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Just What IS The Oklo Device?

13 Sep

Dear This Old Spouse Followers, Friends, and Faithful,

 

Join me on an adventure, if you would. Do you want to read something truly terrifying? I’m serious here—for once. I have a startling, unsettling story for you.

 

It’s called The Oklo Device.

 

The earth’s mysteries have always intrigued me. Despite all of our scientific and technological advances, there are still phenomena on this planet that remain unknown. Unexplainable. This one, in particular—the mystery of the Oklo mines—has fascinated and vexed me for so long that I finally sat down and wrote a book about it.

 

Oklo_Cover_hi-resThis much is fact—you can look it up. In the spring of 1972, nuclear scientists at a uranium enrichment plant in southeastern France made a shocking discovery. While studying samples from a uranium mine at a place called Oklo in the central African country of Gabon, French researchers found that the atomic energy was all but depleted from uranium mined at Oklo. Uranium can be altered in this way by only two means—through either an atomic explosion or in a nuclear reactor. These samples, mind you, were proven to be hundreds of millions of years old. It was clear from their evidence that these ancient uranium samples had undergone some type of nuclear reaction eons before man ever walked the earth. After considerable consternation and debate, researchers theorized that this must have been an absolutely unique but natural process. Although the Oklo site is the only known location on Earth where such a reaction has occurred, this sole explanation for a prehistoric nuclear event has been accepted as fact for more than 40 years. What is baffling to me is how this potentially shattering discovery has received such little notice in the media.

 

There have been alternative theories, but no one has seriously challenged this fantastic truth—until now. Go here, if you would:

 

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/354657

 

At the bottom of this web site’s page, you’ll see a link labeled “View” under a headline that says available reading formats. Click on it, and you’ll have access to this astonishing chronicle.

 

If you remain intrigued after the first 50 pages, e-mail me at roger.white@tasb.org, and I’ll give you the rest of the story. Tell me what you think of it—what you think is true. Please share this story if it took hold of you. There is more out there than most of us know.

 

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Book Excerpt: The Controller

4 Jan

The Controller

by Roger White

cover design by Steve Willgren

 

The Controller

 ©Copyright 2007-10 by Roger White. Registered with WGA West.

All rights reserved.

 

“Technology is dominated by two types of people: those who understand what they do not manage, and those who manage what they do not understand.”

—Archibald Putt

 

Chapter One

            Ira Singer and his wife, Maxine, sat across from each other, the miniature oak-finished table top holding their cards and their drinks. Ira sipped at his whiskey and Coke. He smiled as he watched the v-shaped wrinkle play across Max’s forehead. Gin rummy was serious business to his wife, always had been. She studied her hand intently. It was not lost on Ira how very beautiful she still was, in her early 80s, how her apple-shaped face and ice blue eyes still took him back to their school days, how lucky he was she weathered his tribulations and mistakes through the years. She was more than a good wife. She was his companion.

            The cabin of the Gulfstream G200 was whisper quiet as the sleek jet cruised the skies above North Carolina. The Singers and three other retired couples from Lake City, Florida, chartered the jet as part of an early autumn package tour to the Poconos. The aircraft’s accommodations were first-rate: ample leather seats, plush carpeting, galley with a chef and fully stocked bar. A large-cabin midrange corporate jet, the slender G200 was a beauty, capable of speeds of nearly mach 1 and cruising altitudes up to 45,000 feet.

            The charter pilot, 42-year-old Leonard Dickey, wasn’t pushing her, however. He’d flown low and slow over the countryside to give his passengers an impressive view of the verdant hills and emerald lakes of far western Carolina. Although he was flying VFR —Visual Flight Rules — which gave him relative free rein of the milky blue skies, he was careful to avoid the restricted airspace above Fort Bragg.

            Thick fog immediately settled around Dickey’s craft as it approached the southern Appalachians. Dickey instructed his copilot to radio Atlanta ARTCC for a popup IFR flight plan. They would need to rely on their instruments, and radar guidance, to navigate the white blindness of the shrouded mountains.

            “Atlanta Center, this Gulfstream six echo niner, requesting IFR one-two miles west of Albemarle.”

            “Damn,” the copilot whispered as he unkeyed his mike. “Look at this.”

            Digital readout on both of the jet’s fuel gauges had gone black.

            “Gulfstream six echo niner, this is Atlanta Center, I have you . . .”

            “Gotta be a fuse, or a short,” Dickey said, cutting off the Atlanta Center controller’s reply.

            The copilot tapped one gauge, then the other.

            “What was our last fuel reading?” Dickey asked. He scanned his bank of gauges above him, looking for anomalies.

            “At least three thousand kg. That’s about half. Cross-bleeds off, I’m sure.”

            “Toggle it. Then check the fuses.” Dickey eyed the malfunctioning gauges. “Gotta be a short.”

            Dickey and his copilot focused on the problem almost a full minute before acknowledging Atlanta Center.

            “Gulfstream six echo niner, this is Atlanta Center, do you read?”

            “That’s a roger, center,” Dickey replied. “Six echo niner, with you, level at, uh, forty-nine hundred.” He unkeyed his mike. “We drifted a little low there.”

            “Gulfstream, say again altitude,” the controller instantly responded. “I show you at fourteen thousand nine.”

            “That’s a negative, center, I’m —”

            Before the controller could issue his urgent command, Dickey knew. He was too low.

            “Oh, shit.”

