The Sloth: Part 1 of 4

“Psst. Hey, Tony.” Carter Wilkens said in a quiet, classroom voice. “Are you getting any of this?” Carter sat in the far-left corner of Mr. Chestnut’s ninth-grade history class. Standing at 6’3”, he was the tallest kid in his grade, and also the skinniest, by far. The top of his head could be seen from miles away, and he had a voice incapable of whispering.

“Man, shut-up. Are you trying to get us detention? You know I get one more and I can’t play this weekend.” Tony Atwell was the starting guard on Newville’s varsity basketball team: a feat no other ninth-grade student accomplished this year—not even his best friend, Carter, made the team (although, that’s because Carter was a tall bundle of skin and bones who would fall over if a light breeze tickled him). Tony was the exact opposite of Carter. Whereas Carter could be carried around by a single ant, Tony could stand his ground against most things. It would take the strength of a hurricane to knock him off balance. He was short and sturdy; with a physique well beyond his peers. And he made sure to show off his muscles—given to him by what had to be God, because he was doing nothing else to gain them—by wearing a tank top everyday. “Just,” he paused to look around the room and make sure no one was paying him any attention, ”just talk to me after class, alright?” he gave Carter a stern look to show he was serious. Tony was not one to mess around

“Yea, whatever—but I can’t take this teacher anymore, man! He doesn’t do squat, and I…”

“Excuse me, Mr. Wilkens! Is there something you’d like to share that’s more important than this video on how the early colonists planted seeds?” Mr. Chestnut, his chest puffed out and breathing heavy, waited for a response. He didn’t get one. “I didn’t think so! Now please, watch the film and try to learn something.” Mr. Chestnut was the ninth-grade history teacher; or, a-fat-tub-of-lard-who-sat-and-did-nothing-but-yell-and-eat-all-day, if you asked any of his students. He looked like his name: His skin was light brown and covered with hair like spider legs; on top his head—where hair should be—were a few strands of wet hair mushed to the right; his face was round and produced never-ending beads of sweat. His body was a run-down, bounce house, and his shirt, the size of a tent cover, hid all but a few chest hairs trying to escape the smell of two-day-old sweat. No one has ever seen the lower half of his body; which was concealed behind the desk he never left.

“I just can’t fail this class or…” Carter sighed and brought what he thought was a whisper a level softer, “or I have to repeat this class. We have to do something.”

Tony nodded in agreement, and the two friends went back to watching the worst video ever created: now you see, the seeds must be planted in moist ground or the lives of the colonists could be ruined.

“We have to do something.” Carter repeated into his notebook. And something, they would do.

The Perfect Day

I

It felt like months since the last time the sun was out. Of course, it has been out; but its been timid, and not very sure of itself; like a…no, I won’t go there. This morning, though, the sun was a powerful force, like a sun shining on—darn it!

Out of frustration, the writer puts his pencil down, takes a deep breath, holds it in, coughs, coughs again, thinks about how he used to be able to hold his breath for almost two minutes, picks up his pencil, and starts again.

This morning, though, the sun was a powerful force. It was as if the sun knew our plans needed its bright glow. She woke up first, as she always does, and my eyes played follow the leader to hers. “Happy birthday!” I said, as I reached over to the bedside table to feel for my glasses.

“Thanks hunny.” she said with a smile that turned to a yawn; while squeezing my right hand like a gentle, baby python.

When my left hand finally found my sight—thank goodness for glasses—I was able to take in this perfect morning: Her hair was in a bun that swirled like a chocolate-vanilla-twist cone, and the sun shone at the top like sprinkles. Her eyes were emerald green with hints of ocean blue and sunflower yellow; her lips pressed together in perfect harmony, with an inviting lure, and a smile that created dimples so pure. And underneath the blue blanket, her body took on the form of a mermaid, showing off her captivating curves.—oh, and the room looked nice, too.

Not able to resist, I rolled over on my side, squeezed her mermaid-like body with my string-bean arms, and began to sing: “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you….” Midway through the song she joined in, and I couldn’t help but smile wide. Two minutes into the day, I thought, and already it’s the best birthday ever. “So, birthday girl. How would you like to start off your morning?” I asked.

“Um, well…”—she tapped her fingers to her lips as if she were in deep thought—”perhaps, maybe some cereal.” she said in a silly but cute voice that always made me smile.

