2018 Concert Reviews, Part 1

In what has become something of a Yuletide tradition, because I’ve done it twice, I’m ending the year with a recap of the concerts I saw this year. Three times makes a streak, so here you go.

(Now I just need to plan a concert or two for next year)

This year, I only went to two concerts, but each of them featured three bands. So that’s, like… crap, more than one hand’s worth.

Three of the bands I had pretty much never heard of before, but it was a venue I had always wanted to go to. The other three bands I have known about for forty years, but never saw.

Since it’s two concert, and it’s 5,000 words, I’ll split it up into two posts. Come back later this week for Part Two. It’s what the business people call “synergy.”

Concert One:

One day, my wife stood at our Echo Dot and had a moment of indecision.

“Alexa, play… something.”

Yes, we are those people that only use this wonderful piece of technology for one thing. Weather alerts and alarms? Pshaw. Smart lights? What are those? It’s all about the portable DJ, baby.

“Okay,” Alexa responds. “Here’s something you might like. Shuffling songs by the Tedeschi Trucks Band.”

What the fuck is a Tedeschi Tru… Hey, this is pretty good. Alright then, let’s just ignore the fact that this AI knows what we want better than we know ourselves. I think this is how “The Terminator” starts, but what’s a little Singularity when I can discover new music? And how much do I have to pay Amazon to have Alexa suggest my book to people?

Fast forward to spring of this year, I was trying to come up with gift ideas for my wife’s birthday. She’s always wanted to go to Red Rocks amphitheater outside of Denver. So on a whim I decided to check the venue’s website to see if I could find an excuse to take her there, and who happens to be playing the weekend after her birthday? Why, it’s Alexa’s favorite band!

So the next thing we knew, we were flying into an airport that serves as the headquarters for the New World Order in order to watch a band we only liked because our robot overlords made us like them.

Hey, more synergy!

Of course, the real reason we were there was for the venue, and it’s not like I know any specific Tedeschi Trucks Band songs, nor can I tell you which riffs come from the album and when was either Ms. Tedeschi or Mr. Trucks (yes, that’s their names) improvising. Nor could I tell you which one plays which instrument. Because Alexa doesn’t show me videos. Alexa tells me to go sit in the corner until my chores are done or I’m going to bed without dinner because she won’t read the recipe to me, and the instructions on the Macaroni & Cheese are too complicated for a mere human to follow.

So yeah. Red Rocks was beautiful. Seriously, it was sublime. I wish I could make a joke, some reference to the Native Americans or the ancient Greeks with their outdoor auditoriums or whatever, but I really can’t. Hearing the naturally amplified sound while watching the setting sun reflect off a red and orange and tan mosaic rising out of the earth like the sinking Titanic, only with better music than Celine Dion playing, was worth the trip. I can’t complain about much.

But who comes to my blog to read platitudes? I think I’ll complain a little bit.

The hike up to the auditorium is a little bit of a “Holy Christ, I’m going to die.” You’re already up at, like, a million feet elevation, where the air is only, like, one percent as much as at sea level. And then they put the parking lot maybe seventy-five miles away. And ten thousand feet below, so you have to hike the last seventy-five miles directly uphill. Barefoot in the snow. Both directions.

Okay, maybe it wasn’t as bad as all that. I mean, according to my FitBit, my heart only stopped nineteen times during the hike.

The real problem, though, came after the hike. The line to get in stretched practically back to the parking lot.

And look at how it’s so precariously suspended in midair. Why, there’s nothing wrong with milling about on a free-standing structure with thousands of your human brethren for the forty-five minutes it’s going to take us to get up the stairs. I’m sure they built it with millions of pounds of stationary American girth in mind. But hey, can we maybe not stand four-wide the whole way up? They don’t have earthquakes in Colorado, do they? Or tornadoes? Or wind?

And although I have a tendency to exaggerate for comedic effect, the forty-five minutes we were stuck in line was, if anything, an underestimation. We missed almost the entire opening set. So sorry, Marcus King Band, but you sounded wonderful from my vantage point clinging to the other side of rock encampment that’s playing as nature’s own reverb machine for you.

Okay, maybe the Marcus King Band didn’t sound wonderful. But they were definitely passable.

The worst part about the long line to get in was that we had stopped for a couple of drinks in town, not wanting to be those people who showed up too early for a concert. Little did we know that, at this particular venue, arriving early means parking closer and actually getting into the venue. Damn you, Colorado. Have you never seen when your Rockies play in San Francisco or Los Angeles? Arriving on time is so gauche.

No, you know what? The wine bar wasn’t the most annoying part. The really annoying part was that we had at least three friends who had been to Red Rocks before.Each one of them discussed the majesty and the splendor and the truly breathtaking spectacle that was to be greeting us tucked away in this Rocky Mountain Garden of Edens. But not a one told us to get the fuck there early because it would take two hours to get from the parking lot through security.

Once we were through security, it was another hike up to the top to get food. Fortunately, the beer was a lot close, which was good because that wine bar seemed a month ago by now. And I needed a beer for fuel to get me up to the top to get food. You need to get calories to burn calories, people. This body doesn’t happen by chance.

Plus the opening band had just finished, so what better time to get in a food line? Oh I’m sorry, did I say what better time? I meant what worse time. Maybe we should have tried to find some seats during this intermission. But nah, why would we want to compound a mistake with a success, when there are so many other things to compound it with.

The food was good.

The seats, on the other hand…

The concert was mostly general admission. There were a few seats in the middle of the seventy or so rows that had reserved seating, but everything down by the stage and everything near the back was general admission. The typical row was a bench with approximately 140 seats. So there should have been somewhere around five thousand general admission seats. And we couldn’t find a fucking one.

“I’m holding that spot.”

“You mean those ten spots?”

“That’s why there’s a blanket there.”

“Can you scoot closer?”

“No.”

So much for Colorado people being polite.

So we watched the second band from a raised tree planter off to the side of the seating, near the stairs. And we weren’t the only ones. There were maybe ten planters, one every five or six rows, each standing ten feet high. Each planter had anywhere from five to twenty patrons, either leaning against the tree or dangling their feet off the ten-foot drop between the front of the planter and the passageway below.

