As Walls Close In

We all feel trapped. Well, a lot of us do. No one wants to admit it, though. We walk around, erecting facades to cover our emptiness, hiding our fears and our doubts behind the guise of ego and masks of cool confidence.

The walls of our minds close in around our thoughts, and with each passing day, we attempt to ignore the fact that the weight of our circumstances and the crushing pressure of everyday life is slowly squeezing our souls from our bodies. We live with a constant feeling of paranoia, of depression, and claustrophobia.

What is it, though? Has every generation felt this way, or is this a unique phenomenon among us today? Are we too weak to live? Are we too sheltered to exist? Have we been so diluted that the cold winds of reality are simply too much for us to bear? I don’t know, but I certainly hope not.

I can’t honestly say that is the whole truth. Perhaps there are those who are too weak, too vulnerable, to withstand the onslaught of each passing day; it’s not my place to judge, so I can’t in good conscience say that is the underlying issue.

Experts say that people with higher IQ scores experience higher suicide rates, more frequent bouts with depression, and more reported cases of mental health issues. far be it from me to say that we are a generation of geniuses, but I do believe intelligence, or at least awareness, is a part of the problem.

We are smart enough to see that the game is rigged. We are told that we have potential, that we have the power to change the way things are, and yet we are never told how to unlock that potential and enact that change. We are either just too stupid or too uninformed to do anything. Our hands are tied, and we are trapped.

We are faced with global problems that are seemingly insurmountable. We are asked social questions that seem to have no satisfactory answers available to us. Our relationships with the world and with each other are daunting enough, but on top of it all, we have our personal worries and woes. We still have bills to pay, we still have responsibilities, and we have to address them with diseased minds.

Our thoughts never sleep, and even in our dreams, we are haunted by the demons we bury deep down inside. We recognize that we are cogs in a broken machine, and despite our desire to fix it, we have no idea how.

So, what then? Do we continue on, seething and imploding, trying to find our way in the dark? In a word? Yes.

I’m not one to give a Braveheart-esque speech, so I won’t try. I won’t try to rally your spirits, or lift you up. I don’t have the answers. I am just as blind as everyone else; possibly more so. I am shadowed by my mental monsters just as much as you.

What I will say is I cannot stand to live in a world where I don’t have a card to play. I cannot accept the possibility that there is no hope, that there isn’t a chance that things will get better.

I can put my bitterness to bed, but my anger…that, I can use. Even when my soul is on its knees, the fight inside me refuses to die. So, for now, I snarl in the face of my struggles, and I use my weaknesses as strengths. I take my next step, and the one after that, and every one until my heart gives out, knowing that at some point, something’s got to give. Sooner or later, I’ll find my moment. Eventually, the monster will blink, and that is when I’ll strike.

Perhaps I am delusional. Perhaps I hide my reality within the tapestry of elegant words; minimizing my worries by viewing them through the lens of metaphor and analogy. If that is the case, so be it. Whatever it takes to get me up every day is worth it. At some point, I will be able to put these words to bed; I’ll be able to put down my crutch and live in a better reality than the one I live in now. Until then, I fight. I struggle. I survive. Eventually, I will succeed. Eventually, I will be able to do more than simply survive; I will be able to live.

Drifter

As cheesy as it sounds, I do remember the day she left for Santa Monica. She packed up her white 1989 sand-cruiser Jeep and headed off to California. It was one of the hardest goodbyes I ever had to make. Vanessa and I were close to say the least. From the day we met we were close. I also knew from the day I met her that she was a runner, and one day she would disappear into the sunset.

Until the day she left for Cali, she had always come back to me, though. I remember one time, we were out on the town, and a guy pulled up on a pretty slick-looking crotch-rocket.

“Hey, baby, wanna ride? I’ll take you to places you’ve never been.”

Without any hesitation, she kissed me on the cheek and climbed on his bike. I stood there a little stunned, but I really shouldn’t have been. Vanessa was a wild spirit, and she could never resist an adventure. She rolled back into town and up to my doorstep two weeks later, wearing new clothes and carrying mementos from the trip in a small backpack.

