The Man in the Box Chapters 5 & 6

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Vol 1, No 5: The Healing Lake

Treading the warm water, Robby wallowed on the irony that he had ended up actually killing the girl when he had originally meant to save her. He waited and watched the rolling water, but she never surfaced. The only movement came from his own wading as he worked to stay afloat.

Panic grew in his chest as the realization—therealization, his new reality—slowly pooled in his brain like fresh blood on the asphalt: He was a murderer. A childmurderer. That wasn’t something one could just shed like old skin. That stuck. Forever.

It was self-defense!he assured the cynic voices screaming out in his head.

Doesn’t matter,those voices retorted. You took a life. You can’t go back. It cannot be undone. You cannot go back.

But if he hadn’t kicked her, she would have drowned him for sure. Her strength was unreal! He triedto get away, but he was about to die himself. He did the right thing, damn it! It was self-defense! But . . . was it reallyself-defense if it meant killing a child? Robby strongly doubted it, as much as he tried not to. And he knew no jury would ever see it that way.

He ducked his head back under the water, but he couldn’t see any sign of her below. She was gone. He would have rescued her in a heartbeat, but she was nowhere to be seen. And by this time she was surely dead. No one could hold their breath for that long.

He re-emerged, and just as he inhaled, he felt a cold spot on his lower back that caused him to swallow another mouthful of water. He turned around, and a ball of hair met him face-to-face. It was the dog, of all things. And, stranger still, his face was no longer bashed in, and the water wasn’t red around him. He wasn’t whimpering or whining or struggling for life. Instead, he was just a dog paddling in the water next to Robby, seemingly happy as could be.

“Pup, if you can live through that, then surely you can talk, so you mind telling me how you’re still alive?” Robby said as he rubbed the dog’s face. “Come on,” he said, swimming toward the shore.

When he got to the edge of the lake, Robby noticed that there was no bottom for his feet to step on. Instead, the shore was like a rim, like he was swimming in a crater. He recalled seeing the water from above as a perfect circle about a hundred feet around. Surrounding the water were trees of all kinds, painting the landscape with a deep, lush green. The air was warm and moist like the water. There was no wind—it was as if the air were holding its breath. It was so muggy, Robby wondered if there was any more oxygen outside the water than in.

After helping the dog out of the water, he pulled himself up. The dog shook himself dry as Robby sat facing the lake. He needed a minute to breathe, and think. He petted the dog on the head and examined the small canine. Robby couldn’t be sure, but there was a vague resemblance to him that he simply couldn’t put his finger on, like a word you were trying to recall but was stuck, invisibly, on the tip of your tongue.

The dog was only about a foot tall, his white mustache and beard still dripping water. The more he sniffed Robby, the more excitable he grew. He began tickling Robby with kisses and jumping in and out of his lap, barking a few times.

Robby laughed while he tried to get himself into a playful mood. He just couldn’t understand how the dog had healed so miraculously—then it hit him. The water. It had to be like a fountain of youth sort of thing. “Looks like I saved your butt taking you in the water with me,” Robby said.

Behind them a thick wall of jungle trees rose up and blocked out the sun blazing in the clear sky. He hoped he would soon dry off even though he was sticky with sap-like humidity. He turned his head forward and looked up at the mouth of the cave he had jumped from, which was a hole about five stories up the side of a sheer wall of rock that jutted two hundred feet into the sky. A smooth ribbon of water streamed down out of the mouth, peaceful and serene, making a quiet trickling sound as it dipped into the lake.

As he sat by the water trying to get dry, he couldn’t shake the confusion and the guilt. But what scared him most wasn’t so much where he was, but where he’d come from. He had no recollection of any part of his life from before appearing in that tiny little tunnel. He’d have to find answers eventually, and he took solace in the fact that if there was one person here, then there were bound to be others. Of course, he would have to resolve not to kill them too if he wanted to have his questions answered.

Not knowing where he had come from was a sort of claustrophobia in and of itself, because he couldn’t follow a trail of memories that specifically led him here. However, he could recall his favorite restaurants, his favorite airline, and the cars he drooled over. He could even list off movies he’d seen and books he’d read. But for the life of him, Robby couldn’t pin who he was, or clearly see any memory of his life divorced from cultural norms. He knew that Ronald Regan was president. And, as an average middle-class American citizen, he had a social security number, but he couldn’t determine how he earned his income or what his home address was. Did he live with anyone? Was he married? It was as though he could only know the most basic biography of himself: Robby Lake, thirty-nine years old, likes meatball subs and Lay’s potato chips, hates olives and mushrooms, has knowledge of Western civilization, speaks English, a little Spanish, bites the inside of his mouth when he’s nervous, and isn’t afraid to use the women’s bathroom if the men’s is occupied. But outside of that, he could recall absolutely nothing.

He began to freak out at the loss of memory thinking that some fatal disease was overtaking his brain. He quickly began doing math equations in his head to keep from losing all semblance of reality.

He made it to the sixes on the multiplication table when he saw a form rising up from the water. Robby rubbed his eyes to make sure that what he was seeing was real. Sure enough, it was the little girl emerging. His ecstasy over her resurrection—and more so, him not being a child murderer—was cut short, though, when she growled at him (which caused the dog beside him whimper) and swam toward him in rough, splashy strides. He pulled his feet back and stood up, grabbing the dog.

When the girl reached the edge of the water she glared at him with murderous eyes, her bushy eyebrows merging together and her eyes narrowing. Fountain of Youth, thought Robby, answering the question of her mortality before it could even fully form in his head. This lake is the Fountain of Youth.

As she pulled herself out of the water he firmly stood his ground. He wasn’t going to run from her. Maybe he could talk to her. He’d kill her again if he had to; he’d just toss her back in the Fountain of Youth and run. But first, he was going to have to try handling this diplomatically.

“I don’t know what you’re so mad about, and I’m sorry for whatever happened to you, but I think we can help each other out.”

The girl didn’t hesitate to state what she wanted. “One, kill that dog.”

“But why—”

“And two,” she said with enough force to cut him off, “you’re coming with me. That’show you can help me.”

“Okay,” said Robby. “Those will be up for discussion. Um, really all I want is to know where I am. Where are we, exactly?”

“Badass Island.”

Robby laughed a little. “Okay, yeah. I’ll admit that any island that has a healing lake is pretty badass. But really, are we talking the South Pacific? The Maldives? I’ve never been, but I kind of felt like we were in some deep African jungle. But you look white, or tanned, so . . .”

“This is the Jungle of Rad. Dude, you should knowthat. It’s yourisland, after all. You made it.”

Robby cocked his head in confusion. He may not have known where he came from, but he was certain he had never been herebefore.

“Now are you going to kill Giga, or am I?” asked the girl.

“Giga?” He looked down at the dog, who buried his face in the bend of Robby’s elbow. As he did so, a slow petal of remembrance dawned on him. “Giga . . .” He stroked the top of the dog’s head. “Giga . . . the dog who—”

“Never bites,” the girl said along with him.

“Like Gigabyte,” Robby finished almost to himself. Why did that sound so frustratingly familiar?

“Good job, Einstein. You know the name of your own dog. Now kill him.” She said this as she walked toward them while pulling a dagger out from her dripping wet fanny pack.

Robby took a step back and Giga wriggled and jumped out of his arms, running into the trees.

“Well, damn,” the girl said.

Angry now, Robby asked, “Why are you trying to kill that dog? Do you know how sick that is?”

“Because he keeps getting himself hurt. It’s yourfault anyway,” she said, standing just a few feet from Robby now, and, Robby noticed, not putting her knife away.

Myfault? What are you talking about?”

“Because, dummy, you decreed that your dog would never die.”

“That makes no sense! And besides, what’s wrong with that?” The questions swirling around Robby’s head were too numerous to count. What should it matter what he decreed? Who didn’twish that about their dog? Since when was Giga hisdog? How did that lake heal everyone, and why didn’t everyone in the modern world know about it? Where did this girl want to take him? How did he get here? And why wouldn’t she put that damn knife away?

“Because, dipwad, when you said he should never die, you didn’t say anything about him not getting hurt.”

Robby shook his head. “Let’s back up here. That doesn’t explain why you’re trying to kill him.”

“To put him out of his misery,” she said as she gripped her dagger tighter in her hand and brushed past him.

He grabbed her arm forcefully and said, “He’s fine now, so just leave him alone.” He hated the way she glared at him with those murderous eyes. But he could take her; the dog couldn’t.

“But he’ll keep getting hurt, and I’d rather he just die already,” the girl said through gritted teeth.

“Well, he’s mydog . . . apparently . . . and you don’t have my permission to touch him anymore.”

This seemed to cause the girl to loosen her tension a little. “Fine. Asshole. But you’re still coming with me.”

Robby had already decided that going anywhere with this miniature psychopath was out of the question. She’d already tried to kill him once; she was completely unpredictable. Being near her was only putting himself at risk, and he wasn’t willing to fight her again.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “But I can’t do that. I’m just going to find my dog and we’ll go our own way.”

She narrowed her eyes at him and he could see the wheels spinning in her head. Then, without a shadow of a warning, she swung her knife at him hard and sharp. It all happened too fast for him to know what happened for sure, but he must have jumped out of the way and put his free hand up to defend himself, because next thing he knew, blood was pouring from his right palm. The pain was surreal and he wanted to smack the bitch, but she still had the knife and she clearly wasn’t afraid to use it.

“What the hell!” Robby yelled.

“You don’t have to come with me,” the girl said calmly. Robby had released her arm and she slipped the knife back in her fanny pack, buckling it in place. “But you’re going to need to get medical attention for that, and Iknow the only doctors around.”

Robby seethed in anger for a moment, hating to be outsmarted. Okay, she was right about that. He had no idea where he was and he couldn’t possibly hope to find a hospital on his own. He could wrap his hand up in some plants and do the whole jungle-survival thing, but he didn’t know nearly enough about surviving in the wild, much less with a deep cut like this. Plus, there was the risk of bacterial infection . . .

But then he perked up. Maybe she hadn’t outsmarted him at all. He turned and ran back to the water, that mystical healing water that made Giga whole and healthy, and obviously brought the demon girl to life. He plunged his bloodied hand in and watched the water around his wrist swirl into a dark red cloud.

God, the stingfrom that cut. It hurt so badly, but the tropical water put his pain at ease a little.

“What are you doing?” the girl asked.

“I’m healing myself. And if you cut me again, I’ll just jump right in, and I’ll keep doing that until you leave me alone.”

“You realize that water doesn’t actually heal you, right?” She asked this as though he were the biggest dumbass on the planet.