Seriously, how many tickets did they sell to this thing? You might think they keep selling “general admission” because there’s no way to accurately count the number of seats. But no. Because this concert had been sold out when I searched for tickets. I had to pay extra on the Ticketmaster-sponsored ticket exchange, because if they can’t fuck you over with the initial purchase, then by golly, they’ll fuck over both the original purchaser and the secondary purchaser.

So they clearly only sold as many tickets as there are seat. It’s just that the fat fuck in row sixty-two is clearly taking up one-and-a-half seats. And the blanket cuddle orgy over to the left is looking for more lebensraum than the goddamned Schlieffen Plan.

But I can’t complain too much. From my vantage point all the way stage left, I had a beautiful panorama of those eponymous red rocks rising out of the earth stage right. In fact, from this angle, those rocks made a wide v-angle with the stage that continued to change as the sunset approached and then passed.

I never would have noticed this natural wonder had I been in the seats, able to focus my sight on something quaint like the video screen or the stage. And it’s not like I knew what the band members looked like and needed to see their facial expressions as they put emotion into lyrics I’ve never heard.

Besides, those benches were probably uncomfortable as hell.

Hey, speaking of singers and songs and shit, how was the band?

The second band that played on the evening was Drive By Truckers. With the Tedeschi Trucks Band, I’m noticing a trend.

But let me tell you, the Drive By Truckers kicked ass. I didn’t know what to expect, but they were tight. With their name, I expected something in the country-western vein. Maybe one of the hard-edge country bands, like… actually, I’m not really up on my country bands these days. Is Alabama still a thing? Were they ever edgy? How about Skynyrd?

Yeah, let’s go with Skynyrd. The Drive By Truckers were reminiscent of Skynyrd. They even reference Skynyrd in one of their songs, so they must approve of the comparison. But I’d also add in some Allmann Brothers. Or Jeff Healey. Part southern rock, part jam band. Laid back, conversational style but some great drive in their play.

I’ve become a bit of a fan since then. I mean, once I figured out which band we were actually listening to, because I don’t think it was ever announced which order the bands were going, and we couldn’t see the stage for any telltale indications of band name. For all I knew, this could be the actual Tedeschi Trucks Band, and they just weren’t letting the lady sing tonight.

But I remembered a lyric that went “I never saw Lynyrd Skynyrd” and was able to track down to the song “Let There Be Rock,” by the Drive-By Truckers, so then I knew who I had seen. Thanks, Google!

So now I’ve found myself listening to them a few times since. More often than Tedeschi Trucks. Even a few times on my Alexa. I wonder if think she knows that it stemmed from her initial recommendation? Thanks, Amazon!

Boy howdy, am I ready for our new AI overlords or what?

Speaking of Alexa’s original suggestion, how was the Tedeschi Trucks Band? Pretty good. Most of their recordings, and most of their YouTube videos, are from their concerts, so they sounded pretty much like I had heard and expected. Which is great. I mean, that’s what we were there for, right? Aside from seeing the amphitheater which, let’s be honest, was the real reason we were there.

But regardless of that, the Tedschi Trucks Band was solid. Very enjoyable. But they broke the number one rule of showmanship, which is to not be upstaged by the opening band. Or in this case, the second band.

In the end, we were tired of standing by a tree and not being able to see the actual band, and were mindful of getting to and out of the parking lot before the next presidential election, so we left before their set was over. Which doesn’t seem fair. You’ve got to wait until the finale and the encore to really judge a concert, right? Heck, “Let There Be Rock” was Drive-By Truckers’ last song, and it’s the one that finally pushed me over from enjoyable to kick-ass.

But meh, wife was over it, and I needed another beer, so we might as well get one on the way out. And I might or might not have still been able to hear the finale from the parking lot seventy-two miles away. Those red rocks can really reverberate, baby.

Come by later this week to hear about my second three-band show. I’ll give you a hint: One of the bands had a Filipino lead singer and the other has a one-armed drummer.

The Humbug is Strong

I’ve never really been a fan of Christmas music.

I’m sure that’s not an entirely true statement. If we could find a time machine back to the Carter administration, I’m sure we could find a little tyke doing all the fun calls and responses from “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” What kindergartner doesn’t love to follow up a lingering statement like “used to laugh and call him names” with, “Like Columbus.”

What? Columbus wasn’t used as an insult? You’ll go down in history, like Columbus? I mean, sure, genociders are historical and all, but what, was Hitler unavailable? Honestly, the only thing that went down in history around Columbus was the population of Native Americans. But whatever, Montgomery Ward, let’s just stick with the moron that thought the world was a third the size that it really is.

Oh yeah, for those of you who don’t know, Montgomery Ward invented Rudolph as a marketing ploy to differentiate their mail-order catalogs from Sears in the 1930s. That’s why he’s not listed in “The Night Before Christmas.” Rudolph didn’t exist yet. It was just… um.. Vixen? Nixon? Dixen-sider? Wait, I know one of them is named Blitzen. See? Hitler!

And of course, beyond Rudolph are some of the other great hits. About snowmen and nights spent in sensory deprivation chambers. And bells, of both a chromatic and auditory nature. And, of course let’s not forget the annual debate over what does and does not constitute date rape.

Then there’s the song about… no, I think that’s pretty much it. There are only five Christmas carols, right?

That’s really where my disdain for Christmas music began. It’s not that the individual songs, in a vacuum, are bad songs. Except for maybe “Away in a Manger.” That shit’s horrible on listen number one or listen number infinity. Whereas the rest of the songs only become intolerable as they approach infinity. Which is about how many times I’ve heard “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” And, by extension, that means I’ve heard “And a Happy New Year” one-third of infinite times. Aren’t you glad to know that the subject I teach is not math?

My mom was one of those people who listened to Christmas music on a more-or-less continuous loop for the last part of every year. Most years she would wait until the day after Thanksgiving to start, sometimes she’d sneak it in around Veteran’s Day. My wife is in that same vein. I believe that, were I not in the picture, she would feel like the Fifth of July is a perfectly acceptable time to start signing about snow and bells.

Hey, speaking of Christmas in July, did you know Hallmark Channel did that promotion this year? Because I’m pretty sure they get eighty percent of their viewership when they run those crappy love stories, where Candace Cameron is about to hook up with some hockey player, but then Santa shows up at the end to kill the hockey player get some strange for himself. Wait, that’s not how the movie ends? Santa gets the two together? Shit, I’m super glad I never stay awake till the end.