            As he pulled hard on the yoke, in a fraction of a second, a massive face of white-gray stone filled the cockpit windshield.

            Maxine Singer, with her back to the cockpit, pitched forward with the jet’s violent attempt to climb. She spilled over the small oak table onto her husband’s chest. Ira caught her, and the couple crashed to the floor. Throughout the cabin, cocktails and bodies, playing cards and magazines tumbled toward the rear of the plane.

            “Max.” Ira squeezed her, holding onto her as tight as he could.

            The very floor beneath them ripped away in a cacophony of furious sound. Maxine felt Ira’s arms slip from her. The cabin around them spun and tossed, an angry washing machine choked with shards of metal and fire.

            The jet’s tail clipped the mountainous terrain, sending the craft and its contents somersaulting through the Carolina pines. The Gulfstream burst into flames as it disintegrated. Everyone on board, including the flight crew, attendant, and chef, was killed instantly — except Maxine Singer. She was thrown through a narrow gash in the cabin wall, her legs severed neatly above the knees. She landed in a deep bed of pine needles twenty feet from the main debris field. Her eyes blinded by jet fuel, she crawled three hundred yards across the mountain. She died as she reached the stone outcropping known as the Devil’s Courthouse.

# #

As Maxine Singer breathed her last on a rugged Carolina mountaintop, J.N. Teague peered out the vertical blinds at the rain falling urgently on Sycamore Canyon Road, one thousand nine hundred miles to the west, in Sedona, Arizona.

“Does it always come down like this?” To the southwest, he watched a small single-engine plane flying low on takeoff from Sedona Airport.

The woman’s apartment was ’90s contemporary. A glass block demi-wall cordoned the kitchen from the living room. Everything was negative-edge Scandinavian teak: table, chairs, hutch, even the salt and pepper shakers.

“No. It seldom rains here at all, actually. This is monsoon season.” The woman, late twenties, was an effortless beauty. Her hair was long and straight, a sumptuous raven accent to her cream coffee skin. In jeans and a low-cut chemise top, which fell open with her movements to reveal full breasts, the woman inspired a reaction in Teague he had not experienced in recent memory: nervous fear.

“You’re joking. Arizona has a monsoon season?” Teague accepted a rounded Riedel glass of Cornas Syrah the woman offered. He followed her to the living room sofa, seating himself at a careful distance, still gauging, interpreting.

The woman smiled at him, curious at this gorgeous man’s quaint uncertainty, and she scooted close. “So you played in college. Let me guess.” She looked him over appreciatively. “Linebacker.”

Teague laughed. “How did you know that?”

“My brother played at Arizona State. Always told me linebackers were the finest specimens on the field. So, naturally, I figured.”

“Naturally.” Teague laughed with her. “So what brought you to Sedona? I’ve been here three days, and I have to say you’re the first black person I’ve seen since airport security.”

“I lived in Tempe for a while when my brother played. I came down here for vacations and fell in love with it.” The woman put her glass on the coffee table and ran a slender finger up and down Teague’s forearm. “There are more of us here than you think. We’re in the nooks and crannies.”

Teague took a sip of wine. “I don’t know. I was in an old man’s souvenir shop today. He kept looking at me like I was Louis Farrakhan.”

“Well,” the woman said, “those types are everywhere, aren’t they?” She stood up and tugged on Teague’s hand. She towed him playfully to the bedroom.

“I am sorry,” Teague whispered as she kissed him. “But what is your name again?”

“Michelle.” The woman laughed, bending to pull off her socks. “And you’re M.J.”

“J.N.,” he corrected.

“J.N. Thank goodness. I figured M.J. was a sure lie. Are you really FBI?”

“I showed you the ID.”

“Could be fake.”

“I leave it up to you.”

The woman breezily shed her jeans and top. Clothed only in bikini panties, she lay back on the bed, voluptuous and smooth and willing. Her light brown skin shone in the low lamplight like flawless silk.

Teague stood staring, summoning, trying to imagine. Trying to relax. A nip of panic crept in, and he knew it was futile. The separation was six months old, as of yesterday. Hell, Melanie was even dating someone. Still he couldn’t allow it. This wasn’t part of the picture. J.N. Teague was a man of strict goals, of desires and aims that were measured only in the context of how they worked to achieve the ultimate outcome. It had always been so. It was how he lived his life. It was how he played linebacker at Illinois and made All Big Ten his junior and senior years. It was how he beat the odds at the Academy, one of only two blacks in his graduating class to earn FBI credentials. It was how he pursued Melanie, the mother of his son, the woman he’d convinced to share his life six years ago. The separation, however, presented Teague with an aching conundrum. Living the life of an agent’s spouse was too much for her to bear, a realization brought home when Teague narrowly survived a bullet in the neck. She needed time to determine whether she could live without him. In the meantime, the options Teague mulled over were maddening. Wait for her to come around? Forgo the Bureau and fight for Melanie? But then who would he be? Who was he if he were not Chicago’s best on the street? Teague hated wasted effort. His coach at Illinois always appreciated that aspect of his best athlete. Teague was always the most efficient player on the field, instinctively on top of the ball, at the crux of every play.

This rain-soaked evening in Sedona, Arizona, Teague discovered that his mind’s calculating efficiency knew no down time. This was wasted effort, illegitimate expense.

“What’s the matter?” the woman asked. She ran her hands lightly across her lovely breasts. “Don’t you like what you see?”