I happened to be outside when a black ’67 Chevelle pulled up and she climbed out. She handed the driver a twenty-dollar bill, closed the door and came running up to me.

“Alex! I have so much to tell you! I had such a good time…”

I smiled, and again, she kissed my cheek as she walked passed me. She stayed with me for a few days, unloading stories every night while I made dinner, telling me of her time in Utah, or the night she spent in Fargo, among other things. I was glad she was home, but there was a part of me that began waiting for the next time she would drop out of my life and disappear.

She was untamable; I always called her my mustang. She was wild and free, never one to be held in one place or told what to do. She just couldn’t be contained. It was one of the many things that I loved about her. Not that I could tell her that; as soon as somebody told her how much she meant to them, she ran. She was young and refused to be committed or tied down; she needed her freedom.

So I learned to keep my mouth closed, and hoped that she simply understood why I cared about her. I think she did; she would always come back to me, excited to tell me about everything that was going on, and all the crazy things she had done.

I knew I was one of the few solid things she had in her life. No matter where she went, how long she was gone, or what she did, I was always there for her when she came back. I’d like to think I taught her to trust again. She had been through quite a bit by the time we met, and there were nights she spent curled up in my arms, just telling me all the things she was too afraid to tell anyone else. It was never romantic, per say; we were just close. She was easy to love, in a number of ways.

She taught me a lot as well. The biggest thing I learned from Vanessa was never to hold on too tightly. People come and go, and if you cling too tightly to them, it only hurts that much more when they go. She was in and out of my life so much it seemed like she was intentionally teaching me that lesson. Always on the go. She took me with her once or twice, but usually I got a peck on the cheek to let me know she would be ok, and then she was on her way.

Her thirst for adventure took her some incredible places. She called me one day, bursting to tell me that she was taking an impromptu trip to Spain.  One of her work friends had two plane tickets to Madrid and she had one to spare. So Vanessa jumped on the opportunity. She was gone for two months. She called me once a week to let me know she was still alive, intentionally calling when I couldn’t pick up the phone. I think she was afraid talking to me would make her want to come home. I’d never ask her to choke off her wanderlust, but she knew I missed her. Like I said, we were close.

She did that sort of thing every few months. She would take off, usually with a friend or two, occasionally by herself or with a stranger, and just travel. New York, Portland, New Orleans, Vancouver…she went all over. She always came back, filled to the brim with excitement and love of life. As much as I wanted her to stay, that unbridled side of her was what made her so wonderful. She was unlike anyone else. She went where she wanted, lived life the way that she wanted, and when she missed home or she needed a break, she came back. I had to take her as she was, because asking her to stay was like asking a bird not to sing: not only is it impossible, but that part of her was one of the most beautiful things about her.

Then came the day she told me she was leaving.

“I’m going to California.”

“Oh, that sounds like fun. For how long?”

“Alex…I’m not coming back.”

“Like, ever? Will you at least come visit?”

“I’d like to say I will keep in touch, and I’ll visit you, but realistically, I probably won’t. It’s just easier for me that way. I might not even tell you when I leave. I hate goodbyes, I can’t handle distance…it’s just better this way, trust me.”

“No. I can let you go, but you have to say goodbye. You can’t just leave; that ain’t right.”

“LET me go? Who do you think you’re talking to? I do whatever I damn well please, and you don’t LET or MAKE me do anything.”

“I know…I’m sorry. That’s not exactly what I meant.”

I sighed real deep as I thought about the words I wanted to use. I had to be real delicate, or this might be our last conversation.

“Look…you’re important to me. If the day you leave is the last time I ever see you, I want it to be a good memory. I want to be able to look back and be happy with the way we parted ways. It’s important to me. If all I have of you is my memories, I want to be able to cherish them.”

She took a puff off her cigarette as she looked absent-mindedly into the trees.

“Alright. I can understand that. It’s kind of a girly statement, though.”

We laughed, and she continued, “It is! You’re over there baring your feelings, putting everything on the table, and I’m stoic and steely. I am out-manning you right now.”

I smiled and poked her in the ribs. “Fair enough. I’ll close the lid on the emotions box if you promise to let me say goodbye.”