Anyway, I know that Hallmark Channel does this because when I told my four-year old it was July, she said “Christmas in July,” because whenever she’s visiting grandma and grandpa, they have the Hallmark Channel on. They’re part of the twenty percent that watch year round. Including on Thanksgiving. Did you know there’s football on the TV on Thanksgiving? Because my in-laws don’t. When I explained this dilemma to my co-workers, they responded with, “Wow, that’s got to suck for your father-in-law,” to which I respond, “He’s the one putting on the fucking Hallmark movies!”

But at least there’s a variety of Hallmark movies. Not only can you watch has-beens from “Full House,” but “Party of Five,” too. I think I even saw a “Days of Our Lives” alum this season. Whereas with the Christmas music I listened to endured in my youth, it was the same three records over and over. And by records, I actually mean records. Oh, maybe one or two of them were on 8-track, but by and large, they were vinyl records. You know, the ones where you can’t skip a song?

As an aside, am I the only one who feels unfinished when “Yesterday” ends and it isn’t immediately followed by the opening riff of “Dizzy Miss Lizzie”?

My mom played those records like broken records. Over and over and over again. Which is pretty much what the seventeen different holiday channels on Sirius/XM are doing right now. “Hey, that was a great Bing Crosby song. Coming up after this John Denver song, we’ve got some Bing Crosby on the way.”

Because every Christmas song, it seems, was recorded in a three-year span by three artists. Oh sure, they’ve been redone by every Jewish musician known to mankind. Seriously. Barbara Streisand, Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond, and Barry Manilow have all recorded songs about the glorious birth of Christ. Hell, when Rod Stewart released a Christmas album last year, my first thought was, “I didn’t even know he’s Jewish.”

So somewhere around the age of seven, listening to “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas” for the two-hundredth time, I realized that I was kind of over all of the Christmas songs. It was probably a balmy 82 degrees in Southern California on this particular listen of “It’s Beginning to Look a lot like Christmas” when I realized the absurdity of it all.

But when they go away for eleven ten nine months at a time, I sometimes forget the inanity. Somewhere around Thanksgiving or, knowing my wife, closer to Halloween, I’ll hear my first Yuletide song of the year. And I’ll hum or whistle along, because most of them are festive as shit. A little “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” goes a long way in mid-November.

But by the time December 1 rolls around, I’ve once again heard every song multiple times this year and I’m reminded that I still have another four weeks to go.  I try to grin and bear it, but the Stockholm Syndrome just won’t stick.

For a while, I was happy when new versions of songs, and even an occasional new song entirely, came out. I think my eyes went wide the first time I heard Bruce Springsteen’s “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.” Like, “Holy shit, they can do that?” Hell, The Boss isn’t even Jewish, unless his grandparents changed the spelling from Springstein.

And of course, when Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” came out, I was in college, so I was perfectly fine to watch her traipse around in her little Santa suit on VH-1 once per hour.

But before too long I remembered that Bruce Springsteen is a communist that hates consumerism and Mariah Carey is bat-shit crazy.

And don’t get me started on that “Believe” crap from “Polar Express.” Holy fuckdoll, is there any way I can gouge my ears out a la Oedipus’s eyes by the end of that song? Shit, I’ve got time, the song has to be forty-five minutes long, right?

That’s the problem with hearing the same things over and over. You start to notice every single nuance and intricacy of it. You start to think, “Really, Beach Boys? Christmas comes this time each year? When the fuck else would it come? What was the B-side of this calendar dumbfuckery: Saturday is at the End of the Week?

Hell, I’d probably find reasons to hate “Layla” if I had to listen to it on constant loop for six straight weeks.

Scratch that. “Layla” is perfect. But the acoustic version is on a strict no-more-than-once-per-month diet.

But the last few years, I’ve tried to make my peace with Christmas songs. There’s something about the joy in a child’s face. Especially when that joy appears when she’s in the car with mom, who has Christmas songs on her radio, and I only have to see that joy through a rolled up window.

Wife is usually kind enough to hold her pre-December Christmas songs out of my earshot. I did my part by ignoring all of the changed pre-sets on her car radio. But all good things must come to an end, and the last week or two, I’ve endured.

Until yesterday. When my daughter said, and I quote, “I don’t want to listen to this song.”

My heart grew three sizes that day. I became Darth Vader at the end of “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Yes, child, I am your father.

“Why not?” Wife asks.

“They play it too much.”

A smiled pursed my lips. Forget Darth Vader, I’m going full Emperor Palpatine on this one.

Goooood. Let your hate flow through you. Fulfill your destiny and take your father’s place. The Humbug is strong in this one.

The song that turned her toward the Dark Side?

“Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town.”

Meh, not the first choice on my hatred hierarchy, but I’ll take what I can get. Maybe I should make her listen to the Bruce Springsteen version and then explain how it’s a subtle dig at the imperialistic evil of the United States.

Unfortunately, my four-and-a-half year old wasn’t really enunciating her feelings properly. Shocking, I know. What she really meant was that she enjoys when mommy and daddy sing it to her, and doesn’t want to hear docile pre-recordings. Why does she love mommy’s and daddy’s rendition? Because if there’s one motif for the month of December in a house with a pre-schooler, it’s “You better not pout, you better not cry.”

In other words, “Shut the fuck up! You’re supposed to be fucking happy!”

Seriously, what is it about this month? I know a big part of it is the shorter days and the lousy weather. In the summertime, after I pick her up from daycare, we can go to the park or ride bikes or play in the yard until the sun sets well past 8:00 PM. This time of the year, the sun has usually set by the time I can pick her up. And sure, there are street lights, but it’s fifty degrees outside, which in California is practically arctic. The best we can do is drive around the neighborhood looking at Christmas lights. Otherwise, it’s a steady stream of Disney, Jr while I wrack my brain about ways to expend one million joules of pent-up, four-year-old wiggles in a two-hundred square foot jail cell without damaging the prison walls and furniture that mommy and daddy put a lot of effort into.

And dammit, child, I have a very important blog with seventy followers, at least ten of which might not actually be bots, so just sit there and watch the same goddamned “Vampirina” episode for the seventieth time. It’ll prepare you for a life of Christmas music.

But there’s also the compensatory factor of our stories about Santa Claus and his Gestapo powers of spotting every naughty action the child has ever committed. Not that said child can identify what action is naughty and which is nice, but she’s pretty sure that Big Brother Santa knows her deepest darkest demons. After all, he’s watching her sleep. After we made her sit on his lap. Nothing creepy about that.

