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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Want good odds on winning your Oscar bets next year and going forward? Then read on:

Every year it’s the same thing. I tell my wife, “Hey, the Oscars are on.”

“Want to watch?”

“Sure.”

“What time does it start?” she asks.

“Seven.”

I have to pull up the channel guide online to find what channel ABC is on.

At 7:07 I say, “Damn. It doesn’t actually start at 7. They’re showing off their ugly dresses for the next hour.”

So for the next 90 minutes we point and laugh at everyone who looks like they’re dress up to be in Suzanne Collins’ fictitious Capitol.

If we make it through the opening number (Chris Rock sucked, Kimmel was okay; please bring back Billy or Neil!) I then end up just following the show on Twitter and Facebook seeing what everyone else says about it. (If you want to follow a hilarious and agreeable commentator, check out @JonAcuff.)

Then I look through all the past winners and losers. And last night I came to a rather mathematical solution on how the Oscars work. Granted, it’s not foolproof, but I think it’s just enough to help us all predict the winners from here on out.

Fact: No super hero movie is ever to be nominated for Best Picture. And I think most people agree that this unspoken rule cheated The Dark Knight out of a possible win.

Secondly, no matter what other category the films nominated for Best Picture are, there is a hierarchy that can almost always guarantee a correct prediction.

If a war movie is nominated, it can most assuredly take the Oscar home over its contenders. Unless any of its competitors is a movie about the arts or deals with racism. (In 2008 The Hurt Locker won because its competitors did not deal with racism or was not about the arts.)

So: If a war movie is pitted against a movie about art, the art movie will win. If an art movie is pitted against a film about racism, the racism movie will win. Don’t believe me? I’ll show you:

89th: Hacksaw Ridge < La La Land < Moonlight

88th: Bridge of Spies < Spotlight (there were no movies nominated about race this year)

87th: American Sniper < Birdman (again, no movies nominated about race)

86th: 12 Years a Slave (There were no films about art or war nominated this year)

Now this theory is not at all airtight. Argo won over Lincoln and Django Unchained, and the year before that The Artist beat The Help (which also beat War Horse), so there are exceptions. Or it could be argued that this is a relatively new pattern the Academy is setting, though no one can forget (or forgive) Shakespeare in Love robbing Saving Private Ryan in 1998 (again: war > art).

So what do you think of my theory? Have there been other patterns in the past? Perhaps each decade or generation follows a list of new rules? Are all best picture winners just based off of the social temperature of the time? Do movies that really deserve best picture wins get overlooked every year? What constitutes a movie being worthy of the honor? And why can’t they bring back Billy Crystal or Neil Patrick Harris to host the awards indefinitely?

Share your thoughts below!

Happy Birthday, Kat!

My favorite little girl on the planet turns three today.

She can drive me up a wall at times, and I’ve had my share of losing my cool, but she knows that she’s daddy’s most prized possession.

We drove two hours north to IKEA yesterday to pick up a kitchen set for her birthday. (In fact, as I write this, I’m sitting on the living room couch, listening to her and her brother waking up in their room. In just a couple of moments, she’s going to totter out here and stumbled upon the kitchen set I have set up for her by our living room windows.)

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She has no idea what’s in the big box I purchased for her, because at IKEA, you never know what you’re really getting.

We’ll be having donuts for breakfast from our favorite bakery down the street. It’s going to be  good morning. But really, it’s been a good three years. A lot of bad things happened last year, and the waters have been rough for quite a while, but my daughter has always been a constant. It’s guaranteed that she’ll laugh if I tickle her in just the right spot, and that she’ll always want me to kiss her goodnight even if we’ve had a bad day.

She loves the things I obsess over (chips and salsa, ice cream, Toy Story), and her dancing always makes me laugh, even if life seems too much at times.

I never really knew what it was like to be proud until we brought her home from the hospital, and now I get to experience that feeling every day as I watch her grow, learn, speak, and sing, and discover who she is a little more each day.

I can hear her brother trying to coax her out of their room. I better get the light on…

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Why We Don’t Tell Our Kids They Can be Anything They Want

It’s preached everywhere: “Believe, and it will happen.”

“Trust and you will find.”

“Try and you will succeed.”

“You can be anything you want to be and more.”

Once you get to a certain age you realize that’s all crap. Because, you know, when I was little, I believed I’d be an astronaut and go to the moon (there have only been twelve manned moon landings since 1969). I also wanted to be a cartoonist for a newspaper strip, but that was before I learned that Jim Davis already had the market cornered in that department.

The problem with me, then? Well, I believe there were two issues.