But Robby just laughed and said, “You’re trying to trick me and I won’t fall for it. I’ve seen what this water can do. I saw with my own eyes how it healed my dog from your communist ways.”

“He heals on his own. The water had nothing to do with it. Like I said, he’s the dog that never dies. He ran away from home last night, so I went looking for him. He apparently got attacked by an animal or a deadbeat or something—”

“I’m sorry, a what?”

“A deadbeat. Oh! They weren’t around when you were here last. Yeah, get ready to shit yourself, they’re scary as hell. But anyway, I followed Giga’s blood trail up the steps to the cave.” Robby looked where she was gesturing, and sure enough there was a steep stony staircase engraved on the side of the mountain, which led up to an opening in the side. “I followed the trail up there,” the girl continued. “And found his side ripped open, and he was just lying there. I tried cutting his throat with my knife, but that didn’t kill him either. I hated to see him suffering, so I just started beating him with the rock, hoping he’d just die already. It would have been the best thing for him.”

“Why did he go up there?” Robby asked, afraid he already knew the answer.

“Because he must have known you were here. He’s been waiting for you to return longer than most of the others.”

“And you’re saying he just magicallyheals on his own?”

The girl nodded.

“But what about you?” Robby pressed. “You obviously couldn’t die in that water, but you were under for a really long time.”

The girl, who was beginning to lose her demon-ness, took a dark piece of bark out of her mouth and handed it to Robby, who took it with his free hand. “It’s breathing bark. It comes from trees that are filled with air. With one of these in your mouth you can breathe underwater for quite a while.”

“Weird. I’m sorry for kicking you so hard. I don’t make it a habit to go around kicking little girls.”

“How’s your hand?” she asked.

Robby had almost forgotten about it. He pulled it out of the water, expecting to see it completely healed, but it wasn’t. Instantly fresh blood spilled out of his deep wound, saturating his wrist with red streaks dripping all the way down to his elbow.

The girl didn’t even have to look at his hand to know. “You ready to go?” she asked, handing him a piece of a bamboo leaf to wrap his hand up in.

Robby sighed. “Yeah. Let’s go,” he said, taking it. And she led him into the dark jungle trees ahead.

 Vol 1, No 6: Hail

But it wasn’t a jungle, as Robby soon discovered. As they walked, they had to brush low-hanging vines and branches out of the way. “So what’s your name?” Robby eventually asked, keeping a sharp eye on her knife, pun intended.

“Hail.”

He nodded. They continued to walk, him following her.

“I need you in front,” she said, turning around to face him. “I don’t want you running off.”

“I don’t want you stabbing me. I’ll follow.”

“I can stab you just as easily from the front,” Hail insisted.

“Oh, yeah?” said Robby just before he followed her eyes downward. Sure enough, she was holding her dagger at his stomach.

“In front. Now,” she demanded.

Robby rolled his eyes and gritted his teeth as Hail got behind him.

“My name’s Robby, by the way,” he said after they had walked a few yards.

“No duh.”

Robby wondered how she would have known his name as he moved a giant leafy vine out of his way, but bumped into something solid when he tried passing through it. It wasn’t a tree like he had initially thought. Instead it was a glass window. At first he only saw green moss clinging to its dirty surface. Then he saw himself, his suit a wet and bloody mess, his hair matted down, his face haggard and stranger-like. He cupped his face in his hands and leaned in to peer inside. “What is this?” Robby asked.

“I dunno,” Hail said. “Probably a bank or a control center or something.”

Inside was a dark room, worn by years of neglect. Chairs were tipped over on their sides and desks held old computers—those fat desktops that weighed sixty pounds and had strangles of cords and wires spilling through the back into holes in the desk and then plugged into power strips no one bothered to hide.

So this place is civilized, thought Robby. Or at leastwas.

“You just going to stand there all day?” asked Hail. “Come on, we’ve got some walking to do.” Robby pulled himself away from the glass and asked where they were going. “To Nirvana,” Hail replied.

“Well I’m not Buddhist, but I think that sounds pretty good right about now.”

Hail took the lead now since Robby clearly couldn’t walk without running into things. As Robby looked more closely, he realized that he was indeed in a jungle—not one made of trees, but of buildings and skyscrapers. Roots and vines had grown so lush and plentiful around them that the buildings were hardly visible through the shrubbery. It was as though not a soul had set foot around here in ages. And the small pieces of buildings he could see were rusted orange steel or bricks faded to a near-perfect white or wood that was rotted away by water and time.

“Call your dog,” Hail commanded. “He might not trust me anymore because of what I did to him.”

“You think?” asked Robby, horrified at the image of her beating him so badly up in the cave. “Uh, Giga. Come here, boy,” he called. It was eerie, hearing his voice echo through the empty apocalyptic streets.

“They said you’d be wearing funny clothes,” said Hail, leading him around a corner where they were able to walk on a large street. A few beat-up cars parked along the side of the road, several of them with wings jutting out of their sides. “That’s how I knew it was you, because they said you’d be wearing old man clothes.”

Robby looked down at his stretched-out suit and disheveled tie. He didfeel out of place. At this point Giga ran up to Robby and started jumping up and down on his leg, but Robby ignored him. “Who told you what I’d be wearing? And I don’t feel like I’m an old man . . .”

“How old are you?”

“Um. Thirty-nine.” How the hell could he knowthat, but not have a clue about anything—? An idea sprung on him and he was already reaching for his wallet in his back pocket. He opened it up, dripping water all over his feet. The cash was damp, and he found a zoo pass, three credit cards that confirmed he was indeed Robby Lake, and then his driver’s license.

He examined it closely. His mug was on the left-hand side. Across the top was scrolled the word “Kentucky” in blue, with the little horse logo above the CKYportion. His license number was listed below that, then the expiration date, then his birthday: May 26, 1979. He also pulled his phone out of his front pocket but wasn’t surprised to see it wouldn’t turn on. He quickly did the math, if he was born in ’79 and he was thirty-nine, then it was—

“What year is it?” Robby asked.

“We lost count. Why?” asked Hail, taking his license from him and examining it. “You look like a sex predator in this picture.”

Ignoring her, he said, “What do you meanyou lost count? That’s impossible! You’re dressed like the girls I used to play with as a kid, yet we’re in a city that’s clearly been taken over by aliens—”

“Deadbeats. It was taken over by deadbeats. The aliens left here when you left.” Hail stuffed his license in her fanny pack, which Robby didn’t really care about at the moment. He could always get it back from her later, but he had a feeling he wouldn’t be needing it here. He slipped his wallet back into his pocket.

He studied her for a minute. “So, like, all the dads just stopped working? The economy plummeted? Everyone’s a deadbeat now?”

She studied him back. “You really don’t know what’s going on, do you?”

“Humor me,” said Robby. “Pretend I don’t know a damned thing.”

“Keep walking,” she said. “We’ll talk on the way.”

Robby complied and Giga finally settled down as soon as they started resuming progress. Of course, the pup remained closer to Robby for his own protection.

“So without you, none of this would be here,” Hail started. “I’m not paying you a compliment, I’m just stating facts based off the stories I’ve heard my whole life. It’s Robby this, Robby that. Great adventurer and future king. Personally, I think that’s all bull, but I’m just telling you what I’ve heard.”

“You’re not the only one who thinks that,” said Robby. “But did you say ‘future king’?”

“Yeah, but don’t lose your fancy pants over it. Apparently you were a pretty righteous kid back in the day. I’m not sure what happened to you since then, but here you are now, so many years later, as promised.”

“Who promised I’d be back?”

“You did.”

“Okay. So back from where?”

“Dude, I don’t know. You apparently always left the island to go take care of other things. But one day you said you wouldn’t be back for a long time, but if we built you a castle while you were gone, you’d come back to sit on your throne and become our king.”

“Sooooooo . . . did you build it?”

“Yeah, it got built,” said Hail. “But you were gone for so long that people grew impatient waiting for you.”

The street was overgrown with weeds that grew up to his shoulders. The air was as dead as the city. It was still, unmoving, and deafeningly silent. It seemed even their footsteps didn’t make a sound on the cracked and broken street. As they walked, Robby tried making out the ads on the faded billboards. From what he could tell they were posters for concerts or movies soon to be released. There were Taco Bells with the old brown square sign and the yellow bell in the middle; on one street corner was a Virgin Megastore, and across from that, a Blockbuster (and was that a faded poster for the movie Mac and Me?).

Hail jogged up to the side of a phone booth where there was a toy that looked like planet Saturn. The planet being a bouncy ball and the rings, well, just that—a plastic ring around the ball that Hail stepped on and began bouncing herself up and down.

“A PogoBall,” Robby said to himself, a distant memory threatening to break through. When Hail bounced back over toward him, he asked, “So my throne was built, I didn’t come back, and people got impatient waiting for me. Then what?”

The bouncing ball made Giga nervous, so Robby bent to pick him up.

“Well, people started thinking that if someonewould sit on the throne, then Badass Island would have a king or a queen.”

“So what happened when they sat on it?”

“They became deadbeats. Speaking of which, we’ve got to hurry if we’re going to be back before dark.”

Robby waited for her to explain some more, but she was more interested in bouncing along on her PogoBall., even though she was supposedly in such a hurry. He snapped his fingers at her, saying, “Hey. I don’t know what deadbeats are, remember? Can you elaborate a little bit?”

But Hail stopped bouncing suddenly and put a finger to her mouth. The buildings had grown smaller and fewer and more trees started to surround them. With her other hand she gestured toward a thick group of trees about four yards off.

Robby strained to see what had caught Hail’s attention. There, through two trunks, he saw a brown squirrel. Robby was about to ask what the big deal was, but then a lizard twice the size as the squirrel bounded out of the bushes on its hind legs and attacked the squirrel from behind. It stretched its long neck over the rodent’s head and bit its face as the squirrel squirmed and shrieked like a piece of cloth flapping wildly in the wind.

Robby did all he could to keep from vomiting at the sight of the lizard flipping its meal over to devour it from the neck down in just a few large bites, tugging on the meat that stuck to the bones with its long, sharp teeth.

Hail grabbed Robby’s arm and pulled him along. “Let’s go.”

“That looks like a dinosaur,” gasped Robby in disbelief.

Duhh. That’s a pretty bitchin’ observation for someone who’s supposed to rule our island. Now, let’s go,” urged Hail, pulling Robby along at a fast pace, leaving her PogoBall behind.

“Wait. You’re telling me that was a dinosaur?”