And don’t get me started on the Elf on the fucking Shelf. Trust me, that NSA-inspired bullshit will get its own post from me at some juncture. And if that post doesn’t materialize by December 2019, assume I’ve been placed into a Christmas concentration camp. By the time I come out, I’ll be Winston Smith saying, “two plus two equals Happy Holidays.”

But all of this, the cabin fever and the fact that she isn’t entirely sure how the whole Christmas morning thing is going to work, leads to lots of whining. And lots of temper tantrums. And, oh my GOD, the pouting. I ask her what she wants for lunch, she’s reacts like I asked her to sever her arm. She runs to the couch, doubles over and buries her head like Burt the fucking Turtle facing a nuclear attack.

So props to the writer’s of “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town,” because they’ve nailed the essence of what it is to actually have a child during this “Most Wonderfucked Time of the Year”. Because we’ve had to hit the first verse often. And early. Like, before Thanksgiving. Of last year. Because “Jingle Bells” and Parson Brown marrying some motherfuckers who just met ain’t getting this family through the Donner Pass of Christmas time any easier than watching “Fancy Nancy” learn the true message of Christmas for the seventeenth time.

And there I had to be an asshole and ask her if she needs to go potty again. Cue the histrionics and the psychiatrist bills. Maybe I need to get an Elf to blow cigarette smoke into her face and scream, “Ve haff vays of making ju grin.”

But in the meantime, we just sing. “You better shut up. You better not pout. No seriously, don’t pout. You better not fucking… hey, where are you going? Why are you burying your head? Seriously, Spring is still three months away, can you fucking work with me here? I’m telling you why.”

And the result of our subliminal reinforcement? It certainly hasn’t stopped the whining. But at least it’s made her not want to hear the song. Except that, if you dig a little deeper, she does want to hear one rendition. Not Bing Crosby’s. Not Bruce Sprinsteen’s. Only…

“Sometimes I pout just so you guys will sing it to me.”

Oh, fuck my life.

And here I thought I was raising another Grinch. A young padawan to carry my Sith-mas traditions into the next generation. A burgeoning naysayer who could listen to her Bruce Springsteen music and rail against the consumerist tendencies of a bourgeois society.

But nope. Looks like I’m just raising another child who can play her parents like a fiddle and can’t wait to see where that crazy elf has hidden himself today.

Pass the eggnog.

Maybe “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” was a bridge too far. Next year I can try again with some low-hanging fruit to get her to hate Christmas music.

Sing it with me everyone. “We’re simply having a Wonderful Christmastime.”

Sorry Mario

More flash fiction. The prompt for this week was that the character that the story revolves around can’t appear in the story. Not sure why, but the “Sorry, Mario, but our princess is in another castle” popped into my mind right away. Then it was a matter of getting there.

Sorry Mario

“Are you ready?” Jeff asked.

His wife looked back at him in the darkness.

“Are you sure we shouldn’t go to the police?” Melissa asked in return.

“The note said no police.”

“I doubt an ill-advised rescue attempt is sticking to the ransom, either.”

“It doesn’t matter. We’ll be in and out before they know what’s going on. You just saw the same thing I did. Three of them left. They didn’t have Daniella with them. That means she’s still inside.”

“I just…,” Melissa trailed off, then changed her tact. “You know you’re not Mario, right?”

“Who?”

“Mario. I don’t know, Luigi. This isn’t a video game.”

“Really? You went with Mario? Not Assassin’s Creed? Not James Bond?”

“Whatever. Isn’t Mario the one who’s always saving the princess?”

“That’s Link.”

“Okay, but Mario is the one that changes direction in mid-jump. You know you can’t do that, right? Hell, you can’t really jump, at all.”

“This won’t require jumping.”

The silence between the married couple stretched on.

“This isn’t a video game,” Melissa finally said, returning to the beginning of her argument as summary.

“So are you in or out?” Jeff asked.

“I guess it’s too late to go back now. It’s not like we have the ten grand they’re asking for anyway.”

“Okay then. Let’s go rescue our daughter.”

Jeff climbed through the hole in the fence and began to tiptoe toward the brick building that he had traced the kidnappers to. Melissa followed behind him, carrying the pistol that they had owned for a decade but never used. Melissa had tried to get rid of the thing when Daniella was born, but Jeff would hear nothing of it. He kept it in his bedstand, but kept the bullets up high in their closet, where a child could not accidentally find them or load them or shoot them. Without its bullets, it wouldn’t offer much protection, but Jeff assumed the sight of a gun might be enough to make a home invader flee. Nobody wants to hang around long enough to see if a gun is loaded or not.

Melissa might be right that this wasn’t a video game. But the vast number of heist movies and Liam Neeson thrillers had laid the groundwork for what lay in front of Jeff. Working for the City Comptroller gave him the rest of what he needed. No need to keep the kidnappers on the phone for ten extra seconds in order to triangulate the cell towers if you can just get a listing of the blocked phone number after the fact. From there, all he had to do was check the blueprints of the abandoned book depository, which were public record and available to any citizen of the city, as long as said citizen knew whom to ask.

Don’t fuck with civil servants, Jeff thought, was the moral of the story.

Once he saw the blueprints, it was obvious how this warehouse could be turned into a prison for a kidnapped child. Jeff knew, without even needing to think, where the bastards were holding Daniella. The old manager’s office lay in the back of the open warehouse, and it had a fortified vault in one corner. It didn’t take a criminal mind, or even a dozen watchings of “Ocean’s Eleven,” to know where he needed to go.

And with the three perps having just left, Jeff and Melissa should be able to waltz right in and save their daughter. Jeff patted himself on the back as he padded toward the door the kidnappers had left ten minutes ago.

The room beyond the door was dark. Jeff was happy. That meant none of the kidnappers were still inside. Everything was going to plan.

The booby traps were not part of the plan.

“Ouch.”

“What’s wrong?” Melissa asked from behind, raising the gun in her two hands, as she had been trained to do in the one class Jeff had made her take a decade earlier.

“Nothing. It’s just that the doorknob is warm. Even through these gloves.”

Melissa laughed to release some tension, pointing the gun back toward the ground. “Do people really use the old hot handle trick? I thought that only happened in Bugs Bunny cartoons.”