“God, I am sorry,” Teague said. “You are beautiful.”

He wheeled around and quickly left. He jogged through the pouring rain to his rented car.

# #

            Amid the subdued urgency of dozens of low-voiced commands in the broad, cavern-like room that was O’Hare TRACON Sector Four, Deborah Vaughn twirled the thin pencil in her right hand, keeping one eye on her bay full of flight plan strips and the other on her primary and the low emerald glow of the Aircraft Situation Display screen to her left. ASD monitors were the latest in air traffic control hardware, lightning fast and more proactive than anything before them. They were being tested in pilot facilities nationwide, including O’Hare, Denver ARTCC, Atlanta ARTCC, Seattle, and a select number of general aviation fields. The promise the ASDs held for controllers was no less than liberating; they would act as a third pair of eyes, another calculating mind. But there were the rumors. Rumors of glitches.

            Vaughn knew about the Gulfstream G200 crash in Carolina just days before. Everyone in the ATC community knew about it. “Controlled descent into terrain” was the official terminology from the FAA’s initial investigation, which meant simply that the pilot flew the plane right into the ground. Transcripts from the cockpit voice recorder, however, indicated an unbelievable discrepancy between the controller and pilot. Just seconds before impact, the controller identified the Gulfstream jet as being almost fifteen thousand feet in the air. The pilot responded that he was at only 4,900 feet — thirty feet below the elevation of the mountain he slammed into.

            The Atlanta Center controller’s ASD screen had been cited, and reportedly fixed, for two previous incidents of indicating erroneous altitudes and airspeeds.

            As Vaughn’s partner for the shift, one Kyle Lomas, worked the primary controller position, Vaughn consciously fought to keep her fidgets to a minimum; she was never completely comfortable sitting in the assistant’s chair. Although the rules of air traffic control required specific degrees of minimum separation among aircraft, just how that separation was achieved and maintained was left largely to individual controllers’ discretion. A two-man team of controllers worked a screen like a quarterback and his backup — one calling the plays and directing traffic, the other keeping things tidy, suggesting moves when needed. Vaughn liked calling the plays.

            “Southwest two-eleven, climb and maintain . . .” Lomas paused uneasily, unkeying his mike, glancing over at Vaughn and the bay of flight plan strips.

            “Sixteen thousand,” Vaughn snapped, tapping the strip labeled SW211 with her pencil. “Midway perimeter, remember? Always one-six before the fix.”

            “Right. One-six before the fix.” Lomas smiled and winced, lightly smacking his forehead. Young and green, only two months out of the academy, Lomas was in his first week in the primary chair. He was scared to death, and it showed.

            “Come on, Kyle. You have a pilot waiting for commands.” Vaughn nodded toward the screen.

            Lomas keyed his mike. “Southwest two-eleven, climb and maintain one-six thousand. Report crossing the Midway tracon,” Lomas instructed.

            “Vortac,” Vaughn corrected, trying not to smile.

            Lomas keyed his mike. “I mean vortac, Southwest two-eleven, crossing the Midway vortac.”

            “One-six thousand, report on the vortac, two-eleven, roger,” a chuckling voice crackled through their headsets.

            Vaughn took the position of controller quite literally; she enjoyed being in control. An eight-and-a-half-year veteran of the boards, Vaughn was a natural for the venerable old Chicago facility. O’Hare, once the busiest tower on the planet (and still the world’s second-busiest), directed more traffic per controller than any facility anywhere. It wasn’t even close. A total of approximately 90 controllers at O’Hare TRACON commanded the more than 6,400 square miles of airspace in and around O’Hare International Airport, directing 1.3 million aircraft operations annually, responsible for 86 million passenger lives on an average year. O’Hare controllers had to be keen, unflinching, fast — and fearless. And Deborah Vaughn was every one of those, and more. She was what other ATCs deemed the quick among the quick. Her instincts were flawless, her decision-making pragmatic and by the book. She was an ice cube with fiery red hair, slender face and legs, and large, penetrating brown eyes.

            “Northstar five echo papa, climb to one-six, your discretion. Altimeter two-niner-niner-two,” Lomas instructed.

            “Five echo papa, roger.”

            “Don’t forget about your Southwest,” Vaughn said. “He needs to hook up with J-121 in a few. What do you do?”

            “Vector him there about, what, five miles out?”

            “Only if there are no inbounds. If you have an inbound coming from Sector Six, you’ll cross him right in front of him.” Vaughn paused, seeing if the light came on for Lomas. “Do you have any inbounds coming from that sector?”

            “Yes. United coming in from Canada.”

            “Right,” Vaughn coached. “So?”

            Lomas thought a moment. “I have to vector the Southwest hard left after the vortac.”

            “There you go.”

            When Vaughn was promoted to sector chief the previous fall, a few jokes were murmured among the men about the dubious ways the redhead must have earned her stripes. Nobody took the jokes seriously, of course — no one who watched Vaughn work. And certainly no one in Sector Four had a quibble with her; you didn’t mess with Deborah Vaughn. Behind her wide smile and flashing eyes, she was uniquely intimidating.

