn’t run away. He was walking to the store to pick up some junk food now that the parents were gone.” I produce the bag, and Grace looks appropriately shocked. “We all over reacted. He wasn’t gone long, and we had no reason to believe he had run. That’s our fault. Thankfully we kept our heads enough that this will probably not get back to the parents. If they find out we are this badly coordinated and irresponsible it’ll be bad for you guys. I’m out of the house so there isn’t a lot they can do to me, but I’m sure you guys are going to get the world’s biggest grounding. To make sure it doesn’t get back, we are all going to go through our phones and call back everyone we told about this to let them know it’s okay, and Andy didn’t run away. It was all just a misunderstanding. Hopefully, that will be enough.” Grace looks crestfallen. I’m sure she made many calls, and will now have to make many more. It would be good for us. We needed a little negative reinforcement after what we had done.

“Second, Andy, we are sorry.” James knows why I’m apologizing, but Grace’s face is asking me why I’m apologizing. “All of us are sorry. You didn’t know we cared enough to check up on you, so you didn’t think it necessary to tell us where you were going or when you would be back. Ultimately, this whole episode is our fault. So Andy, I am very sorry that I haven’t been the big brother you deserve.” I pause and look at James.

“I’m sorry too Andy. I should’ve kept in touch better.” James says.

“Me too Andy, I’m sorry I haven’t been a good older sister.” Grace says.

“I’m sorry too.” Andy says. “I haven’t been an enthusiastic supportive younger brother either. I can’t blame you guys for not talking to me. I haven’t talked to you either.”

“It’s good of you to say that Andy.” I say. “That brings us to the third order of business, making sure this doesn’t happen again. I think we can all agree, and this event has made it perfectly clear, we have all been pretty awful siblings too each other. We don’t fight, but that’s only because we don’t interact enough to have a reason to fight. We need to resolve to keep in touch better, and to start us off, I’m going to take us on a little adventure. Brothers and sister, we are going rock climbing tomorrow.”

What follows is an eager exchange between the four of us as we go over every detail with fervor. They want to know where we are going and how we are going to do it. I enjoy sharing my new hobby with my siblings.

I take them back to my place for the night, and setup a campfire outside. We make use of the marshmallows and chocolate that Andy bought to make s’mores. I feel, right, like this is how things are supposed to be, my younger siblings are at my house, using the fire I made, sleeping outside with my gear. I can’t wait until tomorrow where I can get to teach them new stuff, but I love our conversation around the fire.

James finally opens up after being tight lipped all day.

“I just don’t get it.” He says. “None of the sophomore girls seem to take an interest in me. I’m smart. I’m funny. I have a lot going on for me at school, but that doesn’t seem to matter to them.” He addressed his statement to Grace. No doubt hoping she could volunteer some helpful information, but I answered for her.

“Little bro, you’ve come to the right place.” I start my older brother job of teaching the younger ones the ways of life a little sooner than I expected.

The next day I wake them up with surprise cinnamon rolls and chocolate milk that I slipped out of the house to buy. They are ecstatic at the unexpected treats, and I tell them to eat them on the way, we are heading out to the rocks immediately.

On the way out we play old car games like ‘I spy’ and ‘Twenty Questions’. Andy is annoyingly good at picking very specific species of animals that no one knows, and James goes for a bunch of older historical figures that I haven’t heard of, but Grace knows every last one. I am without a doubt the worst at the game, trying to select animals that I think are cool is a rather poor strategy it turns out.

When we get to the cliff I have them inspect the gear I’ve brought, making sure the ropes aren’t frayed, and none of the metal bits have tell tale scratches or dents on them. We have a safety talk about what we are about to do, and they help me set up the rope systems.

I’ve done trust falls before. They are a good group exercise where each person takes a turn falling into another person’s arm. I had thought it was good for group cohesion because there is genuine tension when you trust someone else to catch you. This is nothing compared to leaning backwards off of a cliff because someone told you too.

We spend the afternoon moving up and down the cliff face. During the intermissions between climbs I discuss college plans with Grace, date ideas with James, and book plots with Andy. When the sun sets we head back to my place to call the parents. They’re happy to see us hanging out together, and as we sit around the nights campfire we make plans to keep in touch. Come hell or high water at 5:00 on Sunday we will all be in front of a computer screen to have a skype chat.