Jeff laughed, too, in spite of himself. “Ye- yeah. We’ve gone from video games to Looney Tunes. Let’s hope these guys are more Elmer Fudd than Bow-“

Jeff didn’t finish his thought. As he inched the door open, the subtle heat turned into a fireball. Jeff fell backward as flames exploded out of the doorway. Melissa screamed, dropping the gun as she shielded her own face from the conflagration. Her husband crashed to the ground, losing his wind as his back hit the ground.

It was not a continuous spout of fire. Not a flame thrower, nor a blowtorch. Not the type of sustained heat to make a creme brulee. This was just one explosive flame, a barbecue finally lighting after the fourth push of the igniter button. Perhaps more to frighten people away than to actually harm them.

“Further proof there’s nobody here to guard her,” Jeff said as he rolled over on to his stomach.

Melissa nodded, even though she had not been privy to his internal monologue. They had been married for a decade, and dated for an extra five years before that. She could follow his train of thought better than anyone. And she agreed.

Wife helped husband regain his feet. She wiped the dirt off the back of his shirt, while he did the same to the front of his jeans. Tentatively, Jeff reached forward. He grasped the cooling doorknob and pulled on the door, just enough to open it a crack, while ducking to his left, fully prepared to dive for the floor once again. But the fire was a one-time deterrent. The door opened without a hitch.

A dark expanse faced them. The scant light from outside only showed a few feet near the open door. But Jeff knew this room. The blueprint showed a seventy-foot-by-seventy-foot square. Jeff took a confident step forward. Then another. His eyes could still make out the general shape of the grey-brick, windowless walls from the scant light spilling in through the entryway. This was a convenient reinforcement, as the two into darkness as soon as the door closed behind Melissa.

The last picture Jeff had seen, filed by a construction firm filing a “Use of Historic Building” form, showed the room to be empty. All of the bookshelves had been removed to the school district’s newest warehouse. The old storage room was perfectly suited for the air rifle arena that the construction firm had been hoping to open, or an urban-themed disco, but both of those applications had been denied. The Comptroller was holding out for an artist enclave or some other upscale business to begin the gentrification process in this part of town.

His mind’s eye seeing the blueprint and the picture, Jeff took one cautious step forward in the darkness, then another. Within a few steps, Jeff was sure his eyes had adjusted as much as they could. He walked forward with purpose, his mind focused on the distant door to the manager’s office on the blueprint in his head.

Until his foot missed the floor. Or didn’t miss, per se, but came down on something else. A round object. A group of spheres, (Marbles!) rolling out from under his step, toppling him over once again. He tried to fall forward this time, flailing his arms out in front of him. In the end, he thought he pitched to the right, the brunt of the impact hitting his right shoulder. His head came to rest on his assailant. Not spheres, but tubes.

Not marbles.

Jeff thought back to the marbles on Daniella’s floor. He had almost tripped over them. He was always stepping on Daniella’s toys. The marbles weren’t as bad as those damned Legos. Marbles on a carpeted floor won’t cause any harm. But they had been there nonetheless. Sitting on the floor, as if Daniella had just been playing with them. It was all he could focus on at first. Not the open window, outside breeze blowing the tree outside gently against the side of the house. Not the ransom note on the bed. “$10,000. Instructions for delivery in two hours.” Only the marbles on the floor. And an indentation on the carpet. How long ago had Daniella been sitting there, playing with her toys?

When did the two hours begin?

A light switched on. A faint, LED glow illuminating the area in front of him.

“Not sure why we didn’t think of this before,” Melissa said, her phone having replaced the gun in her right hand.

The glow started to fade. She turned it back to her face and double-tapped the screen. Lumens returned, and she turned the screen back toward to scene on the floor.

“Can you turn on the flashlight,” Jeff said into the picture on her screen. A selfie of the three of them, Daniella’s face smiling between her two parents, the “Welcome to Disneyland” sign hovering behind their close-up faces. Jeff never liked that picture. He never knew where to look on a selfie. The other two beamed straight at the camera and he was gazing off to the right as if something had just caught his eye. A naked lady or a terrorist attack or an alien coming down in a flying saucer. Or maybe he was looking into the future, and a kidnapper taking his daughter from his very house while he was busy looking the other direction.

“Isn’t that the app that the Russians were using to steal your identity?” Melissa asked, but turned her phone back around to see if she could find the app in question. She thumbed the safety on her pistol and tucked it into her back pocket.

“I think that’s just an… ow… an old wive’s tale,” Jeff said, finally feeling the impact on his shoulder as he shifted his weight in an attempt to get up off the floor. Although he hadn’t felt any initial impact, he was pretty sure his wrist had lost some of its structural integrity. “Besides, at this point, the Russians can have my fucking identity.”

Three thumb-clicks later, the flash on Melissa’s phone shone down upon her husband as he regained his knees. Around him lay a scattering of white PVC pipes. Moving the light around, she saw them stretch on for five feet or more. It would have been impossible to avoid them in the dark, no lucky, walk-over bypass.

“Who the hell leaves a bunch of pipes laying around in the dark?”

Whether they had been lain there intentionally or leftover from some random inhabitant or potential owner, it was hard to know. But with the flash of a digital camera to lead the way, husband and wife were able to avoid this obstacle, and another batch of PVC pipes twenty feet further on.

“The positioning looks a little too precise to be there randomly,” Melissa opined, and Jeff was forced to agree. Eight pipes in a row, the last two angled to the right and the left, ensuring the whole batch would roll.

“I don’t get it. Did they want us to pay or did they want us to come here?”

It was a question that hung over the two of them as they made their way to the door near the corner of the far wall. Jeff thought he heard sirens in the distance, but it was too hard to be certain. Everything on his body was screaming. His injured wrist, his bruised shoulder, his scorched face. There was enough ringing in his ears to easily mask any exterior sounds. To say nothing of the thick warehouse brick. So instead of straining to make sense of a distant noise, he focused to the only sense that was working: his eyesight following that single trail of cellphone light to the inner office door.

Once there, Jeff and Melissa only stared at the doorknob. Melissa’s phone illuminated it perfectly. An utterly normal sphere of chrome, a simplistic keyhole in the middle. Jeff reached forward, then stopped himself. Once, twice. He finally reached all the way, tapped it with his finger. It didn’t budge, it didn’t melt, it didn’t morph into a evil maw with teeth ready to snap an assailant’s hand off. It did exactly what a doorknob should do when tapped, which is to barely notice, to continue existing precisely as intended. Slowly, ever so gingerly, reaching through a morass as if the ice age might sneak back into this room in time to rescue both father and daughter, Jeff grabbed hold of the knob and turned.