“Absolutely! For you—anything.” I gave the back of her forehead a kiss, peeled off the blanket, and took off for the kitchen to make her a bowl of my famous cereal. The sun illuminated our four-room loft, and by the time I got to the kitchen I was wide awake. “What do you want to do today, Chel? I asked while cleaning up droplets of spilled milk with my fingers.

“I believe that maybe,” she was using the cute voice again, “we should go kayaking.”

“That sounds perfect!” I handed her the bowl of cereal, picked up her new scarf she opened the night before, and waved it around like a ribbon dancer.

“Go get ready, goof.” She was shooing me away with a smirk.

Not wanting to ruin this day with my amatuer dance moves, I obliged, but not before I did one more shake with my hips.

This day is perfect, I thought.

II

“I’ll grab the starburd side of the canoe!” I sad in a pirate’s voice.

“It’s a kayak.” she said with a laugh; knowing darn well that starburd isn’t a thing.

We managed to get the first kayak on top the van within minutes, but the second was a nightmare, and we weren’t exactly kayak experts or canoe experts or loading them on to cars experts; we were just two love birds trying to kayak on her birthday. “Alright, you ready to lift?” I asked.

“Oh—yeah!” she said with the enthusiasm of a high-school cheerleader. We gave each other a look of confidence; then she gave me a head nod like a pitcher showing the catcher she’s ready, and we lifted. We hoisted the miniature boat high above our shoulders, too high above our shoulders, I thought. This is too high, I repeated in my head. The kayak began to wobble from side-to-side, the wind picked up, and decided to pick the kayak up from our hands and toss it to the side like a rag doll. We gave each other a glance of disbelief; which turned into a look of annoyance, because we were still miles from any source of water. We stood there in our disbelief for a few seconds, until she began to laugh. Ah, her laugh: it’s a laugh that can change my mood in an instant. Someone could throw garbage in my face and call me a cupcake, and I still wouldn’t mind, so long as she were laughing (which if that happened, she would laugh).

Two hours went by before we had the kayaks strapped to the van—but it didn’t matter. We were proud of our heroic work, the sun was in full-force, and we were ready to adventure to a place we had never been before. I wonder if back in the day they could travel wherever they pleased? thought I. You know, with no GPS and all. I’ll have to look that up on my phone later.

So, there we were: you and I, and a van with two kayaks on top that looked like mismatched puzzle pieces. She turned on the ignition, put her small-boned foot on the gas, and away we—rat-tat-tat-tat-tat! The kayaks were pounding the roof like a jackhammer in New York City; and the faster she went, the louder they got. She glanced over at me, and asked over the noise: “IS THIS ALRIGHT?” She was so perfect, I thought. Always asking if I was alright. There was a brief pause, and instead of speaking, I just gave my incredible wife a smile and a nod. She kept driving, and I kept staring at her driving.

This day is perfect, I thought.

III

We arrived at our spontaneous kayak spot a little after an hour of listening to sounds-of-a-kayak banging-on-the-roof-of-a-van, by two kayaks: a lovely song; I recommend anyone who loves heavy metal to give it a listen. We parked on an off-road patch of dirt, right next to our lake for the afternoon. We both got out of the car. She took in the view of the lake; while I took in the view of her standing by the lake. The lake was in somewhat of a secluded area, off to the side of a back road. It was surrounded by paper-birch trees that were quite common in the north regions. There was a small, dirt shore that held our canoes—I mean kayaks—in place. About a football field away (which is the only measurement a football player knows), was a small island that held little life: just a bent over tree that seemed to be giving up, or maybe praying; and a few plants that were holding on to its last leaf—but the water surrounding it seemed full of life.

Our canoes were packed with drinking water and Chex Mix. You know—the essentials.

“Here, let me help you in.” I said, as I offered her my hand for balance.

She took my hand, and with it, I l helped guide her to her comfy bucket-seat inside the kayak. Her squeezing my hand, trusting me to care for her, filled my heart with love. “I love you.” I said.

“I love you more.” said she back to me. “Now come on; let’s go, slowpoke.” And she pushed herself off the tiny shore and into shiny, dark-blue water that looked like the hint of navy blue in her eyes. Doing my best impression of a trapeze artist, I balanced my weight step-by-step, as I settled into my kayak. I pushed off the shore like she did seconds before, and into the water that was now ours for the moment.