The next day when I drop them off I realize I’ve hardly thought of Sarah in two days, and I’ve got five whole days before her next letter. I spend them with my family, insuring that the bond we have started to form becomes strong. It’s not only what Sarah would want me to do, it’s the right thing to do.

Five days later I find myself making my way to the attic to retrieve one of the final three letters. I hope it’s this letter. The next letter is three months off. The final letter is over three years off. I have plenty of things to occupy myself with, but I can’t help but wonder about my wife. She’s out there somewhere. Is she talking to guys and hanging out with family? Are there people making her life hard? I want to read her letters and compare them to my own. I open the box and pull out the sixteenth letter. Please tell me where she is.

07/10/2014

Hey dad, wow, that is so weird talking to you. I mean I haven’t talked to you in months and now here I am, communicating with my dad. Wow, I can communicate with you whenever I want now.” What? Was there some mix up, this letter sounded like it was the first time we had spoken. Had my daughter’s, until now, perfectly formed plan suddenly developed a hole? Had she gotten cocky and forgot to double check her work?

I know that this is going to be one of the last letters you read, but it’s the first one I’m writing.” That didn’t make any sense at all. Who would start an 18 letter series with the sixteenth letter? “I know that’s confusing, but it’s because I wanted to say this first. All of the other letters are going to be edited and sent countless times as I go back and time again and again to get everything just right for you and make you into the man I know you can be.”

                “That’s the reason I’m writing this letter first. I don’t want what I’m about to say to be tainted by knowledge of the future. I haven’t gone back in time to see you yet, and I have no proof for how these letters will change your life, so you know that what I’m about to say is based on faith, and faith alone.”

                “Thank you dad, it’s been a long journey for you. You have fought so hard for so long to change the things about you that are dead weight. You have ruthlessly cut out the part of you that damage your life, and carefully grown new parts that give life to you and all those around you. You have become a pillar of strength, the cornerstone of your siblings. You have taken charge of your life, and helped to guide the lives of those around you. You’ve made yourself into the person that mom and I need and desire. You have become a true prince charming that saves the princess and protects his kingdom from invaders. I am proud to call myself your daughter. I know in good times and in bad our family can rely on you. You make us safe, secure, and loved. Thank you for being who you are.”

Love always,

Sarah

The first letter, this was her first letter. This was written without the knowledge that multiple trips to the past provided. All of her other instructions had been based on her experience and what she had seen. She must’ve traveled back countless times to make all this happen. She had done all of this for me, and she had known I could do it. From the very start she had known that her father was a man capable of doing incredible things, and she had empowered me to do them. I owed her so much. I would have to spend a lifetime paying it back to her. This letter I do not put back in the box. I fold it carefully, and put in the back of my wallet.

During the next three months I read it often. I honor her by keeping to the habits she has taught me. I continue to broaden my outdoors knowledge, develop into even better shape, grow closer to my family, and become more and more confident with the opposite gender. I wait dutifully for the right time to open the second to last letter, with the letter in my wallet it’s easy to find the strength to hold off opening it.

What could the last two letters be? Clearly one is to setup a meeting with my future wife, but what of the other? She had finished with her purpose of making me into a better human being, what else was there to do besides meet my wife?

Was there some dark thing that would happen on one of those days? She had written letters before with the purpose of encouraging me, or steering me back onto the straight and narrow path when I strayed off it. Was I going to slip somehow? Would I meet someone else and begin dating a woman who wasn’t my wife? I begin to be anxious about the approaching final letter. One of them is going to be bear good news, but I begin to fear the second. What else could it be but bad news? And it would truly be a dark day. There were no more letters for me. This event must be the worst event in my life to be the only thing from now until my daughter began time traveling that was bad enough to warrant some outside support.

The day finally arrives. After seven months, this could be the end. This could be it. I could read my wife’s name, and begin to date her. We would finally meet after seven months of toil and strife. I could not wait to hear the trials she had endured.

Or, it could be my darkest day. I drive to work using back roads to avoid traffic and any potentially horrible accidents. I do nothing at work for four hours, afraid that my slightest action would somehow get me fired or cause permanent injury, and then I think they might fire me because I’m not doing anything. So I spend another four hours writing emails that don’t need to be written so it looks like I’m doing something.