  1. My expectations were unrealistic. I hate science and always have, so any chance of me becoming an astronaut were doomed to begin with. And, even after some art classes, my cartoons were mediocre at best.
  2. I wasn’t consistent. I bounced around from one cool potential career to the next, whichever sounded most appealing at the time. Usually I was inspired by pop culture, and never really tapped into what I – little Andy – really wanted to do with my life.

Now that I’m a dad, I’m careful not to tell my kids they can be anything they want to be when they grow up, because let’s be honest: My daughter is too tall to be an Olympic gymnast. My son is too sensitive to be a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys, and so far his hand-eye coordination is as great as his dad’s – never mind hitting the broadside of a barn, we’re lucky just to make the ball past the fence.

I love the movie Wreck-It Ralph. Ralph didn’t want to be a bad guy anymore, and no matter 982468_032how many medals he won or good deeds he performed, he was always going to be a bad guy. But he learned to make peace with it.

An even better one is the bold Monsters University, where young Mike wants to be a scarer, but he really just sucks at it. He’s small, puny, and pretty funny looking.

No, as much as I would like to change things, our kids cannot be anything they want to be. It’s just not realistic, and beyond that, it’s a lie.

That’s not to say that if they worked and studied hard enough that they can’t become doctors and lawyers, business owners and CEO’s, or any other profession that requires a large degree of panache and brains. And as their parents, we’ll support them in every way.

But if my son dreams of making it on Juggling with the Stars in sixteen years but he can’t juggle any more than his daily chores, then I’m going to be flat-out honest with him and suggest that maybe he could coach someone to juggle or something.

But whatever they set their mind to, it is my hope that not only is it achievable within their skill set, but that they stick with it and don’t give up.

Let’s Resolve for a Better 2018 (Yes, 2018)

I think I know why New Year’s resolutions don’t work.

It’s because we expect change to be immediate.Like, we plan to lose thirty pounds next year. That’s great, but we’re just now coming out of a candy-crusted, cookie-frosted, eggnog-chugging month.

Guys. We can’t go from heavy creamed-based mashed potatoes to carrot juice and Power bars over night. Seriously.

And yet, year after year, we think it can be done.

Or what about people who are like, I’m going to make a million dollars next year! That’s fine and great, and I applaud your spirit, but you made that vow last year aaaaaaannnd… here you are sitting at your same computer reading this same blog about to make the same promise, which will eventually lead you to this exact same spot exactly one year from now.

But what if.

What if, instead of making our traditional New Year’s resolutions for 2017, we instead resolve to prepare for a better 2018?

Stay with me here.

I think about 3/4 of the world can agree that 2016 sucked, right? I mean, we lost a bunch of beloved celebrities, the elections were going to be bad either way, and it seems like everybody lost a loved one, and if they didn’t, it was just a really crappy year.

I want to label my toilet and every toilet at work “2016” and just crap in it all year long. Okay, that’s achievable:

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My first resolution is that, one year from now – nay, ten years from now – I look back and say that 2016 was easily the darkest and worst year of my life. (Unless of the course the zombie apocalypse happens first, then that might be considered the worst year ever. Maybe.)

And one step to ensure that happens is to make 2017 the year of…progress. As in, “We’re not there yet, but we’re making progress.” It’s the year to rebuild on the ruins of 2016.

We can’t fix everything over night. And the older I get, the more I realize that most things take more than a year to fix or build.

So let’s build toward an incredible 2018. Let’s get in the habit now of eating better, casual exercising, socializing more, spending less, writing more, whatever.

If your resolution is to stay married next year, focus more on how to stay married so that in 2018, you can resolve to improve your marriage even more and make it even a better year.

If you really want a new job, don’t just settle for the first dead-end job that offers you an out from your current situation. This is tough, but spend 2017 polishing up your resume, taking classes to improve yourself, sharpen your skills, so that in 2018, you can seriously be ready to apply for a newer, better job.

So, here’s to 2018. May 2017 be the ladder that leads to a greater year.

 

Who’s Your TV Daddy?

Alan Thicke’s passing leaves many of us reminiscing back to calmer, gentler evenings where the family gathered around the TV every night to watch the next installment of their favorite sitcom. And for many families that sitcom was Growing Pains. 

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I wasn’t as invested in the show as I was others, but I can still hear snapshots of Dr. Seaver yelling at his son for screwing up or trying to sooth over an argument with his wife. I remember I wanted his job because he never had to leave his house since his office was built in the guest room.