The mechanism released. The door released from the doorjamb. Jeff pulled on it while his wife removed the gun from her back pocket. Both sensed that, make or break, their journey would end on the other side of this barrier. The sirens from the street rose in pitch, adding a sense of urgency and dread. Melissa moved her phone to her left hand, thumbing the small safety nub into its receptacle.

The door swung open.

Nothing was there. Jeff blinked. Melissa blinked. Melissa shone the flashlight left, then right. The dimensions of the room were correct. Ten by ten. No desk. No furniture. And no vault door behind where the desk should have been.

Jeff took a giant step to his left, in the direction of the phantom vault, the spot on the wall that showed nothing. Straight forward, no variance. No time to think. Had he slowed down, he might have seen the trip wire. But probably not, strung as it was at shin height, as thin and as taut as an E string on an acoustic guitar.

Gunfire rang out. A bright flash to Jeff’s left. Reverberating crashes, a cacophony in an enclosed place. Four shots in rapid succession. Melissa returned fire without thinking. Bullets flew in both directions over Jeff’s shoulder. His knees gave out and he once again plummeted for the floor. Melissa stood stock still for a moment before belatedly realizing she should have ducked behind the wall.

But it didn’t matter. They were alone in the room. The gun that had fired and, blessedly, missed, had been yet another trap. Not another person in the room. And when Melissa shone the light on the wall opposite the muzzle flashes, they saw, to the right of the doorway where one would expect it, a light switch. In his mind’s eye, Jeff saw himself reaching for the light instead of darting to the left as soon as he entered the room. What any sane person would do.

He started to laugh. Quietly at first, then it grew. The entire idea was absurd. And the two of them were making it through not because they were trained, not because video games and movies had shown them the way to do it. But because they were just strung out enough, just impulsive enough, to ensure they were continually doing what no sane person would be doing at this time.

“I’m Mario!” He finally said between his laughs.

“What?”

“A fireball. A pipe. A bullet flying through space at nothing in particular! Hahaha! You were right! This is Mario. I just lost my third life. How many do I have left?”

Melissa only stared at her husband, through the smoky haze of residual gunpowder, laughing maniacally on the ground. She tried to make sense of what he was saying. Her senses were as overloaded as his. Darkness and light and smoke and gunfire. Sirens getting closer and closer. Only she wasn’t cracking, as her husband clearly was. She needed to stay grounded in reality, where neither of them had any extra lives.

“It’s over there,” Jeff continued between gasps. Melissa shone her light back to him, then followed the direction he was pointing. Her phone showed a vault door. “I was reading the blueprint wrong. I zigged when I should’ve zagged.”

Melissa started to laugh now, too. Seeing the vault door, knowing Daniella lay beyond. They were almost to the end. The end was in sight. The emotion that had been pent up for the last twenty hours finally came out.

“You… You changed the direction of your jump in midair.”

He stepped forward to hug her husband. The two of them laughed and sobbed for what seemed like an eternity. Exhausted and delirious.

“This is the police! You are surrounded!”

The amplified voice permeated through the building. Jeff and Melissa looked at each other in confusion.

“The police are here?” Melissa asked. “For us?”

“Did we set something off?”

“Did the kidnappers send them? No police, the note said.”

How many lives do we have left?” Jeff asked again.

The two blinked at each other in the cone of lightness.

“It’s okay. Just get Daniella out of there. Then we can explain what we’re doing in here.”

Jeff nodded. It would be easy enough to explain. They weren’t trespassing, after all. They were saving a captured little girl. Their daughter. They had every right to be in here. The cops would be very interested to hear about what had prompted this whole endeavor. Jeff took Melissa’s phone and walked toward the vault. At the last minute, he worried about a lock. Maybe the cops would be able to open the vault door and save his daughter from the other side.

He heard the distant door open, and footsteps storming into the building, as he reached the padded door. He turned the handle, this one a long metal bar instead of a chrome sphere, and was relieved when it swung freely. The door swung inward.

“FREEZE!” came a multitude of voices from behind.

Bright light blazed behind Jeff, illuminating the office. He raised his hands in the air, wanting to make sure he was seen complying. He hoped Melissa was doing the same, and he hoped her gun was not in her hand.

“TURN AROUND!”

But Jeff couldn’t turn around. All he could do was stare straight forward. Into the vault, now fully illuminated in the police lamps. He could see every corner of the tiny vault. The tiny, empty vault.

Daniella was nowhere to be seen.

Sorry, Mario, but our princess is in another castle.

For the fourth time today, Jeff fell to his knees. He dipped his head as cops grabbed his hands from behind. He stared straight forward as cold steel clasped his wrists.

The room was empty. Jeff was out of lives.

 

Campfire Story

Don’t let your blog die during NaNoWriMo, I told myself. I’m going to post some old flash fiction, I actually posted in said blong. And here it is the first week of Decemeber and, let me check… one post, three weeks ago. Bang up job, Wombat.

Okay, here you go. Some of my flash fiction that didn’t win any contests. This one was supposed to be a Campfire Story. So I tried to make it read as if it was being spoken aloud in front of some kids. They said I had too many rhetorical questions, and I guess it was too late to say they weren’t supposed to be rhetorical. They were assuming that people were responding to them. But I’m telling you that now. So no complaining!

Enjoy.

And the Queen of England

The night was a night a lot like this.

Do you see the way the moon sits above the tree line? The way it just hangs there, a dull amber hue, lighting up our surroundings. It’s big. It’s bold. Not the type of moon you see in the city. It isn’t hiding behind a skyscraper or around the corner of the church on Third Street.

The farmers call it a harvest moon. It’s closer to the Earth this time of year. It keeps a watchful eye out over you so you can keep a watchful eye out over your crops. It’s a moon that wants to remind you that once upon a time, people thought he was a god. They prayed to him. And, boy howdy, by the time this story is finished, you’ll be praying to the almighty light of that moon, just like those old farmers were. Just like I was.

Because the last time I saw that moon was the first time I saw the half-human, half-…

You know what? I’m getting ahead of myself.