“It’s an eoraptor,” said Hail, not slowing down. “There will be others around and if they attack us in a group, they’ll kill us. They get bigger the deeper into the jungle we go.”

“How big?” asked Robby. He was on the verge of laughing at himself for having this ridiculous conversation.

“Huge. You don’t remember them?”

“No,” he answered. He couldn’t figure out how dinosaurs could suddenly be in existence. Did evolution come full circle? Did the people die off and the dinosaurs return to take their place? “What happened here?” Robby asked. “Where is everybody?”

“I bet a lot’s changed since you were here last,” said Hail. “So we’re leaving Gnarly Town.”

Gnraly Town? So what happened to it? Was there a virus or something that wiped everyody out?”

“No,” said Hail. Then, as an explanation she said, “The whole island went to shit after you left. People got tired of waiting, so they sat on the throne they built you, and because they weren’t you, they turned into deadbeats and the island’s been cursed ever since.”

“All because I left?” asked Robby. “You’re making it sound like I’m more powerful than I really am.”

“Trust me, that’s notmy intent.”

Robby was struggling to keep up with her now because the trees were growing denser and closer together as they left the abandoned city behind. “Badass Island. The Jungle of Rad. Gnarly Town . . . Where are we now, the Trees of Awesomeness?”

“That’s a stupid name. No, this is just The Jungle.”

He shook his head in frustration. “None of this makes any sense to me.” He put Giga back down because he was kicking his feet and wanted to walk. “Do you understand what I’m saying when I say I’ve never been here before? I’m telling you, as flattered as I am that you think so, I’m not your king apparent.”

“And do you not understand what I’m saying when I say you’re a dumbass?” asked Hail over her shoulder. “I don’t want to have to tell you this again. Youcreated this island.  Yougrew up here. One day you left. And that’s when everything started to rot and go to hell. Anyone who knew you said that you’d be back because apparently you promised you would be. So now you’re back, and we expect you to save the island so that we can go on living peaceful lives.”

“And how am I expected to save the island?” Robby asked, trying hard to keep up with her increasing speed.

“Sit on the throne, dummy. Become our king, and everything will be back to normal.”

He wouldn’t admit it, but Robby was kind of let down by the simplicity of that. “Is that where we’re going now? Is that what’s in Nirvana?”

“No. Nirvana’s just a pit stop before we start crossing the island to get you to your throne. I want everyone to know I found you.”

“So why are we walking so fast?”

“Because we don’t want to be caught out here after dark. If we do, we’re dead. Now hurry up.”

“Dead? How? Like we’ll just fall down dead?” asked Robby, his heart beating from fear now and not just because the walk was taking a toll on his body.

“The deadbeats will come out and kill us. That clear enough for you, small brains?”

“You mean the people who sat on my throne?”

“Dude! Yes! Can you ever zip it? When they sat on your throne, they became monsters that can destroy pretty much anything, and they can only come out at night.”

“Great,” mumbled Robby, checking to make sure Giga was keeping up with them on his short legs.

After putting some distance between them and the dinosaur, Robby was able to soak in the vast beauty of their new surroundings.

The jungle was completely cut off from the fading sun by the canopy of leafy branches stitched together overhead. The many tree types varied between massive kapok trees with their unearthed roots stretching along the ground to the dazzling gallitos showing off their red leaves as if displaying their diversity amongst all their green-leaved neighbors. Some were huge and bulky and others as small as the average fig tree. A majority of the trees were completely covered with winding vines and moss, like the buildings behind them. The leaves and plants were the jungle’s carpet that stretched out before them, some leaves as big as Hail. The busted branches that lay scattered crunched under their feet as they walked. It was like herbs mixed into a jungly soup that cast its mushy aroma into Robby’s nostrils. It reminded him of something . . . but his memory sensors claimed only a blank slate.

Screeching birds and chirping insects from all around made it hard to hear their own footsteps. Monkeys screamed from up above the trees where Robby couldn’t see them. Small shafts of light shone through the treetops illuminating a fog that seemed to be closing in, but was always ahead, as though forbidding them to come further. But Hail pressed on and Robby did his best to keep up.

As they walked, Robby sang under his breath, “O-wim-o-weh, o-wim-o-weh, o-wim-o-wey . . .”

“What are you doing?” “Nothing,” Robby said, pursing his lips together. The most famous version of the song by the Tokens came to mind and he couldn’t help but sing it. Just another random thing he could remember as some distant memory that would probably do him no good here.

“Were you singing?” Hail pressed.

“I was trying to,” said Robby.

“Fine, weirdo.”

He continued half-singing, half-humming: “In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.”

“What the hell’s a lion?” asked Hail.

Another useless fact that he recalled: lions actually don’t live in the jungle. So of course Hail couldn’t be expected to know what one was.

“A big hungry cat,” said Robby.

“Like a panther?”

“Sort of.”

“Panthers are freaky. I haven’t seen one, but I’ve heard all about them. Keep singing about this sleeping cat.”

Robby continued to sing the parts of the song he knew, and soon he heard Hail say, “We’re here. Nirvana.”

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The Man in the Box Chapters 3 & 4

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Vol 1, No 3: A Little Coup D’état

He survived the walk of shame through the office.No one made eye contact with him. It was as though he were a leper making his way through the village and no one wanted to risk being ostracized for acknowledging him.

Robby was about to plop his box down in the backseat of his car when his phone rang. He glanced at it and saw that it was Don.

“Yeah?” he said, bringing the phone to his ear.

“Meet me at Mad Betty’s,” came Don’s frantic voice, followed by heavy breathing.

“Did you just run a three-yard marathon?” Robby asked.

“Just come over here. Now. Park in the back.”

Robby drove across the street to the local bar and pub. He pulled around back as instructed and parked next to Don’s Kia Soul.

Inside, he found Don waving at him from a corner booth dimly lit by a hanging green light. Through the jukebox in the back, Elvis crooned about suspicious minds. The lingering smoke made him long for a drink and a cigarette.

The father of a local cop owned the place and allowed his customers, who were mostly cops, to smoke inside. It kept business steady. No harm in driving the non-smokers to nearby competitors. Everyone was happy; no one was reported, and no one cared.

“What’s up?” asked Robby, taking a seat across from Don.

“I’ve got something big,” Don said, still breathing hard. Robby would learn in just a minute that his friend’s laborious breathing wasn’t due to anything physical—it was because of nerves. “I was cleaning out the hard drive on my computer, and you won’t believe what I found.”

“A résumé? Gay porn?”

Don ignored this and held up a small, white, sticky paper with two things written on it. “I found Kurt’s passwords and sign-in names to our system.”

Robby scrunched up his face and rubbed his wrists with his hands as though they were suddenly sore.

“The best I can figure—What? What’s wrong with your wrists?”

“Oh, nothing. I was just doing my imitation of you in the future, complaining about those handcuff burns.”

Don slammed his fist on the sticky glass-top table, jarring the saltshaker. “I knewit. I shouldn’t have told you,” he declared as though he had been debating with himself over the issue for hours.

“How’d you get it?” Robby asked.

“The best I can figure is Kurt was in my office a couple of weeks ago showing me a few things. He signed in with his username, punched in his password, and the computer stored it in the system. If you leave your password in an HTML field, or the browser auto-completes it, the password and username can be retrieved.”

Robby looked at him blankly; these words meant nothing to him.

“It’s a big, long computer thing—you wouldn’t get it. Anyway, after being fired, it was hard to ignore it once I found it. It was lucky, but I got it.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Don’t you get it? We have access to his top-dog contacts, his clients, anyone who’s anyonein the publishing industry! We use these, we’ll have jobs again in no time!”

“Or,” added Robby, allowing his words to grow with excitement, “we could start our own company and take CipherMill’s clients!”

“Right! Now you’re thinking.” Don took a gulp of his beer and dug his fingers into a basket of fries, stuffing a handful into his mouth. “So you’re in?”

“Fuck no,” said Robby. “It’s illegal, numb nuts. You don’t need a felony charge on your record especially when you’re unemployed. Besides, when did you get to be so ballsy?”

Don sighed as though contemplating what to say next. Then he said, “I’ve only ever worked in the restaurant business, and those places all fired me because I’d eat all their food. Lack of self-control.”

“You definitely have that,” said Robby, motioning to the sticky paper Don held.

“Come on, man. At least just help me a little? I don’t have a shot out there in the real world, and quite frankly, as a guy who’s almost forty and who’s only edited books his entire career, you don’t either. I actually have a leg up on you with some graphic art under my belt.”

“So work for a graphic arts company.”

“Don’t you get it?” asked Don. “I don’t want to work for anyone else anymore. Every time we do that, we’re at their mercy to do as they please. We both just saw that today right across the street.”

Robby had some friends who had tried starting their own businesses and he didn’t care to go through the shit they went through only to close up shop a year into their ventures. “Don. I’m not going to do this with you. But just out of curiosity, what do you need me for anyway? Why can’t you just go it alone?”

“I can’t do anything with this username and password on an outside computer. Crispness is an internal system that’s only accessible at work.”

“Cipress,” Robby corrected.

“Really? Shit, have I been pronouncing it wrong all these years?”

“Just every now and then,” Robby lied. In truth, Don was always complaining about their internal system in staff meetings and pronouncing its name wrong. Robby never bothered correcting him because it was just too much fun watching the other guys laugh every time he did it. It made for a good ongoing joke in the office when Don was stuffing his face in the break room. (“Do you enjoy the Crispnessof that cookie?” they’d ask Don as he sunk his teeth into a Chips Ahoy.) Such humor was rare in the workplace, and Robby didn’t want to see that go away.

“Damn it,” said Don. “Hopefully you’re the only one who noticed. Anyway, it isn’t universal. It’s only on CipherMill’s computers. So we’ll have to do it from the office.”

“Good for you,” said Robby. “You’ll have to do it alone. Unfortunately I won’t be visiting you in jail because I’ll be too busy job searching like a normal, law-abiding citizen.”

“And end up where, huh? 7-Eleven? You want a bag of Fritos to go with those condoms for just a dollar more?”

Robby scoffed. “I think I can do a little bit better than that, man.”

“You spent the last decade as a book editor. Books, Robby. That’s a dying industry. It’s not like you were a film editor and you can just bounce from one movie studio to the next.”

“That’s my point. It’s going to be hard enough finding a job without a felony charge against us. Want my advice?” Robby ripped the paper out of Don’s meaty hand and held it up. “Throw this away. Burn it, roll it into a joint, I don’t care. But don’t do this.”

“This would hurt Kurt,” said Don, taking his sticky back.