She kept her kayak a few feet ahead of mine. And I kept mine a few feet behind her. It was perfect this way. She, got to take in a nature that she loves so much; and I…well, I got a chance to watch my wife in all her beauty. With the sun shining down on her like she was a star on Broadway; and her audience was the world; and the world slowed down so they could watch with me; and time seemed to pause so her and I could take in every moment.

She is perfect, I thought, she is just perfect.

Restless Mind

Restless Mind

The voice grew loud…then louder! My mind was a storm—and not a quiet storm; it was more a tornado—F5. It made me insane. I was insane, I suppose. But I don’t see myself insane. It is they that label me insane. They call me bad…evil, no good, corrupt—a monster! Of course, they don’t say it to my face. No one ever does. But I hear them from afar. I see them. I see their voiceless lips vibrating up and down, down and up. I can read them you know? Oh, yes, it’s true. I read those deceitful lips and they bash me with every wor—Oh, and their eyes! Don’t get me started on their eyes. They stare at me like a painting. Raunchy, rabid eyes! And I’m insane? Ha! I laugh at that.

Well, you might be a little.

Shut–up! Shut–up! I am charming: my smile is wide, and they create a ‘t’ at the tops of my cheek, capturing every soul I encounter. Oh, and my appearance! You’ve never seen so much…bravado. Yes, that’s the word. For I—am impressive! Am I not? Well, I am things, but insane I am not! You see that, no? I’m sure you do. I will show you things that are insane—then, yes then—you will see that I am quite sound. You will see. Soon.

It is they who are insane! They eye me everywhere I walk; and glare like a hawk whenever I sit, watching my every twitch like I’m some…some—monster!

But what if it’s true? What if you are a monster?

I’m not! Shut–up, I say! But all this I told you—though I haven’t told you the worst of it all. The worst of it all…is him! He lets it all happen. He sees it all happen. He sees it all; he hears it all—the staring, the laughing, the mocking, the names! —Oh, the names! And he does nothing but ignore it. Everyday! Every…single…day! He sits back in his chair, looks out at his precious pupils, and smiles. Oh, that smile! It’s repulsive!—It’s revolting! It’s, It’s…crooked! Yes, crooked.

He makes you insane. He is insane. And it gets to you.

I am not insane! But yes, maybe, if he were gone, they would see I am sane. They would all see it!

Show them! Show them all!

I will. Yes, I will. And I shall!

I’ve watched for months now; watched with an attentive eye: I’ve seen everything I need to. Ah, let me explain to you my plan. It’s genius! Only a genius—No! Only I—could create a plan as brilliant as this. Listen close.

I will store my “insanity” in my bag. I will hold my bag as I always do when riding the bus. It will be no different, just heavier. No one will suspect a thing. It’s funny; they say I’m insane, yet they never suspect anything bad will ever happen to them. Everything is good and great. That is not insane? And I’m insane. Ha! Even if they do suspect me, they will never say a word. Then they will sound mad, and they don’t want that.

From the bus, I will carry on as I always do: silent and methodical. They will stare—they always do. But I will carry on without a care. I will be all business.

When I get to the classroom, I will sit where I always do: front-and-center. Perfect spot for this, I think. Then, and—oh how this excites me! Then, I will wait ‘till all eyes are on him. I want them all to see. And when his body is turned away—no…when he is facing me. Yes! I want to see his smile turned upside down. I want it gone like mine. He took it away from me! And now I will take away his. I will wait ‘till he faces me; I will wait for that smile—that crooked smile—and I will make it disappear like magic.

That is my plan. See; how I can be insane? Every detail is perfectly planned. Insane? No, no—he, and they, are insane. But soon, tomorrow, in fact, I will show who is what.

It’s time! I get on the bus. I get off the bus. I walk silent and methodical. I sit front-and-center, and I wait. Ah, here it is! Time for my genius of a plan to come to fruition. Insane? I’ll show you!

Do it! What are you waiting for?

I will, I will! Patience. Yes—here’s the smile, and….

“Excuse me?”

I hear a voice, but it’s not my mind speaking. It’s a girl’s voice. A real voice…talking. To me?

“Excuse me?”

Yes, she talks to me. But why?