            College educated, with a pair of degrees — psychology and English literature — from Northwestern, Vaughn was in the minority of active controllers. Most of her peers on the boards came straight from either the military or the Academy at Oklahoma City. Vaughn didn’t bring up her university past much, especially now that she was a sector chief. She could always pick up a tangible sense of unease in other controllers, especially the men, when they learned of her background. And in that regard, she was in the minority, as well. Males outnumbered females in the ATC society better than three to one. Vaughn accepted her minority status in stride; in fact, she reasoned, she’d been a minority of some kind or another practically her whole life. She’d been the only white kid in her elementary school class the two years her father served as trauma surgeon at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Barbados. Her senior year in high school, she was the only female student to win scholarship honors in the UC-Davis National Calculus Competition. And, much to the dismay of her excruciatingly professional parents, she was the only Vaughn in a meticulously detailed family tree to engage in civil service.

            Vaughn briefly pictured her father in her mind’s eye, a still photo of the young, commanding ER surgeon she knew as a child. He was sick now, soon to undergo coronary bypass surgery.

            “Miss Vaughn?” Lomas broke into her thoughts.

            “Vaughn,” she corrected. “It’s Vaughn, Lomas. I don’t call you Mr. Lomas.”

            “Sorry. My Southwest is spotty. Part of the ID tag winked out for a second.”

            “Call him for voice verification,” Vaughn instructed.

            Lomas keyed in. “Southwest two-eleven, O’Hare, please state position and heading.”

            “Two-eleven. We’re reading twenty-four miles before the vortac, square on heading oh-one-oh.”

            “Thanks, two-eleven.” Lomas breathed audibly. “Will advise when we can vector you to J-121.”

            “Two-eleven, roger.”

            “I’ve seen those spotty tags before,” Vaughn said, eyeing the radar display control dial at the bottom right of the screen. She dialed it down to its lowest level then back to high intensity. The radar screen before them dipped into darkness, then swelled to a bright green glow. “I don’t know what’s causing them.”

            Vaughn’s and Lomas’s headsets crackled. “O’Hare, this is Atlantic Air six-twenty with you at fourteen, climbing pilot’s discretion to nineteen on J-4.”

            “Atlantic six-twenty, roger,” Lomas responded. “Altimeter two-niner-niner-two.”

            A brief snap of static indicated Atlantic Air six-twenty’s acknowledgment.

            Immediately, another voice broke in. “O’Hare, PSA Jumbo four-ninety-four, vectored from the tower on radial one-two-five, with you at eleven and climbing.”

            Lomas took a sharp breath. Traffic was building. “PSA Jumbo four-ninety-four, O’Hare, that’s a roger.”

            Just as Lomas unkeyed, Vaughn reminded, “Altimeter.”

            “Altimeter two-niner-niner-two, PSA.”

            “PSA, roger.”

            As both Vaughn and Lomas watched, the tiny green blip that was Southwest Flight 211 suddenly disappeared.

            Gone.

            “My God, did you see that?” Lomas whispered.

            Vaughn was already in action. “Southwest two-eleven, O’Hare, verify pos, altitude, and heading, please.”

            “Southwest two-eleven, we read nineteen miles before the vortac on J-1, climbing from thirteen.”

            “That’s a roger, two-eleven,” Vaughn began, “maintain voice—”

            Before she could finish the command, Southwest 211’s marker popped back into view, separated neatly from the two dozen other blips crawling at myriad angles and speeds across Lomas’s and Vaughn’s screen.

            “What the hell?” Vaughn fumed. “I’m calling the fac chief on this. This is ridiculous.” Vaughn keyed her mike. “Two-eleven, had a couple of spotty readings on you. I may be calling for pos periodically. Will advise on vectors.”

            “Two-eleven, roger.”

            “Vaughn.” Lomas subconsciously bit his lower lip. “I have a full grid. And with the Southwest winking out, I’m not sure if . . . you may have to take primary.”

            Vaughn smiled at the nervous young controller. “You’re doing fine, Lomas. I’m here if you get in a jam. Just keep working it. Calm down.”

            Watching a rivulet of perspiration trickle down the right side of Lomas’ face, Vaughn remembered her first year out of the academy. She could never keep her legs still then, but she wasn’t a sweater. But this job produced them. Every sector had at least one heavy sweater. Each controller’s physiology had its own unique reaction to the palpable stress of ATC: some fidgeted, some paced, some rocked, some cursed, some clenched, and some sweated like government mules. Vaughn squinted at the memory of one of the heaviest sweaters she’d ever seen, a classmate of hers at the academy. He was the only one in her class to graduate with a higher overall grade average than hers, and he had been recruited to O’Hare the same as Vaughn. She couldn’t recall his name. Acuff. Agnew. Austin. Something like that.

            She did remember, however, what an odd bird he was. Rambling on about improving protocols, ranting to no one in particular about reducing separation minimums. And, she remembered — he’d asked her out once. His shirt sopping, standing so close to her that she couldn’t get any air, he interrupted her in mid-vector to ask her if she wanted to have dinner with him some time. She didn’t remember exactly what she said, but it wasn’t yes. Within the month, he’d been fired by her old chief, old man Payton, for insubordination.

            Vaughn allowed a whisper of a laugh. The only male of her species who didn’t feel threatened by her was a borderline genius headcase with overactive apocrine glands.

            “Oh, Jesus.” Lomas jerked, hitting his knee on the control panel. “Oh, Jesus.”

            “What is it? Lomas?”

            “Southwest two-eleven, turn right, uh, heading zero six five immediately,” Lomas spat. “Southwest two-eleven, immediately.”

            Vaughn scanned the screen and picked up Southwest two-eleven’s marker, a good fifteen miles west and turned an astounding forty-five degrees from its location only seconds before.