Kurt’s baleful smile returned to Robby. In a split second he thought about how greedy he and his bosses were up in their cozy corner offices, with their sexy assistants and exuberant benefits packages, and their Ferraris parked in their own private parking spots. And a water-colored image splashed in his mind of the corporate suits walking through flames of fire, laughing. They were laughing because, caught in those flames, were the little people who worked for them, trying not to get stepped on by their polished (and, apparently, flame-resistant) leather Italian shoes. And then Kurt’s fucking smile returned to him.

With those panther eyes and pointed shoulder blades sticking above his head … in Robby’s mind, the panther smiled too. Why was Robby thinking about the panther painting? But still, the look in their eyes was the same. Menacing, terrible, hungry.

Gleeful.

But now that Robby was no longer employed under Kurt, he was in no danger of being hurt by him anymore. Robby had given long hours, many weekends, and even some summer holidays to CipherMill, and they thanked him by giving him the old royal screwing. And suddenly Robby was pissed. He was pissed at Kurt for doing what he did, and he was pissed at himself for not saying what needed to be said to Kurt’s face. God, why was he such a coward when it came to speaking up for himself, or putting someone in their place?

What Kurt had done was unfair on so many levels, Robby didn’t even know where to begin judging the crimes. If Kurt was going to get his comeuppance, it would be now, by Robby’s hand.

“How bad will this hurt him?” Robby asked.

Don blinked at him, unsure if he had just sold Robby on the idea. “You’re going to help me?”

Robby leaned in over the table and, looking Don dead in the eyes, repeated, “How bad would this hurt Kurt?”

“Well, uh, if we work it right, we could potentially take most of his clients. Granted, many of those clients are authors looking for a break, but we can still charge them significantly less for looking over their manuscripts and offering professional advice. We could even sell it like, ‘Hey, we actually worked at CipherMill, so you’ll get the same professional services, only you’ll be saving a lot more money in editorial fees.’

“Once we start bringing on clients, we’d split them 50/50. Robby, there’re like seven hundred authors and publishers on this list. Many of whom haven’t published in a while and are going to be looking to get back in the game. And we can do more than just edit their books. We could find a local printer, I can do some graphic work for the covers, we could be a major competitor for CipherMill … ”

As Don rambled on, Robby rolled the idea around in his head. It would take a lot of smart planning and preparation. If they were really going to put together a business model separate from CipherMill’s, they’d have to agree on a sales pitch for these potential clients, probably spend days or weeks making cold calls, create a website, purchase an LLC … and then Robby began to have his doubts.

But those doubts were quickly shooed away when he watched a busboy clearing off a table that had just been vacated by some occupants. Except he was more like a busman, no younger than Robby himself. And then the thought of selling Fritos and condoms at a convenient store. Nothing convenient about thatjob. And then those eyes. Those baleful yellow eyes that were (at least in Robby’s mind) his boss’.

And that damn smile. That smile he’d like more than anything to smack. And this was certainly a way to do it, if it could really steal business away from Kurt and his bosses upstairs who were just rolling in the dough from all of Robby’s hard work. Eventually those royalties would slow down, and somewhere down the line Robby and his pal Don would be the ones raking in the new money from books CipherMill would have had.

Then he thought of the ocean tide, long gone and gated off to him. No surfing next week like he had planned. No suntan lotion, no women in itty-bitty yellow polka-dot bikinis. None of that, because as long as he was employed by someone else, his life was in their hands. They dictated when he could leave work, when he could go on vacation, when he could catch a fucking cold for Christ’s sake. These same first-world problems he had experienced at CipherMill would follow him to any job.

And his pal Don here sat across from him with a piece of paper that now seemed to shine like gold. It was his golden ticket, his golden chance to make his way, as the song went.

“I’m in,” Robby said, almost more to himself than to Don. “How do we get those contacts?”

“We’ll have to do it from downstairs in the warehouse. I’m pretty sure they have the same system we do.”

“Crispness.”

“Shut up.”

“But what about getting in? I turned in my badge.”

Don smiled and pulled his out of his pocket. “Oops. I forgot to do that.”

Robby laughed. “This is insane.”

“All we have to do is keep our cars parked out of sight,” explained Don. “We’ll hang out here for a while until the warehouse workers leave, sneak in, pull up the information, print it out, and leave. One of us will just have to stand guard while the other goes in.”

Robby was getting giddy like he was a schoolboy again going on some grand made-up adventure. “But who gets to stand guard?”

“I’ll flip you for it,” said Don. And the deal was sealed. Robby was in.

 

Vol 1, No 4: The Box

After taking the day for themselves the two conspirators met back up at the bar, parking in the back like they had agreed. The workday had ended and the last of the CipherMill employees should have been gone for the day. The main lobby would still be open because of the other two companies that shared a lease on the building.

“Can we flip again?” asked Don as they strode up to the front doors of the lobby.

“Hell no. This was your idea anyway. The penny decided I get to stand guard. As compensation, I let you keep the penny, and as an unemployed man, that, my friend, was pretty generous of me.”

They lowered their voices as they walked past the young security guard’s desk, avoiding eye contact. Neither of them noticed that the kid was too immersed in his phone to care who they were or what they were doing. He saw dozens of employees pass through each hour without so much as a second glance. They couldn’t get into any door without a badge anyway. The hope, of course, was that Don’s badge wasn’t deactivated just yet.

“And you’ll text me if anyone comes around?” Don asked quietly.

“Yes. I will text you the words ABORT MISSION,” said Robby.

“This isn’t funny, man,” said Don. “We agreed you would text the words DID YOU FIND THE DONUTS. You’ll have that already typed out, right? So you just need to press send if you see anyone coming.”

“This is getting really stupid,” mumbled Robby under his breath.

“What?”

“I said your precautions are completely necessary, because I’m sure someone is going to insist on reading the text messages on your phone to make sure I asked you about donuts instead of saying anything about aborting a mission,” said Robby sarcastically as they neared the door to the warehouse at the end of the hall. “Why are you so scared all of a sudden? You were the one all gung-ho about this before.”

“Because it’s really happening and I was hoping you’d talk me out of this rather than go along with it.”

“What can I say? You charmed me with your sexy sales pitch.” Robby batted his eyes at Don and said, “I have a sweet spot for big boys like you.” He put his arm over Don’s big shoulders to pull him in for a side hug, but Don pushed him away. “Seriously though, we can use those skills for our publishing company. We’ll even call it Crispness if you’d like.”

“Don’t make me fire you already,” warned Don.

Robby laughed. “You got the username and password, right?”

“Right here,” he held up the sticky paper.

They reached the door and Don swiped his badge. When the lock clicked, they looked at each other and Robby nodded. Don returned the nod and pushed the door open. When he stepped in, the sensor lights flashed on and the door was shut behind him.

Robby chuckled at his dumb friend as he leaned back against a wall, hands in his pockets. It wouldn’t take Don more than a couple of minutes to power up the computer, sign in with Kurt’s credentials, pull up the contacts, then print them out in a single document.

While he waited, Robby thought about how he and Don would go about starting a business together. The thought terrified him because being business owners didn’t fall into their areas of expertise. Once they poached some clients from CipherMill, they would have to make good on their promises to be a better publisher than any of their established and seasoned competitors. They would also have to learn to juggle meeting the clients’ needs and meeting their own financial needs. Didn’t it take three to five years before any startup business turned a profit? Suddenly, Robby started wondering if he was doing the right thing. Not that he felt any remorse about stealing from his former employer, God no. But was this the right life decision for him and the family? Was it financially smart on any level?

After a few minutes of waiting, and no one in the hall to report, Robby texted Don asking if everything was all right. He heard Don’s phone chirp from behind the door. Dumbass forgot to turn his volume down; if this little business idea didn’t work, Robby would have to tell Don not to consider any career in espionage.

He waited a few more minutes before texting him again. Then he texted that he wanted to go home now. He heard the ding on the other side of the door again, but still there was no response.

Now Robby was getting agitated. He pushed on the door, but couldn’t get in without his badge. He knocked, and when there was no answer, he began to wonder if Don was all right. Had he finally had his inevitable heart attack? Robby recalled how many frosted donuts Don had piled on his little red plastic plate that morning. Had his arteries finally clogged? Had he kicked the bucket? If Robby could go in there, would he really want to?

He decided to call him this time, before he called 911. He heard the loud ringing coming from inside the warehouse. He was about to hang up when he noticed the phone disconnected before it reached voicemail, which meant Don had dismissed the call.

“Don? You all right in there?” Robby asked, knocking on the heavy wooden door.

Don’s voice from inside sounded confused and dazed. “Uh, yeah. Yup! I think so, okay?”

Holy shit, Robby thought. He’s having a stroke!

“Well come on out,” he instructed Don. “It doesn’t matter if you don’t get the papers. Just come on out, buddy.”

There was a pause, then the door opened as Robby was dialing 911. Don looked weary, like he had just woken up from a coma. “What happened, man?” Robby asked. “You all right? You need to go to the hospital?”

Don shook his head. His eyes wouldn’t focus on anything; it was like he was coming out of a trance, and Robby felt, deep in the pit of his gut, that something was very, very wrong.

But Don wasn’t having a stroke. Robby had been with his grandfather during his stroke, and with his dad during his. He knew what a stroke looked like—the sagging skin, the slurred speech—and this was not it. This was more like Don had seen a ghost. His mouth was agape and his skin was slightly paler than it was just a few minutes ago.

Robby poked his head around Don’s shoulder to peek inside the fluorescent-lit warehouse. Nothing was unusual about the place, and there were no ghosts. Instead, there were metal tables with stationery neatly organized for the next day. Cardboard boxes lined the shelves above, and there was no clutter on the walkways that ran adjacent to the conveyer belts. If Robby were a warehouse inspector, or an OSHA agent, he would have declared the place safe and operable. He then looked at Don and realized he didn’t have the papers.

“Dude, what’d you do in there?” Robby asked. “Did the sign-in stuff not work?”

Eyes still wide, Don brushed past Robby and walked down the hall toward the exit. Robby was about to chase after him, but instead, he jammed his foot in the doorway before it could close. If he removed his foot, the door would lock him out, and he needed to get inside because he was going to have to print the list out himself. He could deal with Don later.

But before he went inside he heard Don say to himself, “It’s real. All of it. It’s real.”

“What’s real, buddy?” Robby asked, but Don was paying no attention to him; he was already halfway down the hallway.

Frustrated, Robby pushed the door open and went inside. He ran across the large warehouse to where the computer was. He hurried to push the mouse before the screensaver came up. He looked around on the screen and saw that Don had already signed in under Kurt’s username and had pulled up the contacts. So why in the hell didn’t he print the damn thing out?