I jump every time my cell phone goes off, afraid it could delivering bad news. I open every text message slowly, bracing myself for the worst. It’s time to leave work, and still nothing has happened. I practically tip toe out of the building, and for the first time in my life, drive below the speed limit on the back roads home.

At my home I make my dinner while carefully inspecting each and every item to insure it is still in good condition, and free of any mold or impurity that could potentially damage my health.

After dinner I don’t make a fire. I just set in my living room, with my largest kitchen knife in my lap. The TV is off. My phone is on, but I don’t use it, and all other electronic devices are off. I glance anxiously from door to door, waiting for someone to break in, or a fire to start, or a bomb to go off. I glance down at my cell phone every now and then to check for messages, but it’s silent the whole night.

When the clock reads 11:40, I decide to head up to the attic. I walk slowly through the house, checking every corner and frequently looking behind me to make sure nothing has gotten in and begun following me. I reach the attic after the slowest most agonizing walk through my house I have ever taken. It was worse than watching a horror movie by yourself, in the dark, and then walking around your house alone.

I scan the attic for anything out of place that could signal an intruder, and then locate the chest. It’s in tact, just the way I left it. I put my back to a wall and keep the attic entrance in the corner of my eye as I open the box and pull out the seventeenth letter.

I pray fervently as I open it. I’m not out of the woods yet. This letter could be instructions for how to survive a disaster that occurred immediately afterwards, or could describe a horrible situation as it unfolds. I open the letter and begin to read.

10/17/2014

Dear dad, her name is Angelica.”

Letters to my father part 4

 Should I be worried about my daughter? Was this normal behavior for someone in the future? I was concerned how she knew all of this. Was my daughter a player? I mean, it had to work if she told it would. This time travel thing made her borderline omniscient, but still, we were going to have a talk about boys when she grew up.

Focus, think about your daughter’s dating life later, focus on getting her born. Ten lines in seven days, and they were some doozies. I was going to make such an idiot out of myself. Who said this kind of stuff?

This could be one of her tricks. I heard guys got slapped for saying pick-up lines to girls could get you slapped. Maybe my daughter thought it would be funny to get me slapped a bunch.

I had better buckle down to this, first I would pick a line, then I would need to find a girl to drop it on. So, which line was the easiest? It was kind of creepy to ask for a picture, so the first one is out. Religion is a hot topic, so second one is gone. Marriage was really fast paced, so the third one wasn’t an option. The fourth one had promise. I knew girl’s sometimes kept band aids in their purses, and asking strangers for medical help was kind of socially acceptable. It was cute. I could do it.

Next thing was to find a place. Where had I did girls go? Had I seen any recently? There was the dance hall, but I wanted to go back there sometime, so I didn’t want to make a fool of myself there. I saw girls jogging around sometime, but that took a while. Sometimes I could jog for miles without seeing a single female. There were bars and clubs, but I didn’t frequent such places.

Maybe this was why I needed more help with girls, there weren’t any places I ran into them a lot in my normal life. If I was a girl, where would I go? Hair salon? Nah, I didn’t need a haircut, and I would be strapped down to a chair. If I was going to do this I wanted a quick means of escape.

What about somewhere where they sold makeup? No good, I didn’t know if those stores existed, much less where they were. I needed some place more normal.

Girls had to eat too, what about a restaurant? Oh, a coffee shop would be perfect! There were probably plenty of girls, and I could leave whenever I wanted. It was perfect. I now had a mission, and there was plenty of daylight left to make it happen.

A short while later I found myself in a coffee shop waiting in line between two girls who, as luck would have it, worth both close to me in age. Good, this would be easy. The girl in front of me had three people in front of her, I would spend the next minute or two psyching myself out, and when she completed her order I would ask her for a band aid as she walked passed me. Good, this was good. I could do this.

Alright, two people left, here we go. Wait, isn’t this weird? She’s going to know I haven’t scraped my knee. I’ve been standing behind her this whole time. She’s going to see right through it. This wasn’t going to work.

One person left. No, I was being stupid. It wasn’t supposed to make sense. It was supposed to be cute. It was all for shock view anyway. I just had to get this out of the way so I could continue with my daughter’s plan.

Oh shoot, now she’s ordering, any second now I’m going to have to do it. She’s getting a hot chocolate, can I work with that? Maybe something about girl’s liking chocolate? No, no, stay on topic, don’t make this too complicated.