“Yes?” I say.

“Is there a chance that you’d help me with this english work?”

“Um, Me? Do you have the right guy?”

She laughed. “Yes, of course, silly. I am looking at you, aren’t I?”

“Yes, it’s just…”

“It’s okay.” she said after a small pause. “So, what do you think? Study at lunch? Oh, I’m Lisa, by the way!”

“I’m Edgar. And yea…um…sure. I’ll meet you at lunch, I guess.”

She was so stunning. And so sweet—and her smile was honest and kind. It was now silent. It was a spectacular silence. And oh, how I felt and feel. She sees me. She sees me as someone to talk to. She sees me as a person—not a label. She made me feel…normal!

I am normal…like I have been explaining to you this whole time.

What Brought Us Here

pexels-photo-775037.jpeg

I

Frankie took a deep breath as he inhaled the last bit of his cigarette. He bent his head back, gazed out at the stars above, and exhaled until his throat produced a cough like thunder, forcing him to hunch over and take in the view of the steep drop just a few feet in front of his dirt-covered sneakers. He flicked what was left of the cigarette over the edge, and watched as the light flickered until the night sky performed its magic and made it disappear.

Frankie shuffled forward another foot, and while trying to catch his breath, he took in the view of the city lights below him. The same city lights he helped design some forty-years ago, when he was an enthusiastic, Civil Engineer. He remembered how happy he had been the day he got that job; and how it brought him even more joy when he told his wife, Pam.

His memories were now a stream flowing from his head to his heart. He thought of Pam on their wedding day, twirling about in her pure-white dress. He thought of their only child, Frankie Jr., and how he looked just like Pam: green eyes that looked like the Earth from far away; fine, wavy hair that waved in the wind; and a smile that couldn’t lie if it wanted to. “Why did you take them, God!” he screamed toward the sky. The sky didn’t answer. “Why would you leave me all alone! They didn’t deserve to die!”—he was interrupted by his own heavy cough—”Fuck!”

Frankie took a step forward with his left, then matched it with his right; toes over the edge like a kid testing the water before taking a plunge. He took a deep breath. He looked up toward the sky and whispered: “Pam…Frankie….I’ll be home soon.”

It seemed as if everyone had a place to escape to on this dreary night: the citizens of New Falls escaped to their beds; animals of every kind escaped to their burrows and dens; the sun dipped below the horizon—even the moon hid behind the clouds. But for Frankie, his escape was much different. He planned on escaping his life…forever.

II

Mark decided Lookout Mountain would be the best place to end his life. It was after dark, so no one would be around to ruin his plan. It was about 30,000 feet; which would be enough to turn him into a human pancake. And it was where he met his wife. His cheating, whore of a wife. He figured, if he was going to kill himself he might as well make her suffer in doing so. The plan was as simple as a plan gets (killing oneself doesn’t tend to need an elaborate plan): walk up the mountain after dark, and jump down the mountain. Simple. In fact, the hardest part of the whole thing was the tiresome, 30,000 foot climb up to the top. I should of just bought a gun, the young man thought.

Mark was near the top of the mountain, when his phone rang. “Dammit. Who would be calling me? And now, of all times.” He glanced down at the cracked screen of his IPhone, and with his thumb that looked like it was hit with a hammer, he hit accept.

“What do you want?” he said.

“I want to know where you are.” Her voice was voracious. “You think you can just leave like that! Don’t even bother coming back, you piece…of…SHIT!”

“Fuck…you!”

III

Fuck you, is a phrase you don’t normally hear when you’re alone on top of a mountain in the middle of the night. But it echoed loud, and pierced Frankie’s old ears that apparently still worked.

“Wh…who’s there?” The old man named Frankie, said. His knees were trembling in fear, hands shaking as if he was playing a tambourine, feet so close to the edge, even a sudden sneeze would do the trick and send him over. “Who’s there!”

“Frankie? Frankie, is that you?” Mark said as he reached the summit.

“For god’s sake.” he said under his breath, before saying aloud: “Depends who’s askin’!”

“It’s Mark. Mark Belton. What the hell you doin’ up here? It’s almost midnight.”

“Thanks for the information; I thought it was noon.” He wasn’t even hiding the sarcasm.

“Sorry, Frankie. It’s just”—he paused to assess the situation—you being up here this late…it’s a little strange, don’t you think?”