Robby kicked aside a large empty cardboard box in order to position himself better in front of the computer. He shuffled his foot as he navigated the cursor to the print option, and as he did so, a sensation came over his entire body, like he was momentarily somewhere else, somewhere better. He couldn’t tell where, and he didn’t see anything differently; it was like his mind blindly flashed to a happier, more serene place.

He looked around and wondered where that had come from. An electrical wave, probably. Whatever that was.

The computer was agonizingly slow. As he waited for the printer to kick in, he scrolled down the list of contacts. As Don had promised, the list was several hundred long, and he could almost hear coins dropping from a slot machine somewhere in the back of his mind. He looked over and saw that the printer was more than a decade old. Finally it lit up and started to whir and hum. It occurred to Robby that he could have just emailed the file to himself, except he didn’t want to leave any trace behind; any evidence that he had been on the computer.

As he waited, Robby took a small step back. As his foot touched the empty box by his side, his body did that thing again, where his mind was in another world for a split second. A split second that seemed to last forever.

What the hell was going on here?

Making the connection, Robby examined the box. It was just an ordinary refrigerator box, fully assembled, laying on its side with the opening facing up. There were no labels or stickers to mark the box except for a red arrow pointing up and three words printed in black on its side: THIS SIDE IN.

Didn’t boxes usually read THIS SIDE UP?

He reached down and toward the box to touch it. If there was a camera focusing on his hand, it would have been the stuff of movies, given how slowly his hand was moving. The only thing missing was the suspenseful crescendo of the orchestra rising in the background.

His fingers brushed the top of the box where the side dipped down. It felt like a regular cardboard box, nothing fancy, nothing special. At least that’s what his fingers felt. But his mind—his mind felt something different. It felt … fuzzy. Or rather, free.

No concrete thoughts or images came into his head or passed by his mind’s eye. He just knew his brain was somewhere else and he wanted to be there with it.

He pulled his hand back reluctantly and walked around the box. Could this be what had happened to Don? Did he have the same encounter with this box as Robby was having now?

The third page slowly leaked out of the printer; there were twenty-three pages left, so he was going to be here a while. He walked around the box again. He imagined Don crawling inside the box, actually getting inside it, and sitting in it, waiting for something extraordinary to happen. The thought of this absurd behavior made him chuckle. Of course that was something Don would do, always beating his own drum and then just kind of slouching off of the parade route to his own corner of the world.

But somehow, in this case, he understood. If Don had felt that same sensation he had when he touched the box, well, why not touch as much of it as possible? One hit of a joint was never enough—you were either all in or all out. He laughed again as he thought of Don getting all in in the box.

THIS SIDE IN

But in what? The box?

He made like his fingers accidentally brushed the box with a swoop of his hand, and the feeling hit him again. It felt like his mind became bigger than his body, like for once his mind was in control instead of the other way around. Talk about mind over matter.

The more he studied the box, the more he felt like it was beckoning to him. Like a hoop waiting for the ball to swoosh through. Or (could it be, but he just didn’t want to admit it?) like a grave about to entomb a casket.

At first he felt childish for entertaining the idea. After all, he hadn’t been inside a box since he was a kid. But then, it was that childish side of him that was being pulled. He could have walked away and probably never given it a second thought again in his life. But the child inside him screamed. GET IN! GET IN, ROBBY! GET IN!

THIS SIDE IN

The printer still had twenty pages left to digest. He had no work to do upstairs in the office. Besides, it wasn’t like anyone was watching. He’d get in, the voice inside would shut up, and he’d get back out. In the end, it would be a non-issue, nothing even worth remembering. Then he’d grab the papers and leave.

Out of sight, out of mind.

He placed a foot inside the box. And as he did so, he had to grab onto the sides to haul his other foot in. He noticed that he didn’t feel that sensation, which kind of disappointed him. He stood inside the box for a minute, not sure what to do, and praying no one would walk in on him.

Then he thought of Don lying inside the box so that his whole body could be touching it. So he did just that. He squatted down on his butt and laid his back against the width of the box. Nothing happened.

He exhaled and closed his eyes.

Instantly Robby felt overheated and closed in. He opened his eyes, or at least he thought he did, but saw nothing. He blinked, and blinked again, and still he only saw the deepest blackness. His breathing was short; his lungs felt like balloons being squeezed almost to the point of popping.

He brought his hand up to his face only to splash muddy water all over himself. He dropped his hand back down and felt that he was indeed sitting in a puddle of sludgy mud, his knees brought up to his chest. He was relieved to find that he could stretch his legs out, but when he reached out to either side of him, his fingers met with a damp dirt wall, which arched above his head, low enough that he couldn’t sit all the way up.

For a moment he panicked, realizing he had been buried alive, but then he thought about the water—it had to be coming from somewhere, right?

He dipped his fingertips back into the mud to see if he could detect a current, and as he did this, two things happened. One, his eyes began to adjust to the darkness and he could see that there was a tunnel at his feet he could crawl through. And two, a ghastly screech made its way through the tunnel. His first thought was that someone, or something, was being attacked. Without giving much thought to his own safety (and really wanting out of this tight hole so he could breathe again), he unraveled his body so that he could army crawl through the tunnel toward the sound.

With the mud coming up to his elbows, his entire underside was soaking wet now. The water was warm, like the air, which smelled like dusty antiques—old and stale. It was a disgusting smell, but that was the least of his concerns.

The screech echoed through the tunnel again, causing Robby to crawl faster. Rocks and pebbles pressed mercilessly into his arms and pants, despite him having a suit on. His elbows kept pinning down his tie, which kept jerking his neck down, but he didn’t have the time—or the room, really—to sit up and take it off.

Finally, after about ten yards of crawling, he reached the end of the tunnel and was able to stand up. He found himself in a large cavern where the water had not yet turned to mud. Instead, crystal-blue phosphorescent water tickled his ankles and cast a wavy aqua tint on the damp, rugged walls surrounding him. A ray of light shone through an opening at the other end of the cavern. His way out.

But first, the sound.

He walked around a large spire that jutted up from the ground and found a sight that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Up against a far wall was a little girl on her knees, her back to him, raising and lowering a sharp stone in her hand. She was beating something with it—every time she brought the stone down, the screeching bellowed and echoed throughout the cave.

Robby took a few steps away from the spire and saw the legs of an animal in front of the girl. The back legs jerked upward and the ear-piercing screech emanated when the girl brought the stone down again on its head.

“Stop!” Robby screamed, unwilling to let the animal take any more.

The girl turned on Robby, scowling, and baring her teeth like a wolf. The blue light cloaked her blood-splattered face. She looked like she was eight or nine. She had long, dark, frizzy hair that was pushed up in a ponytail by a scrunchie.  Then, without so much as a warning, the girl hissed at him like a fierce cat doped up on steroids.

Not expecting this, Robby took a couple steps back. But he thought he saw a momentary relaxation in her face when she looked at him, but only for a second. The girl, dressed in a white T-shirt with a rainbow drawn with puffy paint, and neon pink shorts, pushed herself up to her feet, turned, and charged at Robby, clutching the stone like she had only one fatal throw in her.

She hurled it at Robby, but he moved aside quickly enough for it to bounce violently on the cave wall behind him. But her weak shot didn’t deter her. She reached into the blue fanny pack she had buckled to her waist and pulled out another stone. She charged at Robby, her bare feet disappearing in white splashes of water.

He was able to evade her, and in doing so, he ran up to the wounded ball of fur that lay motionless in the water. To his amazement, it wasn’t a raccoon or a rodent like he had suspected—it was a little dog. Of course, he couldn’t tell by the face, as smashed in and bloody as it was, but the body suggested nothing less. Its gray stump of a tail pointed downward, lifeless; its white paws crossed one over the other; and the dog’s nose was partially out of the water. And by the up-down motion of his ribs, it was clear that he was breathing.

My God, he was breathing, after all he’d just endured!

Robby bent to pick the small dog up, but the girl’s voice stopped him. “Leave him alone!”

“Why are you hurting him?” Robby demanded, his voice carrying through the cavern and landing in multiple places around them.

The girl’s back was to the wall where her stone had hit, and for a moment Robby wished he had a stone of his own. The dog whimpered when Robby dug his fingers under its frail body.

“I said … leave him alone!”

“No! He needs help!” Robby said stubbornly, and then added, “And so do you. You’re a troubled little girl.”

This seemed to set the girl off all over again. She pushed herself from the wall and charged at him, snarling. Robby had only enough time to pick the dog up in his arms, dripping blood everywhere, and run toward the mouth of the cave. He stopped at the edge only to be met by a sheer hundred-foot drop into a body of water below.

The savage caught up to them, grabbed the dog’s hind leg, and began pulling on him, causing him to scream in agony. The two circled around, pulling on the poor dog, until Robby gave one final jerk that pulled the dog’s leg out of her hands and sent the girl stumbling backward. She didn’t have enough time to catch her footing, and before Robby could catch her, she disappeared over the cliff.

“Shit,” Robby said, his heart stopping. He hadn’t meant to killthe little bitch. He looked over just in time to see her little body hit the surface of the water and be submerged. He quickly scanned the cave for another way out, but he could only see the little tunnel he had just crawled out from.

“Okay, buddy,” Robby said to the dog. “Do you have it in you to make it? If I save her, I won’t let her hurt you.” He knew it was stupid to jump with the dog, wounded as he was, but the alternative was to leave him up here all alone to starve or bleed to death.

Before he could change his mind, Robby jumped off the cliff feet first with the dog in his arms. As they sailed through the air, the dog tensed in his arms. Before he knew it, they were submerged under lukewarm water. Robby’s body spiraled out of control as he plunged to the depths, his limbs being torn apart in all directions, the dog no longer in his hold. He choked on the water splashing down his throat. When at last the water subsided and gave him back control of his body, he opened his eyes to determine where he needed to swim for air. He spotted the light of the sun above the water and swam toward it.

When his head broke through the water he gulped in a huge breath of air, satisfying his lungs to no end. As he breathed in, he frantically looked around for the girl and the dog, neither of whom he could find.

Maybe it was best for the dog, being out of his misery and all. But the girl … he hadn’t meant to kill her, damn it. He took a deep breath and plunged his head under to see if he could find her, but all he saw was an empty abyss.

Suddenly he felt himself get pulled under, with no air in his lungs. He looked down and saw that the girl had grabbed onto his leg, and with inhuman strength, was holding him under. He tried to swim upward for a taste of that life-giving air, but his head was spinning and his vision was clouding already. He clawed desperately at the water with his hands, but now it seemed he really wouldn’t reach the surface.