Now’s she’s turning, this is it. What was my line again, something about bleeding? That wasn’t it. She sees me looking at her! Look away quickly, act like you were looking at the menu. Good, I think I saved it. I forgot my line, but that was okay, there was still the girl behind me. I would order, turn, and drop the line. Make it quick and easy, don’t overthink it.

“Sir what can I get you?” The cashier asks me with a professional smile. What do they serve here again? I managed to not read a single word when I had pretended to study the menu.

“I’ll have what she’s having.” I say, gesturing to the last girl.

“Small hot chocolate?” She asks. I nod and hand her my card. Any second now I’m going to have to turn and address the girl behind me. I needed to focus on the line. ‘Did I scrape my knee falling for you?’. That didn’t make sense.

“Here’s your hot chocolate sir.” The lady said.

“Knees.” I say back to her. Her professional smile slips for a second.

I can’t say anything now, look at the ground and walk away. Just look at the ground away. I walk outside with my drink, too red faced to possibly go back in. I must be one of the world’s most socially inept people. I had whiffed not one, but two chances to drop the line, and had even botched what should be a routine interaction with someone who is paid to be sociable to me.

I kick a trash can on my way to my car. I stub my toe doing this, and spill hot chocolate on myself, which is still quite hot. I barely manage to stop myself from swearing as one of the girls from the shop comes up to me. She had been walking to her car, and had heard me kick the trash can.

“Are you okay? That sounds like it hurt.” She looks at my leg.

“I think it’s okay, but do you have a band aid? I think I scraped my knee falling for you.” She looks like she’s just seen an oncoming train, and I feel like a jerk. Then she laughs and gets a very genuine smile.

“Thank you.” She says, and starts walking away. It worked! Holy cow it worked! I didn’t get slapped, and she had even laughed! I kind of wanted to go back and pick up the conversation. Maybe I could take that somewhere. No, first rule of this thing was don’t pick up numbers. The goal was to get better with girls so I could treat my wife well. I wasn’t actually supposed to succeed.

Wow it was such a rush to make a girl smile like that. It was like that feeling of starting a fire, mixed with the excitement of jumping off the cliff. I felt exhilarated and validated as a man. I could make girls smile and laugh.

As I drive my car home I wonder why she said thank you. I had made a request of her, people usually either gave you what you wanted or denied your request by saying sorry. You didn’t thank someone who tried to get something from you. It was the person who received the gift that did the thanking. I should be thanking her for giving me a smile and a laugh.

It didn’t make sense to me, maybe she was a bit abnormal for a girl, or maybe these pick-up lines didn’t work the way I thought they did. I was going to call it quits for the night. I would think about other places I could go tomorrow. Maybe the other nine would all slap me and this was a one off fluke. I would bask in my victory tonight. I’d select the next line I would use, and then start my nightly fire. Today was a good day.

After work I head to a grocery store. I need to go to the store anyway, and I’ve seen girls in the store before.

I decided last night to use the heart line. I figured I could find a girl who was holding something her hand, and ask for it back. It wouldn’t be completely weird that way, just mostly weird.

It’s not long before I spot my quarry. She’s on the isle with all the sandwich stuff, holding two different brands of peanut butter. Brimming with confidence I stride over to her.

“Come on, give it back.” I say. She looks up, clearly confused. She’s supposed to say what. She doesn’t say anything. Why isn’t she saying what? This is weird, I should leave. No, I have to finish the line.

“My heart.” I say. She puts the peanut butter in her cart and walks away, glancing over her shoulder at me.

I’m a jerk. There’s no other way about it. I’m a jerk. I hadn’t been slapped, but I kind of wished she had slapped me. I would have deserved it.She had probably been having a perfectly fine day before I had walked up to her, and now I had ruined it.

I still had to do this another eight times. I needed to do at least one more today. Did my daughter know it would mess with the girl’s day? She must’ve thought it worth the cost or something.

I had to do this either more times. I buy some crackers and leave the store. Let’s just get this next one over with, and then we’ll call it a day. I already had the next line all figured out.

The interior decorator line was educationally related, so I could go to the local community college. I might maybe, in the right light, pass as college age, and college students asked each other what their major was all the time. It wasn’t that much of a stretch to finish off the line.