            “God.” Lomas rocked in his chair. “Deborah, the United is right there! They’re on top of each other. My God.”

            Lomas keyed his mike again. “United one five four —”

            Vaughn grabbed Lomas’ hand, squeezing hard. She keyed in. “Southwest two-eleven, O’Hare. Belay those instructions, repeat, disregard ATC command to turn. State your heading and position immediately, sir.”

            “Southwest two-eleven, we’re flying heading oh one oh. Transponder has us square on J-1, six miles before the vortac. Do we have a problem?”

            Vaughn let herself slowly breathe out. “Have a bad reading on you again, two-eleven. Radar has you off course and off radial. Maintain voice verification, if you would.”

            “Southwest two-eleven, that’s a roger.”

            Less than two seconds after the Southwest pilot responded, his aircraft ID marker winked, disappeared, and blinked back into place, clear and on course on J-1.

             “Christ, how does that keep happening?”

            “O’Hare, this is United one-five-four, with you at fourteen,” the United pilot broke in. “We clear for inbound?”

            Vaughn, still catching herself in huffs, looked over at the saucer-eyed Lomas. “Well? You’re the primary.”

            “Roger, United. Maintain heading,” Lomas managed. He unkeyed, shaking visibly. “How did you know?”

            “Think about it, Kyle. There is no way a 737 is going to turn forty-five degrees on a nickel and scream fifteen miles off course in a split second. No way. If he’d have turned on your command, you would have had him crossing the J-6 inbounds. It was a bad readout.”

            “Bad readout.”

            His senses coming back, Lomas looked at Vaughn with an increasingly squeamish expression, then he slowly lowered his head to look down at his crotch.

            “Lomas? You okay?”

            “Jesus. I have to go change.”

Chapter 1 Excerpt: 815, A Hiroshima Story

2 Jan

 

815: A Hiroshima Story

A novel by Roger White

“Fate is in Heaven, the armor is on the breast, success is with the legs. Go to the battlefield firmly confident of victory and you will come home with no wounds whatever. Engage in combat fully determined to die and you will be alive; wish to survive in the battle and you will surely meet death. When you leave the house determined not to see it again you will come home safely; when you have any thought of returning you will not return. You may not be in the wrong to think that the world is always subject to change, but the warrior must not entertain this way of thinking, for his fate is always determined.”

— Uesugi Kenshin, Feudal Ruler, Echigo Province, Japan

1530-1578

“What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evenings, how you will spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.”

— Father Pedro Arrupe, 28th Superior General, Society of Jesus

1907-1991


Chapter One

 

In 400 B.C., Greek philosopher Democritus pondered the following: If one breaks a bit of matter in half, then breaks it in half again and again, how many times could it be broken until it becomes too small to divide anymore? He reasoned that there must be a point, too minuscule for the human eye to see, at which a particle cannot be further divided. This threshold, Democritus argued, was at the level of the atom. Satisfied with his finding, he concluded that nothing more truly exists except these basic blocks of matter and empty space: “By convention bitter, by convention sweet, but in reality atoms and void.” His peers, however, Aristotle among them, held Democritus’ revelation in very low regard, thus sweeping aside atomic theory for 2,000 years.

It was not until the late 18th century that a vanguard of philosophers and scientists, English chemist John Dalton among them, revisited the notion of a submicroscopic universe consisting of the most elemental units of matter—units that dictated the very nature of all existence. In his landmark work A New System of Chemical Philosophy, Dalton purported that “[t]hese observations have tacitly led to the conclusion which seems universally adopted, that all bodies of sensible magnitude, whether liquid or solid, are constituted of a vast number of extremely small particles, or atoms of matter, bound together by a force of attraction . . .” Over the next century, advancement of atomic theory, now championed by the best minds and distilled by technological progress, eventually opened the door for those who would delve deeper. On March 14, 1879, in Ulm, Germany, a Jewish salesman and his wife celebrated the birth of a baby boy: Albert Einstein.

Yuki means “luck,” and of this, my brother had precious little. I suppose saviors seldom do. It is not their job to deal in luck.

On September 20, 1937, my family celebrated Yuki’s third birthday. I was nine; my sister, Hana, eleven. It had been a sun-soaked autumn afternoon, and hot, yet the air was as crisp as new linen, reflections off the Seto Inland Sea crystalline and white, as if all life had pure focus. Our family and a few friends chattered brightly on the covered deck of our home in Kure City. My father, Taro, whose name means “first born son,” was the third son of a career soldier. Taro was stationed at Kure Army Base across the city, and it was not his Army pay that provided our small, elegant home overlooking the sea. Our mother, Aya, married beneath her station. The peril of imminent poverty was a constant; Aya’s parents maintained unwavering expectations and a contempt tempered only by the hope that Aya might soon be an honored military widow. I, of course, knew none of this at the time. Even war, always near to each of us in this period, was somehow kept at arm’s length to Hana and Yuki and me because we lived in a children’s world. This would all change soon.