“Deal.”

A few months went by, and she stayed in town, not really going anywhere, hanging out at my place from time to time. We continued to partake in our personal traditions, eating a pint of ice cream together on movie nights, or pitching tents in my back yard and making camp-fires. The thought that she was leaving was always on my mind, but I was able to keep it a distant thought, focusing on the day I was living in, instead of the day that was coming.

That day did eventually come, though. There was no postponing it or pretending it didn’t arrive. Vanessa had stayed over at my place the night before, having packed up her Jeep already, and we spent one last night watching movies, playing board games, and talking about every topic under the sun. In the morning, she fussed over her hair in the bathroom as I double and triple checked that the Jeep was in good shape.

Finally, she was ready. She came outside, and I thought to myself that there was no better image to remember her by. The 10am sun hit her hair just right, and her blue eyes sparkled with the excitement of a new adventure. She walked over to me, wrapped her arms around my neck, and pulled me in close. We stood like that in my driveway for a few minutes, and I mustered up the courage to speak.

“Take care of yourself, Road Warrior. And if you ever find yourself in this neck of the woods again, feel free to hit me up or just drop by. You know I’m always here.”

She smiled, but I could see the sadness in her eyes. This was somewhat difficult for her as well. She couldn’t say anything, but she looked at me, pressed her lips together, and shook her head.

As she started to pull away, I held on for a second, and then said, “Love you, kid…”

She smiled that same sad smile, kissed me on the cheek one last time, and said, almost in a whisper, “I know.”

Then she climbed into that sand-racer, turned on her music, and waved as she pulled out of my driveway. I waved back, and watched her drive away until I couldn’t see her anymore. I stood there, facing the street, heavy-hearted, thinking about the wild mustang that had just left my life.

Suddenly, a calming thought overcame all others in my mind: the reason she had always come back before became very clear to me.  I grinned to myself as I turned to go back inside the house. She’ll be back…eventually.

The Odd Love Life of Christopher D. Collins

After the Bachelor High Court made their ruling, life went on. Jonny went back to Michigan, Jeremy went back to…whatever it was that Jeremy did, and Collins and Schmidty went back to trying to keep themselves entertained. Now that his life was more less back on track, Collins started thinking about his future. He realized that he couldn’t work at the college forever, or he was going to turn into that weird old guy who couldn’t let go of his alma mater (the security department already had a guy like that; truth be told, he was actually pretty cool, but I stray from my point.)

So Collins began looking at various colleges where he could finish his degree. He couldn’t go back to the college he had been attending because he couldn’t afford to re-enroll. He started looking at other schools, first local, and then out of state. Everything he looked at was out of his price range except for Jon’s school in Michigan. When he called them, they said he would be eligible for a grant called the “Orphaned Child College Fund.” It was exactly what it sounded like: people who have lost one or both of their parents can get help from the government to pay for college without taking out a major loan.

This sounded perfect to Collins, so he scheduled a meeting with Robo-Admissions and drove up there. It was a short trip, one day up and one day back, but Collins wanted to be sure he got all his financials worked out before he uprooted and moved to Michigan. On the way up, Collins called Jonny and told him what was going on.

“Hey, buddy,” he said when Jon picked up the phone. “I’m heading up to talk to Robo-Admissions about maybe finishing my degree up there. She said I’m eligible for some orphan grant since my dad passed away.”

“That’s cool. We need to come up with a better name for it though. How about the Batman grant?”

“Ok…why?”

“Think about it: your father is dead, and you seek training to bring justice to the world. You’re Batman.”

“I suppose that’s one way to put it, and it makes it sound a lot cooler than it really is. I like it. Good thinking, Jonny”

“Hey, making fun of awkward and depressing situations is my favorite hobby. That, and slapping you on the back of the head, although you could make the case that one is an extension of the other.”

Collins laughed. “I would argue, but resistance is futile.”

The rest of the ride was quite uneventful. When Collins arrived, he had his meeting with Robo-Admissions, where she told him that he was no longer eligible for the Batman grant because he was too old. When he asked how he was eligible for it three days prior and not now, she simply shrugged and apologized.