I drive to the local community college, and begin walking around. It’s not hard to find a girl, but it is hard to find the courage to say something. I start wandering aimlessly, and eventually begin to just walking in a loop around the campus.

Had I made a net positive with this bold way of talking to girls. The first girl had certainly walked away feeling much better. I think I had made her day, but had the second one balanced that positive emotion. Was I neutral then? That meant this next girl would either put me in a hole or give me a buffer for the next rejection.

As always, thinking wasn’t helping. There was nothing else for it. I’ve got to do it, and the more I walk around the harder it’s going to get.

I pick the very next girl walking up to me, she catches me looking at her and I flinch, but maintain eye contact and walk up to her. She’s carrying some books on her way to class presumably, and smiles as I get closer. I’m so focused I don’t notice.

“Hey, do you study interior design?” I ask.

“Uh, nursing actually.” She points to the large stack of nursing books she’s carrying. Of course she’s carrying books that invalidate my pick up line.

“That’s funny, because as soon as I saw you the whole room became beautiful.” She gets the same deer in the headlights look the first girl gets, and then titls her head back laughing.

“We’re outside silly.” She says. This line was about as airtight as a cheese grater.

“Well I guess that means you’re really good.” I say. She laughs again and puts her books down. She extends a hand.

“I’m Hannah.” I take her hand and shake it.

“I’m, uh….” Should I use my real name? Better not. I’ll go with my middle name.

“I’m Jack.” I say. She’s actually going to stick around and have a bit of a conversation? That didn’t happen with the other girls..

“Well, uh Jack, what do you study?” She asks. Oh man, what was I supposed to say? The letters hadn’t gone this far. I had used the pick up line I should just walk away, but that would be rude.

“I’m actually trying out pick up lines and figured that a college would be a good place to ask about what people are studying.” I say. Instantly I regret it as she just blinks at me and glances down at her books, no doubt having second thoughts about talking to me.

“That’s, blunt.” She says. “Nobody says that.”

“Well, I’m not a very normal person.” I say.

“Yeah, I can see that.” She says, getting a bit of her smile back. “Hey Jack, I’ve got to get to class, I’ll see you later.” I say goodbye and she heads off.

I watch her head off, and scratch my head. The letters had given me the impression that there was a method to this. There were different kinds of things you started a conversation with, and rules about how to initiate physical contact. It had started to sound like there was a formula, but I had used the same class of conversation starters with three very different results. This was not doing an experiment to derive a formula. This was going shopping blindfolded and being told to head left when you enter the store because the vegetables are somewhere over there.

I hoped the rest of the process wasn’t going to be like this. I liked consistency. In science you were supposed to use the same input to get the same output. It’s called repeatability and it was how you discovered facts. It seemed like there were no facts here. Every person was going to be different and the most you could hope for was general guiding principles. It was like sticking your hand into dark water. You could pull out a pearl, or you could pull out a piranha.

Thankful that I was one third of the way there, I went home. I spent the evening memorizing and ranking the other lines in order of difficulty. I was starting to get my legs under me, and had resolved the next day to use five lines. The fourth day I would use two, and then finish off with the really hard line. That would give me time to practice the physical bit the sixth day, and wrap up the other lessons on the seventh day, when I would open my daughter’s next letter.

How did people do this? I had one girl spontaneously give me her number. I accepted the number then threw it away to keep with the rules of my daughter. I had a second girl pretend not to hear me and keep walking. Two more girls did the deer in the headlights followed by a laugh, and a fifth looked at me strange and in a gentle but firm way told me she had a boyfriend.

It was like fighting a battle every time. You had to put this big investment of emotional energy into it, and you didn’t know if you’d get that emotional energy reciprocated or if you’d get it stomped on. I was glad I already had an introduction to my wife waiting for me in one of these letters, and wouldn’t have to mess around with this ridiculous nonsense.

It never truly got easier either. The fear and anxiety was still there, you just learned to cope with it and do what you came to do anyway. The last two I had saved were the angle line, and the boyfriend line. I had found two coffee shops next to each other, and was going to knock both of these out so I could go to my final location for the last pick up line.

I enter the first coffee shop, and spot a girl working on a laptop while sipping on a cup of something steaming. I’ve learned to instantly walk over to a girl as soon as you see her. It prevents you from overthinking things and freaking yourself out.