“Well, when you get to be my age, everything seems to have an answer.”

Mark could now see Frankie and the edge-of-the cliff in whole. What a sad, stubborn old man, he thought (forgetting that he was on the mountain to do the very same sad thing). He was now close enough to see Frankie’s eyes swelled-up like a hot air balloon.

Both men were now standing side-by-side at the edge of the cliff; both men carrying heavy burdens on their backs; both men understanding each other with completeness; yet, both men unwilling to talk about the suicide act they both planned on performing. So they both stood, taking it all in—the shine of the city that raised them, the sky that was painted with stars, the baffling belief that both men would be dead had fate not intervened—for what seemed to be an hour.

“Walk you down, Frankie?” Mark said, snapping Frankie out of his mindless trance.

“Huh—what? Wha’d you say?”

“I’m headed back down. Why don’t you come with? I could use the company.”

“Oh, well…I’ll be alright. You take care of yourself, Mark.”

“I’ll see you around? Mark said, wanting some reassurance that the old man would be coming back down. He didn’t get it. All he got was a light grunt from the old man named Frankie; but that was all the comfort he needed to leave the old man be.

Years later, Mark would speak at schools and events and conferences; he would speak to anyone that wanted to hear his story of the old man that saved his life. “Sometimes,” he would say, “ all you need is an ear to listen, or”—he could never hold back his smile when he said this—”a stranger to sit by your side in a time of despair.”

Victor and His Books

Victor and His Books

It was early summer of 1997, and Victor was on his way to his third home in just seven years. The same number of years he’s been alive; in fact, today was his birthday. But instead of celebrating his birthday with his best friends, Victor would be celebrating this special day in a run-down van, jam-packed with his family members, who at the moment, were far too vociferous as they sang every song that they possibly knew.

“99 bottles of soda on the wall!”—Victor’s family was immensely religious, explaining the substitute of soda instead of beer—”99 bottles of soda! Take one down….”

“Enough, please,” said Victor, “can we just be quiet for one minute?”

“Sure thing.” His father sided.

For Victor, moving a third time was not a joyous occasion, and he couldn’t comprehend how anyone could be cheerful stuffed in a sweaty van like ground beef in a burrito. As the noise in the car died down, Victor placed his head on the back-seat window, and every time his head smashed against it, he imagined what his life will be like in another town, attending another school.

Victor was rather surprised when he opened his eyes and saw a large, two-story house that would be his new home. Other than a ferocious headache he received from his head pounding against the car window like a hammer hitting a nail, he was feeling…alright. After all, he did have a few things that were familiar to him: his family (even though his brothers were monsters), has basketball cards, his faith, and his books, especially the Bible and Goosebumps. And out of all those things, his books were something that could get him through anything.

Victor’s first memory of books, was when he was a boy, and his mom would read to him at any moment in the day, particularly at night. His favorites were GOODNIGHT MOON and LOVE YOU FOREVER. He doesn’t remember seeing the words—to be honest, he wonders if words were present in the book at all, or if his mom made it all up—he just remembers his mom’s voice as she pronounced every syllable in every word. The books were music to Victor, and as she rocked him like an ocean rocks a boat, he would fall asleep to words every night.

As Victor grew to be a six-year old man, he began to read his own books. (he figured anyone who could help take care of two brothers, and read his own book, was a man). He couldn’t figure out every word, but for those wearisome words, he just made up his own until he had enough skill to figure it out. His favorite book was Goosebumps. With T.V. limited in his household, Goosebumps was the next best thing, and he would read every night: “Lindy looked up in wide-eyed inno…inna…instrument!” Victor read, as he bounced on his bed like a JackRabbit. Victor didn’t always read for entertainment; there were times when he wanted to learn. Weird for a six-year old isn’t it? But it was true. Yet, at the same time, he wanted to choose his own books. He read about the heroics of Abe Lincoln. He read about the bravery of David Livingstone. And he read—and this was his favorite—about the skillful talents of NBA players, Michael Jordan and Reggie Miller.

However, something dreadful happened to Victor in the following years after the move: he grew up. And as the number of his age went up, so too, did the number of his grade in school. Little-by-little, his love for books were replaced with a fear of them. Before, he could read any book, in any way he pleased. Now, he had to read the books the school required him to read; and he had to read them when the school told him to read them. It was terrible.