Feeling somewhat down, Collins grabbed dinner that night with Jon. He then crashed on Jonny’s couch until morning and returned home. Deciding that he was going to be working for campus security for a while, he started investing in his personal life again. He started going out on the weekends, going on dates, and getting back into “the game,” as it were.

Now, Collins had never been good at the dating game, but after having been on-again, off-again with The Troll for a couple of years, his already poor dating skills were quite rusty. He also had a habit of attracting a very specific type of woman, namely, the clinically insane. There were very few women Collins dated who weren’t dangerously crazy. This is nothing against women in general, since there are plenty of pretty, well-adjusted women out there. Collins just happened to be a crazy magnet.

The first clue Collins had that he wasn’t any good at dating was when he went out for coffee with Mail Man’s Daughter. Collins worked up the courage to ask her out, they went out for a late morning cup of coffee, and had a good time. At the end, Collins remarked that next time, he would take her on a “real date.” She spit out the last of her coffee and told him that she had no idea they were on a date in the first place.

The second girl, we’ll call her McDonald’s In the Rain, made things uncomfortable for a different reason. Collins made sure she knew they were going on a date, and she told him she would meet him at his apartment the night of the date. When she arrived, she stood outside in the rain and said, “Chris, I’ve decided I don’t want to go on a date with you, but I still want you to buy me dinner.”

Collins was so shocked, that he stuttered for a second and replied, “Um, err, ok…”

Now, Collins wasn’t a complete idiot; he didn’t take her to a five star restaurant. They got in his car and went to the McDonald’s drive through. If he was being forced to pay for his anti-date’s dinner, he was spending the least amount of money possible. So they drove back to his apartment and ate their food in the parking lot, she got out of his car without saying goodbye, and went home.

Collins decided that perhaps he would have better luck picking up dates at bars. The first girl he tried to woo was “Chewbacca.” She was big, hairy, and she only spoke in deep, guttural grunts and noises.

Back at the bar…

“Jonny, that is not at all what she was like. She wasn’t the thinnest girl in the world, but she wasn’t hairy or incapable of speaking English.”

“Shut up, I’m telling the story. In my head, I always imagined her as a tall, hairy, overweight woman who spoke like Chewbacca. That’s why we called her that in the first place.”

“Seriously though, you make it sound like I had a date with a giant bear-man. If you’re going to tell the story, at least be reasonable.”

The waitress, who had gotten off shift and was sitting at the table with the guys now, spoke up. “I kind of like the way Jon tells it. It’s funnier that way.”

“He never met the girl though; and on top of that, I bet he’s got some whale of a tale to tell about me getting hitched to her in Vegas, too.”

“No, the only part of the story left up to my imagination is her description, although that would make for a pretty funny story,” Jon quipped. “Now that you have unsuccessfully defended your manhood to Sally the Waitress, may I continue?”

Collins took a big gulp of his beer before replying with, “Yes, but I’m seriously regretting giving you speaking privileges at my wedding.”

Ok, where were we? Ah yes: Chewbacca…

Now, Chewbacca was this big, hairy oaf who frequented this country bar Collins went to now and then with his buddy Eric. Eric was a Wisconsin boy who was fond of country music and whiskey, and since he was usually paying for the beer, Collins tagged along now and then when he went out. One night, Collins had just enough alcohol in his system to be stupid, but not enough to start dancing. We’ll say he was “buzzed.” He found his way out to the smoking deck, where he bumped into a group of three women who were celebrating a birthday. They asked Collins for a lighter, and since alcohol made Collins an extra friendly person, they struck up a conversation.

Collins especially hit it off with Chewbacca and the two wound up talking and drinking together until bar closed. At that point, Collins realized that Eric had left without him, leaving him without a ride home. Chewbacca hadn’t had very much to drink, and had spent most of the night drinking water since she was the DD for her friends. She offered to give Collins a ride home, and being in the position he was in, he agreed.