I try and catch her eye as I walk over, but she’s got her nose buried in what she’s working on.

“Hey.” I say as I walk over. She glances up briefly, but keeps working on her laptop.

“Do you know what this shirt is made of?” I ask. To her credit, she gives it a moment’s inspection before guessing.

“Cotton.” She says disinterestedly and returns to her computer.

“Boyfriend material.” I correct her. She snorts and says.

“Cute.” And doesn’t look up from her computer, it’s ,not a horrible response, but not a very good one either. I walk out the back to avoid people staring, and make my wake to the second shop. There’s just one last short line to dish out before the big one.

As with the first shop I enter the second one and as soon as I see a girl reading a book in a corner chair I approach her.

“Excuse me miss.” I say. She puts her finger in the book as she puts it down to look at me.

“Can I get a photo with you to proof to all my friends that angels exist?” I ask. She stares at me.

“I don’t let strangers take photos of me.” She says. Ouch, it’s the first time a girl puts the guilt on me. The girl in the grocery store had just walked away, but this girl had basically just called me a creeper.

“Cool.” Is all I can think to say before walking out the back. I had wanted to finish on a high note. I had this image of the girl calling one of her friends over to take the picture with me, and maybe get a number out of it. I didn’t use the numbers, but they made me feel a lot better.

Now I’m heading into the granddaddy of all pick-up lines with one tepid response, and one cold response, great.

The college campus is about the same as I left it, still plenty of girls walking about. Only I’m not just looking for any girl. I need a girl with a cell phone out. Which isn’t much of a restriction, but it is during the summer, so most people are running quickly to and from summer classes.

Eventually I see her. Like a hunter spotting a deer in the distance I instinctively froze. I was lucky she was standing in one place, but not lucky that she was angrily talking on the phone with someone.

I could find someone else. I could turn around go somewhere else. I could even come back another day. I still had plenty of time. I didn’t need to do the rest of the stuff in the letters. All she said was use the ten lines. That was it.

But that wasn’t the point of the lesson. It wasn’t about saying ridiculous things. It was about not letting fear determine your actions.

I walked forward, and didn’t even wait for her to finish her call.

“Hey, excuse me, can I borrow your phone.” She rounded on me like a lion about to pounce on her prey. Her eyes tried to bore holes through my skull, and she exasperatedly handed the phone, with the other person still on the line.

“Hello, is this…” I didn’t know her name. “What’s your name?” I asked. I couldn’t believe I was doing this. She was totally about to take her phone back or slap me or something.

“Lindsey.” She practically spat out the name.

“Is this Lindsey’s mom?” I asked.

“It’s her father.” A rough male voice came through the earpiece.

“Great, listen, I just saw your daughter, and she was so beautiful I wanted your help in getting her on a date. Where do you think I should take her.” Everyone stopped. Lindsey’s dad didn’t say anything. Lindsey’s jaw had dropped, and all the students in a ten foot radius, who had been rushing to get to their exams, now stood stalk still watching me.

“Hello?” I said. There was still nothing, and I was still being watched. It was like I was performing a magic trick or something.

The line went dead. I looked at the phone to make sure that the call was indeed over, and then handed the device back to Lindsey.

“Nice bracelet you have on by the way.” I tell her as she takes her phone back, her mouth it still hanging open wide enough to fit two cheeseburgers, and no one has started moving yet.

I had bombed, and bombed bad. I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to go back to the campus for months without somebody pointing me out as that weird guy that called the girl’s parents.

I don’t care. I’ve won. I did something so entirely gutsy that most men wouldn’t even dream of. Things that people joked about, but never did. Every guy I know wanted this, this total mastery of self. This ability to defy social pressure and take hit after hit, and still keep coming, was something every guy wanted.

I walk back to my car with twenty plus pairs of eyes following me. They can’t believe what they’ve just seen. Some of them are horrified. Some of them are envious. Some of them are so shocked that they don’t know what to think. All of them know they’ve witnessed a profound act of courage.

I go back in the attic to complete a little ritual. After every trip out to drop pick-up lines I had returned home to check off a line from the list Sarah had wrote me. This was to make sure I didn’t repeat any that I didn’t have to, and to give myself a reward for sticking it out and having the guts to do it. I would now cross off the last line, and emerge victorious from another of my daughter’s challenges.