His passing got me thinking about other TV dads and how we all kind of have one or two that we believe act as our surrogates in some virtual way. For instance, Uncle Phil was definitely my surrogate uncle because I needed his discipline and loud yelling to get through to me and my stupid antics.

Tim Taylor from Home Improvement was definitely my TV dad. Probably because my own dad loves his tools and frames houses for a living. Unfortunately I identified with Jonathan Taylor Thomas’ dramatic arts-loving character, so I had a hard time identifying with my dad. It was just good to see it work in a TV world.

I think it’s kind of cool that we have these shows to look back on and adopt certain people as members of our virtual families. When Robin Williams died, I remember my best friend crying through a text message that he was the uncle he never had. We loved him, and yes we cried.

These actors leave an imprint on us. They’re magicians who breathe life into a character who otherwise would never have existed, and these characters live on well after the cameras shut off.

Who’s your TV dad? Danny Tanner? Mr. Cleaver? Homer?

Leave your answers below along with your favorite Growing Pains moment in honor of Mr. Thicke.

December Isn’t the Only Time We Lie to Our Kids

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Christmas. The time of discounts and icy roads and beautiful…lies.

For us storytellers and pathological liars, December is the time of year where we have a free pass to lie to our families.

We can lie to our spouses. “I’m going out to fill the car up.” But we’re really hopping over to Target to pick up some gifts. (Or, if you’re me, browsing the DVD section to see what’s on sale.)

“What’s in that bag?” asks your spouse. “Oh, some bars of soap and warm socks.”

And the most popular: “If you’re good, Santa will come bearing gifts.” (Or, as he’s called in our house by our toddlers, “Ho, ho, ho will come bearing gifts.”)

It’s a timeless debate. Should we lie to our kids about Santa? Will they trust us when it comes to anything else? Will they start believing they can sprout wings and fly and jump off the roof? 

I’m no parenting expert, but here’s my take on it:

I lied to my kids when I read them Peter Pan. Every time I put in Wreck-It Ralph because the movie suggests that video game characters exist outside of our control and have feelings and lead lives when the game consoles shut down. I have never once said, “Kids, this is make-believe and Wreck-it Ralph and Fix-it Felix don’t really exist.”

I’ve never once said to them, “People can’t really fly,” or “toys don’t really come to life.” Instead, I buy them Woody and Buzz dolls with built-in voice boxes that suggest that they’re real.

I’ve also asked them every morning this month, “Did you hear any elves running around the house last night? Where do you think he’s hiding today?” You know what I’m talking about.

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I don’t think telling your kids that Santa is coming is a bad thing. If I did, then I have no business letting them read books about talking dinosaurs. I don’t think any of us suffered any psychological trauma having been told about Santa when we were younger. In fact, if we’re really honest with ourselves, we didn’t honestly believe Santa was real even when our dads dressed up and we were encouraged to leave cookies and milk on the fireplace mantel.

Otherwise, why did we so blindly accept the truth about electricity but we bogged our parents down with hundreds of Santa questions? We never had solid proof. It was mists of teasing. We can recall the smirks our parents threw at each other when they said the Santas at the malls were just his helpers. We can recall how their answers to our endless questions were nonchalant like, “Eh, he just kinda shimmies down those chimney. I don’t know, the reindeer have pixie dust. Um, Santa’s probably a thousand years old.”

Think about it. You knew something was up. Our parents had a bigger reaction to the weather than to some world-traveler breaking into the house to leave mysterious boxes under the tree. I mean, those presents could have been bombs, or crazy sex toys.

But we also remember the feeling of magic and sentiment we felt when our parents were “in on it” with us. For one month out of the year our parents chose to believe what we wished was real.

What stands out to me the most about the Santa story is the themes of innocence and safety. The Santa story makes strangers friendly, the unknown pleasing and pleasant, and elves not so creepy. It also fights against pop-culture and film theories claiming red is a good and comforting color.

In short, the Santa story sets things right. I don’t swear to my kids that Santa is real, and I don’t make them sign some contract binding them to be good for Santa’s sake. But I’m not going hide them from any image of Santa and insist that he’s not real. Instead Sarabeth and I take a neutral stand. If they choose to believe in Santa, then who are we to stop them? I’m not going to rob them of that magic I felt growing up. They’re smart kids. I know deep down they don’t really believe the elf hops down off the shelf on his own every night, and they know that the reindeer at the zoo aren’t going to just up and fly away.

We all have chosen a side in this great December debate. I’ve chosen my side because I can’t stop the world from being dark and terrible, so I’m going to fill them with as much talking fish and wardrobe magic and Santa lore that I can.