She dropped off all her friends first, and finally it was just the two of them in the car. About halfway to Collins’ place, they pulled over and got some food, and they wound up eating in the parking lot and talking for another hour or so. After the meal, they made their way back onto the road, and by now, Collins was beginning to sober up a bit. With some of his mental faculties returning, he started to worry that this woman was getting the wrong signals from him; he was just friendly, he wasn’t trying to hook up with her or anything. Nevertheless, she seemed very interested in him.

Upon pulling up to the apartment, Chewbacca put the car in park and turned to Collins with a gleam in her eye. She started talking very slow and provocatively, as she laid her hand on his thigh. In later years, Collins could never remember what she said to him that night, as he was much more concerned with monitoring the increasingly-uncomfortable placement of her hand. As she spoke, she ran her hand up his thigh, over his stomach and chest and up to his shoulders. Suddenly, she gripped the back of his neck like a vice and pulled him in for a kiss.

It was the worst kiss of Collins’ entire life. The woman was a chain smoker, and he could taste every cigarette she had ever smoked as she stuck her tongue down his throat. She was also a surprisingly strong woman, as no matter how hard he fought to get away, he was unable to pull himself away from her. Finally, she released him, and he flew out of the car mumbling, “Gotta go, bye…” Collins never looked back as he ran to the door, his feet barely touching the ground, praying she wasn’t following him. Surprisingly, that did not dissuade Collins from trying to pick up dates at bars; he simply stopped going to that particular bar.

Seeing how Collins was unable to find a decent date on his own, Schmidty took pity on him and tried to help him out. One night, Collins, Schmidt, and Jeremy were all out at dinner together and their waitress happened to be quite attractive. This inspired the boys to talk to her at length every time she came to the table. After the meal, the guys walked outside, and suddenly Schmidty ran back inside the restaurant for several minutes. When he reemerged, he handed Collins a napkin and said, “You owe me one; call her.”

Collins waited a couple days, and then called her. She invited him out to have drinks that weekend, and since it was earlier in the evening (around 7), along with the fact that she never mentioned that there would be other people there, Collins thought it would be just the two of them. It was not. It turns out it was actually ladies’ night for her and her friends.

When he arrived at the bar, he saw The Waitress sitting at a table with three other girls and one guy. She saw him walk in and waved him over. Thinking that things couldn’t be too bad and that he would have a chance to ask her out alone, he proceeded to spend the evening with The Waitress and her four friends. When everyone got up to go home, she pulled him aside and said, “What did you think of my friend?”

“Um…which friend? I was really here because of you; I didn’t know there was going to be anyone else.”

“You’re funny; I meant the guy who was with us all night. He’s gay too, and I think you two should go out sometime.”

“What…you…hang on; you think I’m gay?”

“You mean you’re not?”

“Not by a longshot, sweetheart. What could possibly make you think I am gay?”

“I don’t know…you just seemed gay to me. I didn’t mean to offend you or anything. I thought it was kind of weird that your friend wanted my number for you. I could have sworn you were gay…so, not even a little bit? Because Paulie is a really sweet guy…”

“Yeah…I’m going to go home now.”

That was the first and last time he let Schmidty set him up with anyone.

After that, Collins tried the online dating thing for a while. He didn’t really have much success, until one girl started chatting him up. After a week or so, she gave him her number, and they talked back and forth for a week or so like that. Finally, Collins asked her out on a dinner date.

There was a small Italian restaurant downtown, and Collins suggested that they meet up there (she was a very modern woman and didn’t want to be picked up or shuttled around.) The place wasn’t too fancy, but they made good food and it was a quiet atmosphere. Collins waited outside for her to arrive, and when she did, they went in and got a table right away. They sat down, ordered drinks, and began to talk. After getting their drinks delivered, they talked for a few more minutes while they decided what they were going to eat. They had been in the restaurant for about fifteen minutes, when the girl abruptly stood up and walked out, never to be heard from again. It was quite a blow to Collins’ self-confidence, but it gave the rest of the guys an excellent punch line for years to come.

The Bachelor High Court is Now in Session

Previously on “I Don’t Do Weddings,” Collins’ dad died, sad stuff happened, and it was all kind of a bummer. But that’s all over now, so let’s get back to the good stuff…

The Troll returned to Collins’ life, and given the circumstances, one can somewhat understand why he began talking to her again. He needed something to distract him from what he was going through, and she reappeared at just the right time. This does not make it any less of a horrible decision, but his reasoning behind it can be understood.