I open the box and pull out the letter, pen at the ready, and find there is new text. A few weeks earlier I might have dropped the letter like it was burning my hand, now I just read through it, curious at the new words. They are certainly new. I had read this letter many times, and there was never any additional text below the lines. It read:

I’m proud of you dad. As bizarre a thing as it is to be proud of, I am. I remember how crushed you were when that one girl didn’t call you. A single rejection ruined your day, and you’ve just walked away with your head held high from one of the most spectacular rejections I’ve ever see. You are an awesome man who is deserving of a wonderful person. There are still a few more letters, but know that I’ve written them to you knowing that you are the kind of strong man who can do what needs to be done even when all societal pressure and emotional turmoil tell him to stop. You’re the best, I love you, and I’m proud to call you my father.”

 

Your adoring daughter,

Sarah

She came back again! This is proof that she has been traveling back and forth through time on more than one occasion. Not only is there additional text, but the original text, the list of 10 lines, has been moved to the top of the page where before it was in the middle. My daughter must have rewrote the letter, but put the lines at the top. The lines I drew across the paper are also gone. She had to leave the old one, and then sometime while I was gone, she traveled back again, and then replaced the original letter with this new one. She was coming back and forth multiple times for me. I win at life.

The rest of the two days is fun. I enjoy practicing all the various kinds of lines and touch games. I start with the compliment openers, finding the right compliment was a game in itself. I would see a girl and instantly size up what she wanted me to compliment her on. Hair is in a ponytail, standard low effort style, no good, generic plastic necklace, t-shirt with no brand name, bracelet just looks like her name. Oh wait, it looks like silver, bingo.

“Hey I love your necklace.”

“Oh thank you, my mom got it for me on my last birthday.

T-shirt with band name, but I don’t recognize the band. Hair all the way down, no bracelets, ear ring, or jewelry.

“Excuse me, I just had to say you look very perky today.”

“Thanks, I’ve been getting a full nights rest.”

“Clearly, it’s showing in your face very well.”

Some girls were harder than others, but if you had a minute to think about it, you could always find something.

These lines were okay, you often got a conversation started, but only if you immediately had something else to talk about. That was why the situation based opening lines worked best, you just jumped straight into the middle of a conversation about something.

It was during these conversations that I mastered the fun little touch games. It was easier than I thought. First I usually picked something to point out. Just touch their shoulder and say ‘hey do you see that?”. Didn’t matter what, maybe someone was wearing a shirt you liked, or someone had a bumper sticker you identified with.

I would point out several things, and then I would progress to the hand games. They were ridiculous things. My favorite one started with me asking for a girl’s hand. I thought it would be a strange request, but people will just give you their hands if you ask. I would then place one of my hands below theirs, and one above theirs. I would then gesture with my head for them to put their hand on top of mine, so we had a pile of alternating hands. I would then slip my bottom hand onto the top of the pile. Without fail, every single girl would then slip her bottom hand out and put it on top. You could then keep going, building up until she couldn’t reach. You could move your hand from the top to the bottom. Or you could just pull both of your hands out at once.

My next favorite came from dancing. I was thinking dancing worked so well because it was something not a lot of guys did, but girls wanted to do. What if I did other things that girls liked to do?

I tested this theory by just walking into a coffee shop, and when the cashier asked what I wanted I responded by playing patty cake with her. She went along with it for two whole minutes before a gentleman at the back of the line clear his throat loudly. The cashier giggled, and then wrote her number down on the receipt.

I enjoyed messing around with all of the various ways that I could employ to start conversations and play touch games. I would think of an idea. I would execute that idea, and some worked, while others bombed. When the sun went down I had a small arsenal of games and lines in my back pocket that I could pull out whenever I wanted to. If I ever ran out of things to say, I would resort to a touch game to buy some time, or drop a cheesy line to change the subject. In a few cases I decided to literally pick the girl up and swing her around a few times. That seemed to reset the conversation and put a grin on the girl’s face.

I almost regretted climbing the stairs to read my daughter’s next letter. I was enjoying myself.

05/26/14

Well done father. I knew you could do it, and you have proven once again you are the kind of man that can be relied on. You’re one of the good guys. I’ve got a light task for you this week. Just spend some time talking to girls. Not just any talking of course. You’re going to be looking for information in these girls. See, you won’t know anything about the girl you’re going after, and you need to start gathering intel. Have you noticed that girls respond very differently to the same comment because all of them are their own unique person? You need to start figuring out what kind of person they are so you can find the right girl.”