Amid the knot of emotions my father felt when his orders came, relief was surely the strongest. To Taro, a division of Chinese regulars would be a welcome alternative to life under the eye of our disapproving and brittle grandmother. Yuki’s birthday dawned two weeks before Taro’s unit departed, and Taro beamed, a proud father for the gathering. My father’s love for Hana and me was strong and sure, and the quiet safety I felt in his arms as a child would remain a precious memory throughout my life. We were his flowers. He would always greet us: “There is Hana, my lotus. There is Aimi, my cherry blossom.” But I knew, as did Hana, that when my mother produced Yuki for him, that Taro felt he had finally succeeded: a boy! The round and robust Yuki fashioned an expression on my father’s face that Aya had seen only once before, when Taro had taken home a festival prize of two new shoes and a shaku of stewed beans for having the strongest towing ox in all the prefecture. On the day of Yuki’s celebration, my mother was serving wine and milk after we had returned from the Shichi-Go-San festivities at the neighborhood Shinto shrine. On the way to the Shichi-Go-San ceremony, held to ensure health and prosperity for boys ages three and five, Yuki tripped on a deep crack in the walk and tumbled into the street, squarely in the path of a horse and cart hauling manure. We stood, frozen, as the great dappled horse trotted over Yuki, each hoof hitting only pavement. The cart wheels rolled on, leaving Yuki untouched between them. He didn’t utter a sound. My father picked him up and dusted him, then hefted him high in the air.

“He has good fortune,” my father said.

Now on our family’s covered rear deck facing the glassy sea, Taro again held Yuki under the boy’s arms, lifting him. My mother, Aya, whose name means “colorful,” bent in her usual black kimono to serve more wine. Hana and I sat, doing our best to demonstrate respectful attention. However, our older cousin Akira was in attendance. He was fourteen, and he was lithe. My father tossed Yuki in the air, and Yuki giggled and gasped with delight. Obviously anxious to escape the oblique angles of intent and inflection aimed at him by Hana and me, Akira politely stood and walked to Taro.

“May I?” Akira asked.

My father nodded, giving the boy over. Akira held him as Taro had. Yuki smiled and slobbered, reaching a hand to his cousin. Akira tossed him once, and immediately upon catching him, tossed him higher. Yuki squealed.

“Careful,” my father said automatically.

The deck was cherrywood, originally open to the southern sky. But when she had her first child, Hana, my mother wanted to nurse in the shade as she watched the boats on the Seto Sea. So Taro surreptitiously gathered some precious scrap metal from the Army base and built her a roof. Where the metal panels overlapped, my father had secured them with three-centimeter pins. The first good storm to blow in from the inland sea ripped the pins out and sent one panel scything into our neighbor’s garden. Taro then replaced the pins with thick carpenter’s nails. The nails, each as long as a man’s finger, Taro had driven down into the top of the roof to meet a corresponding slat of wood underneath. The long lower halves of the nails were exposed to the deck below, and my father later told my mother he had meant to cut them off, or at least bend them. He never got around to it.

Our cousin tossed Yuki again, sending him laughing high into air. Then came the fourth toss. Yuki left Akira’s arms, propelled like a happy rocket. We watched, stone, as we had when Yuki fell under the horse earlier that day. Akira was an athlete, with natural muscle, and he knew his strength. He knew he could send his little cousin as high as the ceiling without touching it. Akira didn’t see the carpenter’s nail.

The fourth toss.

We saw it many times. In our dreams. In our wishful replays of time, in which things could be changed, in which we could stop events that aren’t to be stopped.

Yuki soared, free and smiling, his cousin’s open hands waiting for him like two white, graceful petals. My mother turned from her pouring, somehow knowing to watch. My father’s jaw tensed. He said nothing, but he knew. Instinct had him hold his breath. At the apex, Yuki’s broad smile remained, but his eyes went blank, dull. There was a strange, wet, almost imperceptible cracking sound, like the snapping of a single raw soba noodle. At the apex, Yuki’s flight paused – time ceased – and he hung there, adhered to the deck ceiling for two eternal beats. The carpenter’s nail.

Yuki descended into Akira’s arms, and our world was altered.

The walls were gray, and the ceiling was ivory at the prefectural hospital. Although the September heat outside shined through the pale sky so that it made rippling ribbons of distant vision, it was mitigated by excited breezes now and again. The breezes themselves were merely the heat pushed and pulled, but they felt good against the skin. Within the narrow hospital walls, windows were shut tight. The air was difficult and heavy to take. We sat in white chairs along the gray wall, my father, my mother, Hana, and me, our faces wet like moist, fat plums.

Determined not to weep, my mother nervously leaned and fussed with Hana’s hair, which was tightly bound at the back into a single tail. Hana kept her black hair bound so at all times; only when she slept did she undo the tail. Hana’s name meant “delicate flower,” but I was silently conflicted about any possible correlation. My sister’s ears were large and round, and they perched at wide angles to her slender head. Hana’s insistent cloistering of her hair only made matters worse. She was teased often by the crueler classmates, who likened her ears to that of the fins of a chozame river sturgeon or the great wings of the white oleanders that bloomed in the nearby countryside every summer. I watched my mother needlessly slick back Hana’s hair, and I immediately understood why she did it. She was keeping herself busy. So I kept myself busy watching her. My father caught his breath and released it over and over. He covered his face with his hands and sagged forward, then he rose from his chair and walked to the doors of the emergency ward. The doors had no windows, but he stood there nonetheless, as if closer proximity would improve the situation. Then he returned to his chair and slumped into it. Taro repeated this many times. And still we waited.

Suddenly, my father curtained his face with his large hands and sobbed, softly. Tears pooled instantly in my eyes, and I lost clear sight. Seeing my father so, I wanted only for things to be right again. Taro was my mantle, my shield. From the pit of my belly, a fear gnawed. I was nauseated. I worried for my safety, our future. Then a squat man in a white cotton mask and scrubs turned the corner up the hall. Behind him marched six men wearing black socks, black shoes and nothing more. We sat petrified, family tradition against the unusual, until the nude parade went by.