After a few weeks, Collins found himself entwined in a relationship with this evil woman…again. He moved back in with her, against the advice of all his friends and family, and started pouring all his time and energy into pleasing the one person in his life who was trying to take advantage of him. He was being quite a dumbass.

Over the next two months, he lost contact with everyone except for Schmidty. He massively violated the Bachelor Code of Ethics, and thus, his friends pretty much gave up on him for a while. When he finally broke up with The Troll for good, he came crawling back to Schmidty and Jeremy’s house for forgiveness.

Upon returning, his friends decided that his stupidity had reached such a level that drastic measures must be taken to ensure that he learned his lesson. The Bachelor High Court was called to meeting, and Collins’ sentencing commenced.

The Bachelor High Court was a judgment system set up by the guys during their college days. It consisted of Collins, Schmidty, Jeremy, and Jonny. They decided as a group that if any of them did anything that drastically affected the group as a whole, they would gather together and decide on a course of action. To this day, it has only been called to meeting two other times. It is a very sacred court, and the decisions made while it was in session were regarded as law by those involved.

In this particular case, Jonny took a few days off work and drove down from Michigan to participate. Everyone gathered in Schmidty’s living room for the proceedings. The guys ordered pizza and opened a bottle of cinnamon whiskey (as was customary for the BHC), and began the hearing.

Jeremy started things off. “Collins, you have been called before the Bachelor High Court today to determine your penance before we allow you back into the brotherhood. You had been warned that this would happen if you ever got back together with The Troll, and now you stand here tonight to pay for your crimes.”

Collins nodded, and Jonny stepped in. “Collins, you were really kind of an *censored* to us over the last few months. We understand that your dad just died and all, but living with that bitch again was way over the line. We were all ready to end our friendships with you over this. Well, except Schmidty. He wanted to give you a chance, but me and Jeremy were ready to let you suffer the consequences of your actions. You ditched us, you quit talking to us, you wouldn’t listen to a word we would say, and you expected us to be ok with it all. You should count yourself lucky that we allowed this hearing at all, because we almost didn’t even want to let you back in.”

Schmidt spoke up at this point, saying, “You sabotaged every friendship you had, and we’re pretty pissed at you.”

Jeremy stood up from where he was sitting and said, “Alright, Collins, so you know the charges brought against you, correct?”

“Yes, I do.”

“And you vow to accept the ruling of the Court, however severe the punishment for your crimes?”

“Yes.”

“Ok. Go outside and have a cigarette; we’ll call you back in when we’re done.”

Collins went out back on the porch and did as he was told. After about ten minutes of deliberation, the guys all came outside, bearing grins, four shot glasses, and the whiskey.

While the other two chuckled to themselves, Jeremy gave Collins the ruling. “So, we talked about it, and we came up with a punishment: You were with The Troll for three months, so for the next three months we get to slap you in the back of the head as hard as we want whenever we want. Do you still accept the terms?”

Collins sighed and nodded. The other three laughed and then  Schmidty poured a shot for everyone. Jonny gave the toast. “In honor of the decision made by the Bachelor High Court, we drink.”

After a “hear, hear,” from everyone, they took their shots…and then they took turns smacking Collins on the back of the head with as much gusto as possible. Jeremy went first, knocking Collins’ hat off his head. Immediately after, Jonny took his turn, causing Collins to lose his sight for a second. As soon as he recovered from that, Schmidty hit him. That was the most painful hit Collins had ever taken (and he had been knocked across an intersection by a Corvette once).

Now, the porch was on the main level of the townhouse, but the place was built on a hill, so the porch was suspended a full story into the air. Collins was launched from where he stood, over the railing, and fell to the ground below. As he lay there moaning and coughing, Schmidty laughed, looked down at him and said, “Get up; we’re going to eat.”

The next three months were filled with violent blows to the back of the head, some so dramatic that Collins had nightmares about them. Jonny was allowed to get his licks in while he was in town, and then the punishment fell to Jeremy and Schmidty, who did their duty all-too-willingly. Collins learned his lesson, though. They definitely got their point across.