                “To do that, you have to ask the right questions, see if she can carry a conversation, and pick your topics well. We’re going to start with the last one.”

                “Picking your topics well, there are a few things you’re going to want to know about a girl. One is her education. Education is the first step in a career, and you need to find out where she stands. This one is easy. Know that interior design line? Drop it in the middle. That line does ask what she studies. She will most likely tell you.” I remember, the girl had said she was nursing. “From there you can talk about what her career plans are fairly easily. There are other more direct ways of asking things, but be she sure you make a mental list ahead of time so you hit your subjects. Don’t get stuck discussing favorite movies. If you want movie reviews they have websites for that. You’re here to find facts.”

                “As regards the first one, here’s a fun question ‘you get three wishes, but can’t for anything that can be bought or sold, and the wish has to be selfish. Sounds like an intriguing thought experiment right? It can be rephrased ‘describe to me the three things you value most’. For the rest of the questions you want to stick with the interrogative ‘why’. What she does, how she does it, where she does it, who she does it with, are not nearly as valuable as knowing why she does it. All four of the other things can change, but the core of who she is can be defined with ‘why’. Find the why, and you find what truly makes her who she is” I strongly suspect that my daughter writes philosophy.

As for the third one, I’ve got one instruction for you. Close your mouth and let her talk. Girls like a guy who can carry and lead a conversation well, but you need to know this girl can hold her own. You don’t want to do all the talking in the relationship do you? Let her talk, see what she talks about. The compliment that means the most is the one that is unsolicited, so the conversation topic she picks on her own is the one that she assigns the greatest importance to. Keep a firm hand on the conversation, but also pay attention to where she steers it when you let her have the wheel.”

                “Got it dad, ask meaningful questions, ask ‘why’, and close your mouth every now and then. One last note, this may seem that I’m asking you to talk about personal stuff. That’s because there’s one more thing. Enjoy yourself! Goof it up a bit, mix things up, have a ball, but remember that you also want to figure things out about her.”

This and the next letter are the easiest my daughter gives me. I easily do both in the span of a week. The second one asks me to plan out the conversation so that we talk about a mutual interest that also makes for a great date idea. If you talk about the date the whole conversation, naturally you should go on it. It hardly seems like a date at that point. It’s just doing that thing you talked about doing.

When two weeks have passed I go into the attic once more to open the box. I take in the box before opening it, appreciating the craftsmanship and once more wondering whether it is made by my daughter’s hands. I take the time to enjoy it because I’m delaying.

In the box is the last instructional letter. There are four in total. I have a guess what the second to last is, but not what the very last contains. I do know what the one I will read today talks about, and I’m dreading opening it.

07/03/2014

Father, as I have said before, you have done wonderfully. You have become healthy, gained a fun lifestyle with multiple hobbies, and gained confidence and skill in the art of talking to girls. You just have one last thing on my list to do. It’s just one thing, but I won’t help you with this.”

                “See, I can’t fix this for you. I could figure out how. Like so many other things I have told you. I could find the precise words and acts necessary to do what needs to be done. I could craft the ideal plan and outline it for you that you can resolve the matter, but that would destroy the meaning of what I’m about to ask.”

                “Father it’s been weeks since you’ve talked to your siblings. Every last one of them is hurting and needing your support. I want you to fix your relationships. This is the last thing you need to do father, and then, we will bring this period to a close. I’ll be waiting for you dad. Show me you can take care of family.”

                So my siblings were hurt. It hurt that I didn’t know that. They all seemed to do well. Ever since I had missed out on my little sister breaking up with her boyfriend I had been checking their facebook pages pretty regularly in order to insure I was up to date with all of their information. They had all done well in school. My two brothers were active in summer sports, and my sister was having a blast preparing for college, what could be wrong with them?

I decide to call Grace first. She’s the one I’ve spent time with most recently, and it would easiest to talk to her. I already know we can discuss dancing. I could invite myself over, and we could dance, then talk about my other siblings in detail.

I dial the number, and she picks up halfway through the first ring. I don’t even get a chance to say hello. She starts talking as soon as she answers the call.

“Our youngest brother has run away.”