Out of a sheer act of desperation, he pulled his captive leg upward, and swung his free foot as hard as he could right in the girl’s stomach. She let go, and the last he saw of her before breaking back through the surface was her starfish body sinking down into the black abyss below.

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The Man in the Box: Chapter Two

ManInTheBox_BookCover

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Vol 1, No 2: Work’s a Game, and Life’s the Prize

Robby pulled into CipherMill Publishing House on Commerce Crossings. As far as he knew, in just two days he’d be sitting in coach, strapping himself in and watching Louisville vanish beneath the clouds with a Bloody Mary in one hand and a bag of pretzels in the other. But for now, between him and that plane seat sat just one more day of work, a day of packing, and a drive to the airport. And perhaps a few fights between the kids.

He nodded to the security guard behind the desk as he walked through the lobby. As soon as he summoned the elevator, Don Nealy swaggered up behind him and stood uncomfortably close, breathing hard. The jaunt from the car to the elevator was clearly too long a walk for the three hundred-pound man.

“They’re talking again,” said Don, watching the down arrow light up.

“About what?” Robby asked. He noticed Don wasn’t even carrying his regular greasy bag of McDonald’s, which Robby often referred to as McDon’s, a running joke he had started around the office.

“I overheard Kurt talking on the phone yesterday. I wish I hadn’t listened, but it sounded like they’re going to be letting more people go soon.”

The prospect of layoffs weighed heavily on the few survivors of the first wave of terminations that occurred seven months ago, and Robby was no exception. The menacing thought always reared its ugly head: Would this be his last year at CipherMill? Self-publishing and electronic books had become such a huge sensation that book editors, like Robby, suffered greatly for it.

Seven months ago the company was cut almost in half. The only reason Robby didn’t get the boot then was because of his tenure. This time around, though, he wouldn’t have that protection; anyone still working had been there as long as he had, if not longer.

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” said Robby. “You probably just misunderstood.” The elevator doors slid open and they both stepped in.

“What part of ‘I’ll start calling people in tomorrow’ would I not understand?” Don asked, spit spraying out of his mouth. “I saw him holding a list of names.”

“Was your name on it?”

“I don’t know, I couldn’t see.”

“Then how do you know it was a list of names?”

“He said, ‘I’ve got the list of names right here.’ I almost put in my two weeks’ notice right then and there, but then I wouldn’t get any severance.”

“I’m sure you’ll be okay,” assured Robby as the elevator doors opened again to let them out. Truthfully though, thanks to Don of the Dead End Job, Robby’s nerves were starting to get tight. But there was no way he was going to let it get to his head today; not hours before the start of his hard-earned vacation.

“No one’s getting fired today,” he said, more to himself than to Don. But as they stepped out of the lift, they saw Bill Donahue walking down the hallway carrying a box full of things. Robby froze.

“Morning guys,” said Bill as he walked past.

Neither Robby nor Don knew what to say. And yet, Bill wasn’t acting as depressed as he should have been following a dismissal.

“By the way,” Bill said, “there are donuts in the break room. You mind saving me a strawberry one? I’m just dropping this stationery down in the warehouse.”

“Yeah, sure,” said Don. Then he turned to Robby and whispered, “Pity food.”

“It’s probably for Carol’s anniversary,” Robby suggested as they kept walking down the hall to their suite.

“Yeah, right. Kurt refuses to even get a wreath for Christmas.”

When they reached the suite, they each headed to their own offices. Don, of course, grabbed a plate full of donuts on his way.

As he walked past Kurt’s office, Robby stole a glance through the window. Darrin Mackey was seated across from Kurt. Darrin, usually loose and comfortable, sat up straight with his hands on his knees like he was on edge about something.

Maybe Don was right. It was only nine o’clock and Kurt always had his office door open in the mornings. Was he getting the firing out of the way? That’s what he had done seven months ago.

Robby quickened his pace to the office, shut the door behind him, threw his briefcase on the chair in the corner, and flipped on his computer. The screen opened up to the last page he had been on, the homepage to the Grand Wailea Resort, where they’d be staying. He marveled at the pools the kids would play in and the room balconies he and Rosalynn would stretch out on as they watched the ocean tide. They’d stroll down the empty beach and witness the blue-orange sunsets each night as the waves caressed the golden sand with a gentle whoosh of foam. The palm trees would lean in toward the water, yearning to kiss the surface with a gentle plop of a branch. Yes, this was heaven, maybe even better. He felt the breeze whispering on his cheek and the sound of distant voices a quarter of a mile away. They were not the voices of water-cooler conversations or office presentations; they were the voices of happiness and playing and total and complete contentment. Now he was sprawled out on a beach towel, Rosalynn beside him, topless, reading a book on her e-reader.

Of all things, that thought shook him out of his reverie. It was as though she were stabbing him in the back by using the devise that was partly responsible for killing his career. Who would have had enough foresight twelve years ago to know that books would eventually go electronic, and then self-publishing be made so accessible? Facebook was still no more than a small community of networking nerds at the time; social media itself was such a long way off. So for tangible, physical books to be available in electronic form was unthinkable. For Robby, electronic books were as far off as flying cars.

There was a knock at the door and Robby stiffened. Was this it? Was this Kurt coming to call him into his office? Why didn’t he just buzz him in like he usually did? A knock was so much more ominous.

Before he could say anything, the door opened and Don barged in with his plate of donuts—likely his second batch. Don shut the door behind him and flopped down on one of the chairs, stretching its legs a little.

If it had been anyone else, this would have irritated Robby, but he and Don started at CipherMill within a month of each other, so they both went back a ways.

“Darrin’s gone,” said Don as he sank his teeth into a pink-frosted donut (which Robby assumed should have been the one Billy had asked them to save for him), spilling sprinkles all over his tie. “Kurt just fired him. I toldyou this was it!”

Before Robby could respond, Don’s phone buzzed. He looked at it and his drooping jowls fell even further. He cried, “It’s Kurt. He must have tried calling my office.” A peal of guttural sounds rumbled around in his fat stomach as he stared wide-eyed at his phone, and Robby was afraid he was going to break wind right there in his office.

“Answer,” Robby prodded.

Don nodded and brought the phone to his ear with a shaky hand. “Hello? Yes, sir. I’ll be right there.” He hung up and looked at Robby with big, brown, frightened eyes. “He wants to see me.”

Robby nodded his head knowingly. Don sat in the chair, stunned, looking off into space now. Kurt was waiting for him, and Robby was starting to feel uncomfortable. “You should probably just get it over with.”

Don dully nodded, then stood up. As he did, Robby suggested jokingly, “Maybe he wants to give you a raise.”

“Do you not see the condition I’m in?” Don asked, his eyes narrowed. “Do I look like someone who’s in the mood to joke around?”

“No. I don’t know why I said that. Sorry. Go get fired.”

Don nodded somberly and disappeared behind the door.

It took no effort for Robby to shift his concerns back to himself. He knew he needed a game plan, but he had nothing to fall back on if he was going to be canned. Working steadily at the same place for a decade didn’t exactly offer you any opportunities—or reasons—to network. Let’s face it; he had taken his posh job for granted. Unemployment had meant nothing to him until now. Now it was just a little too close to home. He would have to update his résumé and rehearse his interviewing skills like he was a fresh-faced wanderlust straight out of college—with a few extra pounds and less hair.

This did not fit into his life plan. Up until a few minutes ago, his life plan had been to take his family to Maui and escape the humdrum hell of everyday life for a week. Just a simple dream. He didn’t expect much more than that.

It didn’t take long before Robby saw, from out the window that overlooked the span of the suite, Don leave Kurt’s office. His head hung limp like a scarecrow.

Robby watched as his ex-colleague dragged himself over to his own office and, a few minutes later, emerged with a couple of full grocery bags. He left the building in a hurry, not even stopping to look back. Oh, brave, valiant Don.

If Kurt was firing half of the people in the office, he, Robby, would be among them for sure. At least the interns were safe—they were free labor. Unlike them, Robby knew it would be just a matter of hours before he would be cleaning out his own desk. He had been prepared to procrastinate his piles of manuscripts and deadlines to ease into vacation mode, but now his procrastination stemmed from that old workplace ailment, NAGAF: Not at All Giving a Fuck.

So Robby spent the rest of the day in a cold sweatas he watched two more people pack up their belongings.

At first he avoided Kurt at all cost; he steered clear of the break room when he knew Kurt would be there and he took the long way round to the bathroom so he wouldn’t pass Kurt’s window. Out of sight, out of mind—like Kurt would just conveniently forget to fire Robby as long as he didn’t see him.

By one o’clock, Robby began to cultivate curiosity and even hope. He grew convinced that he wasn’t going to be fired after all. But after learning from a colleague that Kurt had stepped out of the office for a few hours, Robby sat at his desk and wallowed, and Hawaii was almost forgotten.

What if he did get fired? He dreaded the idea of going back to some soul-sucking retail gig that either ended in Mart or began with Dick’s.

Though he wasn’t wealthy by American standards, he didn’t want to have to sacrifice his comfortable lifestyle of being home by five every night, Monday through Friday. He also didn’t want to have to worry about making ends meet, putting every dollar on trial, or examining the necessity of every bill. He had been through all that in college and as a newlywed. He had already paid his dues! This was supposed to be histime to live the American dream. He had earned it, God damn it!

He glanced at a picture next to his phone of Rosalynn and him posing in front of the ocean. The picture was taken on a camping trip in San Clemente, California, and at the time, they were dating. They had met at a beach party, on that exact beach in Orange County while they were both attending USC.

She looked absolutely stunning in her floral summer dress as her strawberry-blonde hair fell down over her bare shoulders. He was much skinnier then and sported facial hair, which made him look the surfer type that he was.

Robby hadn’t planned on going out the night he had met Rosalynn, but his roommates had coerced him into joining them at the beach with the promise that there would be enough girls, beer, and weed to go around. Well, who the hell could turn down such an offer? Midterms were over and it was time to let loose.

Though the idea of partying sounded intriguing, he couldn’t bring himself to jump fully into the festivities because he was stressing out over a surfing contest he had coming up. At that point he was working toward becoming a professional surfer, but he didn’t know that in just less than a year, he would tear his ACL in a surfing accident, putting a stop to that dream altogether.

He had held back at the beach that night while the others smoked funny things and drank. He faced the rolling black water as it swelled onto the muddy sand and tried to be at one with it, feeling its rhythms and anticipating its every move.