Bottle Rockets and Air Raids

It was all so surreal; he was physically there, but not…truly…there. He stared up at the night sky as the jets made another pass over the oil-soaked desert. Several miles ahead, fire spewed from the tops of the oil rigs, burning with a seemingly unquenchable rage. Concussive booms shook the ground; even the air around him seemed to tremble, and his ears buzzed and hummed with each blast. He slipped off his helmet and held it loosely in his hands, gazing up at the sky, completely lost in his thoughts. The explosions lit up the desert in fitful bursts, and it took him back…

He was seventeen, the summer after senior year in high school, and six months before he walked into the recruiter’s office and signed his name on the dotted line. To be even more specifically, it was approximately ten minutes after the fireworks show on the Fourth of July; well, the official fireworks show, at least. He grew up in a little corn town in the middle of nowhere; even the people who didn’t have actual fireworks had enough gasoline and gunpowder to keep themselves entertained.

He was walking down the middle of the street, just having a good time. His friends and family were all there, and the entire town was having a giant party. Granted, there were only about three hundred people in town, and most of them were related in some way or another, but it was about as big of a bash as you would get out there.

He was laughing and looking around, and suddenly a bottle rocket zinged past his ear. He turned around and swore.

“Dammit, Jimmy; watch where you’re aimin’ those things!” he yelled at his little brother.

Jimmy simply grinned and lit another, launching it straight at him. He ducked out of the way and Jimmy tossed several his direction.

“C’mon, Ben; have a little fun for once. Fight back.”

Ben smiled and ran over to the cardboard box that sat in the neighbor’s yard.

“I’ll do you one better,” he said as he reached inside and pulled out a Roman candle. Jimmy’s eyes went the size of dinner plates, and he turned and ran the other way down the street as Ben laughed and aimed at his brother.

After a few minutes, the sound of a four-wheeler could be heard rolling their direction. Through the smoke and haze, Ben could make out Rick and Dani barreling his direction. They stopped a few feet from him.

“Ben, we’re all set for the show. Zack has everything set up out by the barn.”

Ben grinned and took off down the road towards the Stockton’s barn. He and his friends had saved every extra penny they had made all through the month of June and had bought some heavy-grade fireworks of their own, and the time had come to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

When everyone had gathered at the barn, a countdown was had, and the explosions began. The first fuse was lit, and the rocket took off into the sky. It burst into a giant ball of blue and green high above them, and the boom nearly knocked them all to the ground. They laughed and cheered, as the next few were fired in similar fashion.

The last fuse was lit, and Zack ran. He slipped in the mud, and accidentally kicked the prop that held up the final rocket.

“Oh, shit!” he cried, as it fell over. Everyone waited for a second, holding their breath. The fuse died out, and nothing happened; maybe they got lucky and this one was a dud…

BOOM!

The firework screamed across the field and slammed right into the side of the barn, blowing open a hole the size of a car. Red siding and two-by-fours flew everywhere, and the entire field was suddenly engulfed in a giant cloud of thick smoke. The smell of sulfur filled the air, and everyone coughed and sputtered as the haze dissipated. They all stared intently at the barn, waiting for the air to clear so they could see the damage. Farmer Stockton was not going to be happy about this.

Suddenly, Rick stood up from where he was sitting and belted out a victory cry.

“WOOO-EEEE, THAT SOMBITCH PACKED A WALLOP!”

The small crowd of teenagers laughed and cheered again. It was Independence Day, after all; maybe they would get away with this one…

Ben was brought back to the present by Sgt. Reyes slapping him on the back of the head.

“Put your bucket back on, Mills!” he shouted.

Ben slapped his helmet back on his head, and Sgt. Reyes continued.

“Don’t you be day dreamin’ on me now, jarhead; the day ain’t over for us yet. The fun has just begun.”