“Recruits,” Taro said.

Hana burst into a bubbling giggle.

I laughed, too, laughed hard against the round tears cascading down my cheeks. As the last of the pale buttocks disappeared into a room far down the hall, the doors to the emergency ward swung open.

“Howaito-san?” the slight doctor inquired, removing his cotton mask as Taro rose to give a shallow bow and shake his hand. The two men talked in close quarters, in whispers, and I could not hear. Then the doctor put a bracing hand on my father’s shoulder and turned away, leaving us alone again.

My father faced us, betraying no emotion. “He said we should make funeral arrangements. Yuki will not survive until morning.” Between Hana and me, Aya shrunk face down into her kimono, her raven hair meeting the black silk, making my mother seem to disappear into folds of darkness.

We went home that evening without my mother. She disobeyed Taro, and she sat up all night in that stiff white chair in the hall of the prefectural hospital. They wouldn’t let her see her son, but they could not make her leave. The night was still and solemn at our house, as was the surface of the Seto that lay beyond our deck. It seemed the great Inland Sea was waiting, too.

“How is Akira?” I asked Hana, after she and my father returned from our cousin’s house three blocks from ours. I had been instructed to stay home while Taro gave the sad news to his sister-in-law’s family.

“He attempted seppuku,” Hana said breathlessly. “They have had to restrain him.”

“Oh, God.” I reeled at the thought of two deaths come from this. “Is he injured?”

“No,” Hana reported. “No incision. Apparently, he tried to use an apple peeler.”

My mother told us later that she had been informed more than once that night that the hour was at hand. Still she never began her prayers for the dead and dying. She refused to believe them. And Yuki survived, quite belligerently. After he defied the doctor’s initial pronouncement, he further complicated things by quickly regaining a modicum of vitality. During Yuki’s first week of recuperation, his head swelled to almost twice its normal size. Inner cranial pressure was choking his brain, the doctor gravely told Taro, and if he lasted the week, he would be no more than a vegetable. By midweek, however, the swelling had subsided, and Yuki opened his eyes. When he laughed and reached out for Aya’s arms, we squealed in unabashed delight. That was when we noticed his eyes. They functioned in a bizarre, chameleon-like fashion, the left eye moving an instant faster than the right. Each of us took turns hugging and petting our baby boy, careful to avoid the great gauze square that protected the top of his head. Holding his face in her hands, Aya beheld her only son, her head angled in the bliss that is a mother’s love. The attending doctor came up quietly behind us, shaking his head, confounded. He told my mother to ask Yuki if he knew who she was, and she did so.

“Ah,” Yuki answered.

“What?”

“Ah,” he repeated, trying unsuccessfully to pronounce haha, the casual term for mother that all children knew before their second year.

I would come to find that his chameleon eyes and his verbal difficulties were by far the least fantastic of Yuki’s symptoms.

My father’s Army unit was scheduled to depart for the Chinese theater in two days. Fresh troops were needed in defense of Manchukuo, according to the newspaper. Despite China’s agreement to the truce that liberated the province from the ruthless Manchurians, the Chinese continued to antagonize, as evidenced by the Roko Bridge Incident in July and their unabashed provocations that led to so much bloodshed at Shanghai, my father reported. The day that Yuki came home from the hospital was Taro’s final day of furlough, and my father was set on spending every possible moment with his family. It was with great effort that I held back my tears. Taro soothed me, as he always had, assuring me that his was a reserve unit only and that the Chinese forces were far inferior to that of the Imperial Army. “I hear they are throwing clods of dirt at us in Shanghai now,” he laughed. “They have no mechanized units at all. Their training is shoddy.” The vision of my noble father in full military regalia, dodging no more than enemy sod, dissipated my black cloud, and I soon found myself in spirited play.

Doctor’s orders prescribed strict bed rest for Yuki. My mother tried earnestly to enforce this, but Yuki would have none of it. It was obvious to Hana and me that our father was quietly proud of his boy’s vigor, but each time Aya would look to him for support, Taro would dutifully scold Yuki to stay down. Still, our brother insisted, and even Aya relented when he began toddling around our front lawn, chasing the shuttlecock Hana and I batted back and forth in our game of hanetsuki.

Though it had been only two weeks since the accident, much had seemed to change. The sultry days of September had passed into a cool early October, and the plump cicadas perched in the gingko and cherry trees serenaded our play every evening. At Nigata Elementary, I had been chosen to represent my class in the school talent display at the upcoming Kure Port Festival. I soared with pride with this announcement, wondering what tune I would play on my bamboo flute. Hana then informed me that the fourth-grade contribution to the festivities involved a short play only, traditionally showcasing our prefecture’s industry and natural resources. Hana had played a succulent maguro tuna when she had been chosen. I found that I would represent the beauty and pride of one of Kure’s principal industries. I would be a battleship.

The war had come home to our neighborhood, as many of the men in my father’s unit were from Kure and the surrounding towns and villages. Children with fathers departing for battle wore their strips of red cloth on their chests, round little badges of great honor. We were proud, excited, and terribly afraid. And I had begun my strange and wonderful relationship with my baby brother. Through our next eight years together, Yuki and I would play and fight and love and hate – and forge the most uncanny, mysterious connection I have ever known.