He had just lit up a joint (the only one he planned to smoke that night) when a new voice beside him said, “You seem lost.”

Robby nodded as he looked to see who had spoken. His mouth dried up and his pulse quickened when he saw her for the first time. He did not feel comfortable around cute sober women.

He drilled himself, trying to figure out why he hadn’t seen her around campus before. “You from another group?” he asked.

“I’m wandering. My ex took all my friends with him, so I’m sort of group-hopping at the moment.”

“So how’s this one ranking?” Robby asked, inhaling the weed.

They turned to watch an interlocked couple fall in the sand laughing hysterically. “So far, it’s kind of a letdown.” They both fell into their own laughter when she said this, and the first connection was made.

He took another hit and handed her the joint.

“I don’t date potheads,” said Rosalynn, eyeing the lit joint in his hand. Robby barely had time to form a thought before she said, “Sorry. Was that too fast?”

Robby laughed. “No. I mean, it was, but that’s fine with me. I like fast.”

“You like fast … women?”

“No! Well, I mean, who doesn’t? But I’m not implying—” He stopped himself, knowing he had fallen into her trap. He eyed her sly gaze and said, “I’m onlyafter fast women.”

“And why’s that?” Rosalynn asked, cocking her eyebrows in surprise.

“Because I’m on the lookout for one who can actually keep up with me.”

Robby sweat through the eternity of Rosalynn eyeing him and biting her lower lip in thought. Then she said, “Want a beer?”

His reminiscing came to an end when Kurt phoned him and asked him to step into his office. Robby’s stomach tightened, and he chewed the inside of his mouth out of nerves.

Robby’s legs felt like jelly as he made his way through the suite toward his boss’ office. He felt every eye on him convey pity, the same way he had looked at the others who were called in earlier that day.

To distract himself, he pulled his phone out of his pocket and pretended to be looking at it. He wondered if this was what it was like to be led down death row one final time. He knew the comparison was farfetched, but at the moment, it seemed perfectly fitting. He was, after all, about to get the axe.

“Have a seat,” Kurt said with a sigh when Robby walked in.

Robby sat down slowly, and as he did, he couldn’t help but notice the painting that hung directly behind Kurt that he’d stared at hundreds of times in the last decade. It was a large opulent picture of a panther crouching behind tall, dark grass with a dark-green jungle set as the backdrop. Robby felt like the panther was piercing him with its yellow-eyed Mona-Lisa stare, waiting for Kurt to wound him so it could jump out of the painting and finish him off.

“I’m sure you know by now that we’re letting people go,” Kurt said.

So much for loyalty and dedication. These were the first words that sprang into Robby’s head. When it was clear Kurt wasn’t going to elaborate, Robby begged, “Don’t do this to me, Kurt. I can work just as well in the digital department.” He felt petty, but what else could he do? It was the only way he knew to go down with a fight.

“I’m sorry, Robby. I know this hurts, and you’ve got your family to look after. I did all I could to avoid this, but there wasn’t anything more I could do. The whole industry’s dying.” With his red power tie and his salt and pepper hair, Kurt looked so posh and perfect sitting behind his giant oak desk. He looked so … corporate. So … goddamned evil.

The panther continued to gaze hungrily at Robby, and he could have sworn the predator was one step closer to him. “This is all I know, Kurt. Where am I going to look for work?”

“Go online, for starters. There’re all sorts of companies looking to hire experts like you. With your experience, you’ll find something in no time. I’ll give you a good reference. I’m sorry, Robby. We’re only keeping a small handful of people if it makes you feel better.”

Oh yes. Much, thought Robby. In a fraction of a second Robby thought about a deckhand telling some poor soul on the sinking RMS Titanic that just a few people would be surviving, so don’t feel bad about remaining onboard. And the deckhand smiled, much like Kurt was doing now.

How dare he fucking smile.

“After that, who knows?” said Kurt.

“What about my vacation?” asked Robby. It was the last shred of goodness he had to hold on to. A mere crumb.

Kurt shook his head. “The company can’t pay for time you won’t be at work.”

“That’s bullshit!” Robby said. “I’ve earned that. You’re breaking the law if you don’t pay.”

Kurt remained unmoved. “Technically the deadline for your vacation time was last week, and you opted out of it—”

“So that my daughter could play her volleyball tournaments this week!”

Kurt turned his palms toward Robby. “… so your vacation time technically expired. This one was going to borrow out of this new fiscal year. Company policy.”

“Kurt, I haven’t had a vacation in over four years. You know that! Every time I needed time off work, you made me dip into my vacation fund. I had my blood clot scare last year, so I was in the hospital for that; two years ago I took off because I had to fly out to California for a friend’s funeral; the year before that—”

“Where were you going this year?” Kurt asked, cutting Robby off. “Nashville?”

“You know full well where I was going, Kurt.” Robby stood up from the chair and walked toward the door. But before he exited he said, “You know what’s sad? You think you’re actually respected around here.” He gave off a little titter then added, “You may be valuable to the company, to a degree. But if this building were to burn, you’d be the last one anyone would think to save because you’ve allowed a lot of people to get hurt for your own benefit.”

“Robby, that’s out of—”

“Out of line, Kurt? You want to know what’s out of line?” But Robby didn’t know how to say it. Instead, he froze.

“Robby? You said you’re going to Nashville?” Kurt repeated, snapping Robby out of his dream.

God, if he could just tell him off, but the little coward inside him prohibited him from doing so. His eyes darted up to the panther above Kurt, and he could have sworn he saw its eyes actually move to look directly at him.

“Um, Hawaii,” Robby answered. “Maui.”

“Well, I’m sorry. But we were honored to have you work for us. Thank you for everything.”

Robby’s head spun as he cleared out his desk. Had he really just been fired? He had never been fired from a job in his life. He was always Employee of the Month, Employee of the Year, life of the office Christmas party, Robby-this, Robby-that, kiss, kiss, kiss.

And now this.

He packed a little box up with his stapler, a coffee cup, some pictures, and other office necessities. He never realized how many personal desk items he had until he saw how full his cardboard box was. What was he going to tell Rosalynn? How would she react? He flirted with the idea of not telling her until they got back from Hawaii. But no, Hawaii would have to be delayed indefinitely. They would need that money when the severance paid itself out.

The sweet smell of sunscreen had faded deep into a memory that never was.

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Chapter 1 of “The Man in the Box”

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Vol 1, No 1: Paradise

Robby downed the last of his neat whiskey and dropped the glass on the roaming server’s tray, chinking the remaining ice. He checked his phone and noted that his scheduled massage was in twenty minutes. The resort’s app instructed him to ask for Alana at the spa’s front desk. He watched a young couple necking each other on the pool steps, the water licking their waists. As he admired the tanned lovers, he lathered more sunscreen on his arms; he could feel a light, threatening burn fester on his skin. He also coated his face, careful not to get any in his eyes.

He basked in the tropical sun and listened to the seagulls caw overhead as they glided above the ocean just steps from the pool area. The faint rumble of the tide swooned and sighed with each swell.  He had just come in from riding those waves, and now his arm and leg muscles rested, along with his mind. At long last, he, Robby Lake, had reached paradise.

He eyed a pretty dark-haired woman as she strolled past him in a green and white string bikini, bouncing her round hips not unlike the pendulum hanging from his boss’ wall clock thousands of miles away. The woman batted her eyes at Robby and her lips curled into a smile as her feet made soft schluckingsounds through the puddles of pool water on the sizzling concrete. A wisp of her coconut-lime sun lotion drifted into his nostrils as she glided past, her breasts bouncing perfectly in rhythm. He closed his eyes when she exited the grounds through the gate and lost himself in the heavenly “Ka Loke” wafting from speakers concealed behind palm trees around the crowded yet perfectly still pool area.

Another server, a native, in the resort’s issued soft white button-down and a black bowtie, placed another whisky on the frosted glass table beside Robby and asked him if he needed anything else.

“Bring me a plate of pulled pork and chocolate-covered pineapples,” he answered dismissively. He was already dreaming of the hula dancers he’d soon be lusting after later that on the star-lit beach, the campfire embers dancing their own hula at his bare feet.

“Right away,” the server said. And then his voice dropped: “You’re dead.”

Robby eyed the server curiously who still had a soft smile on his face as though still happy to take his order. Then he said it again.

“Dad, you’re dead.”

Robby turned his head toward the voice and saw his son sitting next to him where the server had been. The sun was gone now; in its place was a scoreboard hanging on the far end of a high school gymnasium. Below it, a volleyball court replaced the sparkling blue pool, with sophomore girls dotting both sides, his daughter being one of those dots. And the chill of an overworking A/C blew away the sauna warmth of the great Pacific.

“Give it over, Dad,” Jeremy said to Robby. “You’re dead. It’s my turn.”

Robby glanced down at his son’s Nintendo 2DS and saw that he had indeed died; it was Jeremy’s turn to play. He passed the device over to him and looked out at the court six rows down from the bleachers.

East Louisville High was hosting the JV volleyball game this evening, which had drawn several friends and parents of the players from the early May rain that thudded on the gymnasium roof like a steady applause.

On the scoreboard, the bulbous number 16 blinked to 17, causing a handful of people to clap their hands with little enthusiasm. (Let’s face it, it wasn’t exactly the Barnum and Bailey circus.) The pullout bleachers groaned underneath Robby as a few patrons stood to their feet. “That brings the score to a tie at 17,” the young adolescent voice announced through the loudspeakers.

Rosalynn sat on the other side of Robby cheering Taylor on, doing her best to ignore Robby’s video gaming. She’d expressed her disdain for it, arguing that Taylor looks up and sees that he’s not interested in her game, but he had argued that at least he was there, being a good dad. Most of her teammates didn’t have dads that cared enough to show up, or were stuck at work, he had said. His presence had to count for something, right?

While Jeremy took his turn with the Nintendo, Robby applauded along with everyone else. His arms were once again pasty white and dry, no longer brown and oily from his creamy Sisley sunscreen. He managed a wane smile when Rosalynn looked over at him to see if his excitement matched hers. She saw that it didn’t, and she knew he was somewhere else. God, how that annoyed her. Many of their fights were spawned because of his incredible ability to zone out at crucial times like during Taylor’s volleyball games, conversations about budgeting, at the dinner table, and on occasion, even during sex. She returned the smile then turned her attention back to the game when the applause died down and the ball on the court was back in motion.