There were four of us out in the woods that night. David, the bald one. And Josh. Well, I guess Josh was bald, too. Mostly, anyway. Not everyone can have locks as luscious as your uncle, here. But I don’t really remember Josh’s hair. I think of him more as the burly guy. Built like a brick sh-, um sorry. Built like a sturdy outhouse. No? No frame of reference for that? A port-a-potty? Although those aren’t very sturdy, I know. Think of a port-a-potty that is made out of brick. Okay, sure, like the bathroom at the park.

And then there was Sonia. Poor, little Sonia. I don’t remember why she was out there with us. She had always just kind of been there. Part little sister, part would-be girlfriend. The glue that held together our motley crew. Whether we were smokin’ in the boys room or home, sweet, home. Ha, ha! Trust me, kids, when one of your college roommates introduces you to that old-school, hair-band rock music, you’ll get what a funny joke I just made.

Although I shouldn’t joke about Sonia. I haven’t seen her since that night. Diminutive little Sonia. Stood maybe five-foot-one, dripping wet. She’d have to stand on her tippy toes to hit a hundred pounds. Pixie-ish is what I used to call her. Now I know how apt that was. She really had no business being out there. None of us did, it turns out. But Sonia, least of all.

The Queen of England was there, too. I don’t quite remember when she got there, but I know she wasn’t there at the beginning. I’ll get to her later.

Have you heard that saying, “you can’t see the forest through the trees?” Well, that’s true. You see those trees right there? I know it’s dark, but that ring that’s illuminated around us. What’ve you got there, a Douglas Fir? A Noble Pine? It’s like a veritable Christmas Tree farm here. Some of them are tall and some of them are short. I mean, short to the other trees. Not short to you or I. Heck. See that one right there? What is it, twenty feet tall? On a Christmas Tree lot, that would be one of the top money getters, but here he’s just a little runt, barely stealing enough sun and nutrients from his big bullies next door.

And speaking of those bullies, check out that bad boy over there. He’s gotta be fifty feet if he’s an inch. Flickering orange in this light, but what do you think he looks like in the light of day. Is his trunk grey, like an elephant, trumpeting its power over the rest of God’s creation? Or is he a meek brown, trying to camouflage himself amongst his brethren. “Hey guys, I may be the one that everyone looks at, but I’m just one of you all. Come on, group tree hug.”

But here’s what I was saying with that whole forest-and-the-trees thing. We’re looking at that tree. But can you see the forest? Can you see what it all means? Can you even see what’s behind it? What could it be hiding? Well, that’s what David wanted to find out. So he got up from around the fire, a fire very much like this, to kill that cat’s curiosity and try to see the forest with his very own eyes.

And what did he see? You want to know what he saw, don’t you? When bald, wiry David tiptoed up to a giant pine tree standing sentinel on the edge of the light, warding off the darkness, or maybe it was vice versa, protecting the darkness from the evils of the light. What did David see, crunch, crunch, crunching through the dried pine needles like a drunken lion on shore leave?

Well, I don’t know. Because as he got to the tree, as he peered behind ever so subtly, I saw him lean in behind the tree, take a step, lean in some more and then…

David was gone.

Gone! A ghost! Like the tree had swallowed him whole. I know. I didn’t believe it at first, either. Thought maybe it was a trick of the eyes. A vantage point kinda thing. But no. David was gone. We called for him. Said his name. No response.

Josh was up first to follow David beyond the tree. That’s the kinda guy Josh is. Was. David was curious, always chasing some tantalizing, ethereal distance. Josh was sturdy. Grounded. Ready to go as soon as the going got going. I followed shortly behind Josh, because for me it was a thought and for him it was instinct.

Now I know what you’re thinking. Josh is going to disappear behind the tree, just like David. They’re going to join each other in some Great Beyond like in that nineteen-eighties Netflix show. But no. Maybe it was a one-time thing, or maybe it was because I was right behind him. The darkness can only take you when you’re lonely.

Whatever the reason, Josh rounded the pine and came out clear on the other side, rounding back out into our clearling, moments before I broke the plane of the forest myself.

But there was nothing behind the tree. It was just the back side of a tree. Or the front side, or the side side, depending on your vantage point, I suppose. My point is that David wasn’t there and David had never been there. No sign of him anywhere. No black, size-eight Converse tennis shoes. No svelte, tan, designer jacket signifying “Dave was here.” If I couldn’t see his tent over by the campfire, I might not think he had joined us on our trip.

Wait, was Sonia still sitting at the fire when I looked back in that direction? She should’ve been, but I don’t remember, definitively.

What I do remember, definitively, was Josh circling the tree, and me circling behind him. Once around. Twice around. The sun and the moon. Like a yin-yang, always on the opposing side. The fighters in the “Beat It” video. Tell me your dads have shown you the “Beat It” video. Good. I don’t want to have to disown my little brothers.

Finally, I came to a stop. Josh plowed into me from behind. I had just rounded the black pine, my field of vision bleary from yet another darkness-to-light transition as the fire came into view.

Was that when I saw the Queen of England sitting in Sonia’s spot by the fire? No. No, I don’t think Her Highness was there yet. I think what had caused me to stop on this particular revolution was the sound. Or rather, the complete lack thereof.

Silence. Too silent. The cackling of the nearby fire was gone. There was no crunching of footsteps or rustling of twigs in the breeze. A silent that shouldn’t exist in a library, much less outside in the woods. I don’t even think Josh stumbling into my backside registered a single decibel. It was as if the world had put those noise-cancelling headphones on, then forgot to push “play.”

Until the scream. AHHHHHHH!

A cry. A wail. A scream both natural and unnatural. Super-natural. Like a human wail belted an octave higher than Mariah Carey’s falsetto. Like an animal trying on its human vocals for the first time. The ghost of a cat. The wraith of a raccoon. The role of a human baby’s first wail will be played in tonight’s performance by a demon from Hell.

I ran. Straight forward or left of right, I couldn’t tell you. I just ran. Past the clearing and the fire and the four empty chair, like the points of a compass, containing neither me, nor David, nor Josh, nor Sonia. Nor the Queen of England. Into the forest and the trees and the underbrush and the darkness. Somehow I avoided them all, a pinball maneuvering between every flipper in sight. Unclear about direction or destination, I just ran. Like a blind man racing against Usain Bolt.