It didn’t get much better for poor Victor, who in ninth-grade switched schools for the fourth time. This school was much different than the Christian school he attended for the past six years. He was now in a public school, and the book he was most familiar with, The Bible, was unheard of in this foreign land. Books like Goosebumps were only to be read during free time; which if you’re familiar with the public school—was never! Victor thought free time was a made-up fairy tale that teachers used to get kids to behave and complete school work. He would believe in the Loch Ness monster before he believed in free time.

Every…single…class had dull books that Victor could not relate to. To Kill a Mockingbird? Who would ever want to kill a bird, thought Victor. Night? Sounds like a sad story that would put me to sleep. Oh, how about history textbooks that fill up your book bag and cause you to walk like a 90-year old with osteoporosis (no offence to the elderly with osteoporosis). There were books for test prep; there were books that taught us what a neuron is; there were books that taught us one-sided stories about our country and how it came to be. There was even a book that taught us about boys who governed themselves on a deserted island. A book, Victor thought, would have been much better if it were actually about lords and flies. It was all sickening.

This went on for most of his ninth-grade year, until, a teacher— a kind and understanding teacher—saved the year with free-time reading. Can something so simple change a student’s view on reading?

“Listen up, guys.” Mr. Christmas said. He was a very strange man. Short in stature, which allowed taller students like Victor to see that he only had a few hairs on his head; and even those hairs seemed to be hanging on to his head like a kid dangling from the monkey bars for the first time. He had glasses that looked as if they were meant for a giant instead of a human. But he was goofy, and was the one teacher that Victor truly learned from. “Today, we are implementing a new idea into our classroom.”—His students looked on with no understanding of what was said—”Starting…implementing means to put into place or to start.” Still nothing from his students.

“What is it?” One brave kid named Ben, asked.

“We will be adding fifteen minutes of free-time reading to our strenuous, eighty-minute block. Woo-hoo! And the crowd goes wild!”—the students were chirping crickets at night—”That means you can read whatever you want for fifteen minutes!”

Victor, ever the teacher’s pet that he was, volunteered to speak up for the first time in his short, public-school career: “ I…I think that’s a really good idea, Mr. Christmas.”

“That’s the spirit, Victor!” He said, making every student turn their head in slow motion toward Victor. Lucky for Victor, the bell rang, and class was over, saving him from any ribbing he might have gotten.

“Don’t forget to bring a book to read for tomorrow, ya knuckleheads!”

Victor walked out of the classroom like a defective ninja the first day on the job of being a ninja, but was held up by Mr. Christmas, who had a little more to say to the new student: “Victor, I understand that you came from a Christian school. Is that true.”

“Yes,” said Victor, “I went to Hope Christian Academy.”

“Well, I know how hard it can be for a Christian believer in a public school.”

Victor looked around as he really didn’t want anyone to hear this conversation.

“Yea, it’s kind of tough. I don’t really fit in with anyone here.” Victor said.

“You can relate to me. I’m a Christian, as well. And don’t be afraid if you ever want to bring the Bible to read in class. I think it would be a great opportunity to show your classmates who you are.

“Okay…I’ll think about. Thanks Mr. Christmas.”

Mr. Christmas gave a few nods too many, looking like a bald bobblehead with glasses, and Victor walked away to his next class.

That night, Victor could not stop thinking of what his teacher said: Bring in the Bible? That would be insane, he thought. If he brought the Bible into school, it could be social suicide. But at the same time, it would give him something to read that he could relate to, and it was a book that he could actually talk about. After much thought, he decided to bring the book in, and it was the best decision he ever made.

Not one student made-fun, or insulted Victor, as he imagined they would. Instead, they accepted Victor, and were curious about the book and what it was about. So, Victor told them all about it. He told them with the joy of a kid who had rediscovered his love for reading. And that was true! He was ecstatic to be reading—and talking with his peers about reading—a book that he loved and understood.

From that day forward, Victor never lost his love for reading. There were days when teachers would try to take it away; when society would deem certain books inappropriate. But there were always teachers like Mr. Christmas, who found ways to teach the curriculum, while still finding ways to keep the love of reading alive. And because of them, Victor’s dream is to become an English teacher, and continue to pass the magic of books along.