Robby glanced at the clock on the scoreboard with a sigh as everyone else sat back down and the excitement morphed into a casual anxiety to see who would break the tie. But try as he might, Robby could not properly invest in his daughter’s game. Each Thwump! of the ball was like a clock ticking painfully slow through the workweek: Tick … Tock … Tick … Tock …Tick…

Tomorrow was Thursday, which marked his eleventh anniversary at CipherMill Publishing House. To celebrate his tenure he had splurged and bought himself a present, which was currently tucked away in his nightstand: a plane ticket to Hawaii. Yes, in just fifty-six hours, he would be on a plane headed west to the Aloha State.

Of course, three other tickets for his family were paper-clipped to his, but he made sure they all knew that this was his vacation. Like when Rosalynn had asked him what sort of tours they should schedule, Robby said, “You guys can go do anything you’d like. I’m renting a surfboard and taking on the waves. And when you get back from your little lava tours, you’ll find me at the pool with a book.” And one day, Jeremy had asked Robby what kind of food they served in Hawaii. Robby answered, “Anything and everything that can’t be found in Kentucky or anywhere else in the continental United States.” “No fried chicken, then?” Jeremy had asked. “Not unless they can catch it in the ocean,” Robby responded. “And even then, we’d eat it raw, because that’s what they do on de islands, mahn.” (Robby had taken up the annoying habit of calling it de islands, much to his family’s chagrin.) Naturally, this caused Jeremy to lose his excitement for the trip and Rosalynn had to spend a lot of time building it back up, assuring him that they’ll find fried chicken somewhere, or pizza, or whatever.

“She’s doing good out there,” Rosalynn said during a long match.

“Uh-huh,” Robby said, pulling himself back to the present. The ball popped and zipped back and forth, sneakers squeaking jerkily on the gym floor. He couldn’t even tell what position Taylor was playing. “She’s doing great,” he added.

“Do you even know where she is?” Rosalynn pressed with an annoyed smirk.

“Yeah, she’s uh—”

But more cheers mercifully cut him off as people got to their feet. The announcer declared that the Owls had won, which meant Taylor would be going out with the team to celebrate. The spectators all stood to their feet to descend down to the court to congratulate the players. Typically Robby and his family waited until the crowds died down before going down, but Robby noticed the old man in front of him struggling mightily to stand up. He had told Robby and Rosalynn before the game that he had flown in the day before to surprise his great granddaughter for her birthday.

Seeing the man unable to stand up on his own, Robby went to help him.

“Thank you, sir,” the elderly man said. “I hope to be as kind as you when I get to be your age.”

Robby laughed. “When you get to be as old as me, I’ll challenge you to our own volleyball match.”

He helped the old man all the way down the bleacher steps to the court. He figured since he was already there, he’d look for Taylor.

Robby nudged his way down to the court through pockets of friends, siblings, and parents while Rosalynn and Jeremy hung back in their seats to chat with a neighbor. He spotted Taylor and was about to stretch his arms out to offer an embrace, when a college-aged guy, dressed in a tight black T-shirt with a red scarf wrapped around his neck (and equally tight faded jeans), unapologetically invaded Taylor’s personal space by putting his arm around her waist and kissing her.

Robby would not have been more furious if the kid had kissed Rosalynn. He strode up to the two spit-swappers and asked invasively, “Who’s this?” It did notseem like Taylor’s first kiss.

Taylor pulled away from the lip-lock, masked her embarrassment with a grimexpression, and grumbled, “This is Dwayne. Dwayne, my dad.” Her voice dropped down to a mutter at the word Dadas though it was painful to admit.

“If I ever catch your mouth on my little girl again, I’ll neuter you with a lawnmower,” Robby wanted to say. Instead, he settled for something a little less aggressive and said, “I’m Robby.” He stuck out his hand and squeezed the kid’s own damn near as hard as he could. He released when he counted three cracks that sounded like popping bubble wrap.

Dwayne didn’t show any response except to say, “Your daughter played great tonight, didn’t she, Mr. Lake?”

“She always does,” Robby responded as though this kid had just stated the obvious.

“Dad,” Taylor said before he could say anything else, “can Dwayne come over for dinner tomorrow night? You know, since we’ll be gone all next week?”

Robby had to choose his words carefully here. He’d already refused to let her go out with another guy a month ago because his Facebook profile was a picture of him sticking a gun at the viewer, holding it sideways gangstastyle. Fearing the same situation and imagining his family laying in pools of their own blood at the dinner table while this Dwayne guy stood over them and laughed mightily, Robby said, “Let’s keep it just the family tomorrow to celebrate, huh? Maybe next time after we get back from de islands?” Because next time, this guy would be out of her life and no longer an issue.

Taylor shot her dad an icy look, but he stood his ground. These high school-college romances never lasted.

“Do you have a ride to the party?” he asked, changing the subject.

“I was going to take her,” Dwayne cut in.

“The hell you will,” Robby snapped with a humorless smile before thinking.

This earned Robby an exasperated look; wide eyes, open mouth, the kind of look Rosalynn always gave him whenever he said anything inappropriate in front of the kids. “Taylor, why don’t you just let us take you?” Robby tried, pretending he hadn’t just utterly humiliated her.

“The hell I will,” Taylor snapped, mockingly.

Now it was histurn to return the look. Dwayne stood helpless beside the two, tick-tocking his head back and forth as though watching another volleyball match. “Um, should I leave you two alone?” he asked.

“No, it’s fine,” Taylor said. “Just take me to Michelle’s.”

Robby couldn’t stop his daughter from grabbing Dwayne’s arm and pulling him through the small crowd away from him. For a split second he saw his four year old girl in pigtails grabbing her best friend’s hand and running off to play.

“Eleven o’clock, then! It’s a school night!” Robby yelled after her. He wasn’t certain but it almost looked as though his daughter flipped him the bird just before a fat woman with a loud laugh stepped between them. “Love you,” Robby tried anyway.

He pursed his lips, knowing he had just blown it again with Taylor. He kept hoping for one of those moments where they’d connect again, share a smile, laugh at something stupid like they used to all the time when she was younger. It was hard to believe that once, he was her whole world, and now … well, now it seemed the whole world was pushing them further apart from each other.

Taylor was going through the stage where she was embarrassed to be seen with her parents, especiallyher dad. She had stopped talking to him the moment she realized his jokes were outdated and he couldn’t keep up with the latest music, movies, or fashion trends. Robby had long ago resigned to the fate of just waiting it out until she grew out of it. But why was that so much harder than intervening?

“You can’t keep saying no to everything she asks,” Rosalynn said from the passenger seat of their Honda Accord on the drive home. The Accord hummed along the road as the rain began to disappear behind a darkening sky. The evening’s curtain call.

“So, what, you’re saying I should just give in to her every request?” Robby asked.

“I’m saying you should at least give in a little. It’s not like we had anything special planned for tomorrow night. What was he like?”

“What do you think?” Robby said, glancing over his shoulder to merge. “He’s a sex-crazed twerp.”

Rosalynn laughed. “You say that about all of them.”

“That’s because I wasone of them. Guys that age don’t hang around Taylor because of her ability to pull off knee-high socks.”

Robby glanced in the rearview mirror and called to the back seat, “Hey Jer, check out the dinosaur outside your window. It’s eating someone. Blood, guts, everywhere.” The mirror reflected Jeremy glued to a game on his Nintendo 2DS. Robby turned back to Rosalynn and said, “We can talk candidly. We’re not being bugged.”

Rosalynn gave Robby a wry look. “I know we agreed to be firm with her, but there also comes a point where we could ease up.”

He knew she was probably right, but still, Robby insisted, “I’ll look him up on Facebook tonight.”

Rosalynn sighed and stared blankly out the window, signaling the end of the conversation.

“Did you learn anything at school today, buddy?” Robby asked Jeremy, hoping to break the silence. But he was again met with no response.

At least Jeremy would be easier to manage when he turned sixteen. He wasn’t bound to be as moody and hormonal as Taylor. His problem would likely be complacency with the bare minimum. Jeremy was pretty stellar at just about anything he put his mind to, but when he didn’t apply himself, he failed big, and he didn’t apply himself often.

Unlike Robby, who had spent most of his adolescent years competing in extreme sports and making local newspaper headlines. So he pushed Jeremy, too hard sometimes, to excel at what he might be good at, like computers and video games. “You could be a computer repairman,” he had told his eleven year old recently. But the suggestion seemed to push Jeremy away from that field and he started reading more comics instead. It didn’t matter that he had more of an interest in video games, the higher priority for him was giving his parents adequate pushback to whatever they said.

The summer before, Jeremy had set up a lemonade stand per Robby’s suggestion. He put a little effort in setting it up on the corner by the street but ended up back in the house watching videos about video game engineering with a sign outside that said, “Help yourself. $1.50 per cup.” When he had gone back out to count his earnings, he found that his Igloo cooler had been stolen and the table was flipped upside-down on the street, cars swerving around it to get by. But he just shrugged his shoulders, cleaned up the mess, and disappeared back inside the house, kissing entrepreneurship goodbye.

And now, as Robby studied his son through the rearview, he imagined him five years older, Taylor’s age, still engrossed in his stupid video games while colleges from all over stood by to receive his applications. The applications he would never fill out because he would rather beat level eight in Beasts and Dragons or something dumb like that.

“You were spacing out again earlier. You okay?” Rosalynn inquired, snapping Robby back.

He waved her off. “Yeah. I’m fine. Just trying to hold it till I get home. I don’t want to use those nasty high school bathrooms. Might slip on some teenage jizz.”

She hit him on the leg for dropping the J-bomb, but said, half-smirking, “Liar.” But really, Robby hardly ever lied to his wife when he could help it. His dad beat him with the metal end of a belt when he was six after denying taking a paperback novel out of his nightstand and ripping the pages out to fold airplanes. From that time on, lying became the very last resort in any circumstance. Except when it came to his pot habit. He had lied to Rosalynn on more than a few occasions when he continually relapsed as a newlywed.

“How are youfeeling?” he asked, turning the conversation around.

“I’m fine. I didn’t sleep much last night.”

“Pre-flight jitters?”

“Something like that.”

Robby could almost sympathize. As much as he was looking forward to his Hawaiian vacation, he couldn’t shake the feeling that it would be the last good time of his life. But what he didn’t know was that he wouldn’t even get to have that, because he would never make it to de islands.

At least not the ones he was planning on.

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Unpack the Greatest Thriller You’ll Read All Year

How to Make an Instructional Video

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There are loads of instructional videos out there, but someone had to teach everyone how to make them, right??

Join Keith Farthington as he invites you along for a tutorial that just might open your eyes to a whole new way of doing things.

Click here for a fun time!