Josh was behind me. I could feel his breathing. I could hear his grunting. I could smell his breath on my legs, then my back, then my neck and the top of my head. His hot, humid breath. A mussy, Mississippi windstorm. A slobbering, guttural growl as Josh finally overtook me.

It wasn’t Josh.

I tripped and I pitched, sprawled through the forest, sprawled through the trees, came skidding to a stop on the undergrowth. A soft, mossy landing. A pillow that cushioned me from the landing I deserved. I sent a silent thanks up to whatever spritely spirit had saved me from scratches and worse.

But as the snarls and the groans and the slobbers and the heat pressed down upon my prone form, I wondered if I was being kept whole for a more nefarious reason. A fly taking a well-deserved rest in a comfortable silken web.

AWWWOOOOOOOO!!

The sound was more distinct this time. Closer. So very, very close. Not a wail or a cry, but a call. A triumphant trumpet of victory.

I couldn’t turn around to look. I mustn’t. And yet a voice told me that I must. A tiny voice. Feminine, discreet. Either in my ear or in my head. A heart of resolve. Turn around, it was saying. See what you must see. A defendant must face his accuser. A fly must look into the maw of its spider.

The hairy, crushing, snapping, poisonous mandible of the spider.

The hairy, crushing, snapping, bloody muzzle of a creature most foul.

I’d like to say it was a werewolf. I’d like to say it was a giant rat. I’d like to say it was a rabid wombat. It was all of those things and none of them, so all I can say is what I saw bending over me from its nine-foot height.

Sharp teeth, ragged teeth. Not the precise canines of a predator, but the mangled maw of a scavenger instead. Rat’s teeth dripping with fresh blood that glistened in the near-darkness. The snout above the snarl was rounded, like a marsupial instead of a rodent. But not one of those cute marsupials, like a panda or a wallaby. One of those nasty-looking ones. A snub-nosed opossum. A hairy-nosed wombat. The flat, pale triangle of a nose at the tip of the snout curled up to smell my delicious fear and despair.

The eyes were coal black orbs. No iris, no cornea. One hundred percent pupil, an endless pit into the depths of a scorched soul. Black like soot, the aftermath of a forest fire. The surest sign nature has to tell us of swallowed-up lives.

I tore my eyes away from the slathering face only to be mesmerized anew by its legs. Human legs. Hairier than a human, lankier than a human, but the unmistakable bipedal structure and gait of an upper primate. Human thighs. Human calves.

Human legs in camouflage cargo shorts. And black, size-eight Converse tennis shoes.

The creature was David!

“Hey, Buddy,” I said, trying to crab-walk backward, but finding no grip in the moist, silky moss. A fly caught in the Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

“Hey, sorry I took the last hot dog last night, David.”

The monster snarled.

“I promise I’ll get up early tomorrow and percolate some fresh coffee for you.”

It growled.

“I take it back. You’re right. Reese’s make much better s’mores than Hershey’s.”

David opened its mouth wide. It descended toward its prey. Me. Hot saliva scorched my exposed neck.

“You stop that, David.” A high-pitched, high-classed voice rang out. Melodic. Regal. Royal. Large and in charge.

I looked up, and who did I see, hovering above the imposing nine-foot figure of the WereWomRat, shining in the moonlight like the crown jewels herself? Do you know who? No, it wasn’t the Queen of England. It was…

Sonia! Tiny, diminutive Sonia. Spritely little Sonia, towering ten feet in the air.

But not towering. She was hovering. She had wings! Honest-to-goodness wings. A double layer on both sides, strutting out to form a couple of upper-case B’s bordering her body. A body which, if you can believe it, was even smaller than it had been when she had her feet on the ground.

“Now, David, this is not a proper way to greet our host.”

AWWWWWWW!!! The WereDavid screamed. It was not a cry of hunger, or triumph, or even anger. It was a cry of frustration. A wail of disappointment. A child asking for just one more episode of “Dora the Explorer.” But Mommmmeeeee….

“I don’t want to hear it,” Sonia piped. “It might very well be a full moon, but it’s also time for tea. And if you do not come back to the safety of the roost soon, I cannot account for how the Troll might respond to your dalliance.”

A glow, which I had never really realized was always a part of Sonia, grew in luminosity until it was unavoidable. From the cherubic red cheeks that I knew well to the comforting warmth of a sunset over a Hawaiian sea. Then, before my very eyes, the sunset became a sunrise. Then midday. A dazzling sheen of explosive yellows and oranges and whites, with the popping brightness of twenty stars’ luminosity. The glow erupted from the Pixie Queen, who I could swear now had a perfectly apt wand with a, wouldn’t you know it, star-shaped business-end in her hand, right before everything in my sight disappeared into the bright.

She said, or rather sang, something in some long-forgotten tongue. It might have been an “abra cadabra,” or a “ziggity zaggity,” or maybe even a “slainte chugat!” I couldn’t have told you then and I can’t tell you now. Because as the world got brighter, as Sonia’s voice got louder, my consciousness grew dimmer.

And then I was out.

I don’t know how long I was out. It could have been five minutes or five hours or five seconds. The next thing I knew, someone was shaking me awake. The hulking (trolling?) form of my good-friend Josh knelt beside me as I opened my eyes on a bed of green grass. Not a silky trap of moss, just a comfortable grassy mattress.

“You okay, guy?” Josh asked.

I tried to nod through a tight head. I tried to say yes through a mouth full of marbled cotton. Both attempts failed.

Josh lifted me up with a strength that shouldn’t exist in any human being and escorted me back to the campfire. I don’t know how I moved. I merely slumbered on, like the zombie that was missing from this story of the mystical.

When we made it back to the opening, who do you think was there?

No, not her.

It was all of my friends. David, looking just as bald and svelte as he always was. And Sonia, sitting there talking a mile a minute as if nothing had ever happened. Nobody said anything about what had happened, or if anything had happened at all. We just sat down, like all of us are doing now, and busted out the marshmallows and sticks.

And like I said before, I have never seen Sonia since that day. I don’t really know why.

What’s that? Is my wife’s name Sonia? Yes. Your Aunt Sonia. Why do you ask?

Anyway…Here’s the part you’ve been waiting for…. Into the copse of trees and the campfire of friends walked who else but…

No, you know what? I don’t think that was the time we met the Queen of England. That must’ve been a different time. Sorry.

Who’s got some Reese’s?