Ben nodded sharply. He could feel the ache of this tour in his bones. It had been almost a year since he had been stateside. It wasn’t that he disliked what he did; he was proud to be in the military. The people back home bickered back and forth about whether or not they should be fighting any of these battles, but the fact of the matter was, they were here, and he felt responsible for these men. They were his closest friends. They had stared death in the face together on more than one occasion; there were plenty of guys (good men, every one of them) who weren’t going to get the chance to go home. Ben just wanted it all to be over.

He was tired; they all were. There was nothing but sand everywhere they looked. They were always on high alert, even in their sleep. They were all ready for this tour to end, and for everyone to go home to their families. Well, everyone who was left.

Ben shook his head and silently laughed to himself as he ran forward to join his battle brothers. All he wanted right now was to go home, crack open a cold beer, and watch a football game with his brother. The ironic thing was he knew that as soon as his ass hit the recliner, all he’d be able to think about was coming back.

But he couldn’t think about that now. They were here, and their lives were on the line. The same thought was milling anxiously around each of their heads: get through today. Get through right now. Nobody goes down, everybody goes home. Oo-rah.

Riot

From her balcony, she could see the entire downtown area. The sun had just gone down, and the streetlights three stories below were beginning to flicker and come to life. As they began to glow, they illuminated the streets, full of angry people wearing scarves and masks over their faces. they wanted justice, or at least they said they did; they wanted peace, or at least they claimed they did. From where she stood, it looked quite the opposite.

The mob below was yelling and shaking their fists, while the police stood in lines, blocking off the streets. She didn’t even know what they were rioting about this time. She thought back, trying to remember who shot who to start this whole mess. She shook her head. It should never have come to this.

The shouting in the streets intensified, and someone threw a bottle at the line of police. Immediately, things went from bad to full-on hellfire. Batons and tasers were brandished, and the mob rushed the police. Fighting broke out in a frenzy, and she sighed. Why did they always do this?

Why is it that humanity seems to be incapable of solving their issues peacefully, she thought to herself. Why must they always raise their fists and fight?

They say violence begets violence; it would stand to reason that peace would beget peace, then, right? Why then must war raise his ugly head and pit brother against brother? What is it about the human race that makes them act like this?

They have a terrifying ability to be peaceable creatures, and then suddenly flip a switch, and they become vicious animals. They can turn so quickly into a pack of rabid dogs.

They’re better than that. We’re so much better than this.

Burnt Pasta and Blackened Hearts

I had a mishap a few weeks ago. Yes, I realize I’m straying from my usual format to tell a boring real-life story, but bear with me for a minute. So, anyway, I was microwaving my dinner, some tortellini bathed in a delicious red sauce. I was really looking forward to it; I had made it the day before, and had been quite satisfied. Food excites me a little bit, so my spirits were high, and my hopes were higher…okay, so food excites me a lot.

But I digress. So I was reheating my food, when suddenly a heavy black smoke began pouring out of the microwave. I quickly removed it, only to find that the tupperware bowl had melted, and my food was completely ruined. I was more than a little upset; there may have been a moment where I was close to tears.

My food was FUBAR, and my trust of the microwave had been broken, so I settled for a peanut butter sandwich. Since then, I have been terrified of using the microwave. When I must employ its services, I watch my food like a hawk, removing it at even the slightest whisp of steam. I have been traumatized. I can’t put anything in the microwave without expecting it to burst into flames, destroying my food and the container it happens to be in.

Today, however, I stuck a bowl into the microwave, pumped in the heating time, and just…walked away. You know what? Nothing happened. Well, something happened; my food got warmed up, obviously, but it didn’t get burned to a crisp, the house didn’t catch on fire, and my soul wasn’t writhing in anguish over the loss of some good grub.

It’s funny how so often, we allow a solitary bad experience to dominate our thoughts, changing the way we live forever. We live our lives in constant fear, cranking up our own anxiety, wondering if “that thing” is going to happen again. And a lot of times, it’s something stupid. I’m not trying to discount the experience. When you pull that putrid black ball of plastic out of the microwave, it turns your stomach. What’s stupid about it is we let those single moments, those exceptions to the rule, dictate our thoughts and our actions. THAT is just plain dumb.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m going to throw something in the microwave just for the hell of it; you may now return to your regularly scheduled programming.