The next morning, a Saturday, Taro’s unit gathered at the Kure Army Base, where a long, sand-brown train would take our fathers and uncles and brothers far away. A strange storm teased and threatened from the sea. Black clouds full of lightning and rain assaulted the bay, yet we remained untouched, save an angry wind that snatched hats and turned shoulders. My father claimed it was a good omen—the kamikaze come to usher them to victory. I wished the rain would come ashore to camouflage my sorrow. My sister Hana kept giving me sideways glances and rolling her eyes as I wiped mine. How could she be so sure in her smug disdain, I wondered. Did she know something I didn’t? She was two years older, so obviously she was more learned in the ways of war and emotion. Perhaps it was as my father had said, perhaps taking the field against the Chinese was no more dangerous than routine drills. I took solace in my sister’s displeasure. I was overreacting; our father would be home from his fulfillment of duty with souvenirs, with the coins that he always brought us from his unit’s maneuvers, and with stirring tales of triumph.

Little Yuki played at our mother’s side, leaning into the persistent wind, stumbling and laughing, oblivious to the clusters of military men bidding their families goodbye. Aya kept shushing him and dispatching Hana and me to keep him from rollicking into the other groups. Finally, Aya reached into her purse and gave him a piece of paper and pencil. Since the accident, Yuki had become fascinated with drawing. His creations were little more than haphazard lines and scribbles, but he would spend hours in rapt endeavor. He took the paper and pencil our mother offered him, and he immediately sat himself down on the slate gray pavement.

Someone blew a shrieking whistle, and the men in their tan uniforms began pulling away from their loved ones and falling in line. Taro took turns quickly hugging each of us. He picked me up and let me hide my face in his neck.

“Otochan,” I found myself sobbing. “Father, don’t go away.”

“Aimi,” he whispered. “My blossom. I need your strength. I need your smile while I’m gone. Please, for me.”

I pushed a crooked smile in place, then I buried my face into my father again. His unique aroma, that wisp of Shiseido shaving lotion and clean sweat that I knew so well, I drank in between my staccato breaths.

“Aimi, I have told Hana to be at mother’s side. She will need her help. You,” he said, putting me down, “I need you to help look after Yuki. He may need special care. You know that, don’t you?”

I nodded, eyeing Yuki busy at his doodles. The doctors, despite Yuki’s remarkable progress—or perhaps in retaliation for it—stubbornly insisted that he was either steadily succumbing or spiraling downward to the eventual intelligence of a tuber. Yuki stopped his scribbling momentarily to watch a young couple nearby. The wife, a slender and small thing dressed all in white, put something in her soldier’s palm and closed his hands around it. “For bravery,” she said, and they held each other desperately. I turned from this to regard my parents.

“Don’t do something stupid,” Aya instructed. “If it gets bad, hide. Run if you must.” I didn’t consider my mother unpatriotic; she was simply an even-keeled pragmatist. She figured Taro could best serve the Empire by surviving to help her raise his children, not by carelessly dying in some ramshackle Shanghai alleyway. Hana and I admonished our mother with our glares, but I secretly agreed with her. My father pursed his lips and issued a crisp shake of the head to his wife as she brushed and picked at his uniform. He shouldered his long rifle, adjusted his scabbard, and bowed, giving me a sly wink. Run, father, I silently pleaded as he turned from us and joined his fellows. Run and cover yourself and stay safe, and return to us. I watched Taro in formation as an officer began taking roll, and I wondered if Taro’s mother had charged his father similarly. Both of his parents were dead, gone long before Yuki was born, before I had turned four. I never really knew them, except for vague images of grandfatherly arms and memories of hints of grandmotherly smell, and the stories Taro told of his father’s service in the great Russian war. Aya’s parents were conveniently absent from Taro’s sendoff. I have little doubt that had they attended Taro would have pursued Gram Manami across the Army base with his longsword. Manami, whose name is a combination of mana, or “affection,” and mi, or “beauty,” was sour and coarse-looking. Hana and I often joked in private that our radiant mother must have been adopted, and Hana bristled whenever Manami suggested, as she did often, that Hana was the very image of her in her youth. Typically, when she and Gramp Yori made a rare appearance at our home, Gram Manami was scornfully silent with regard to her son-in-law. During their most recent visit, however, upon Yuki’s return from the hospital, Manami just couldn’t help herself. She and Aya were taking tea on the deck. Taro had just finished forlornly hammering the deck ceiling’s nails, pounding them down to harmless angles. Little Yuki was mimicking our father, using his toy hammer to drive imaginary nails here and there into the floor. “I still can’t quite believe it all,” my mother said. Gram Manami noted that Yuki’s eye movements were queer. “Yes.” Aya nodded slowly. “His speech is affected, as well. We’re not certain of any other affliction. It could be months before anything else manifests. Even years, the doctor said. It’s just . . . so surreal.” “So tragic,” Manami added dramatically. She stood and inspected one of the nails Taro had hammered down, then she inspected Taro at a distance. “So avoidable,” she said, loudly enough. I cannot recall ever seeing such an expression of naked fury as the one that steadily fixed itself upon my father’s face.  He said not one word. It was surely deference to Aya and the stature of her father that prevented Taro from crumpling up the old woman and heaving her from his deck. Gramp Yori bobbed serenely in the rocker next to Manami, pretending not to hear. Taro stiffly strode into the house and stayed there until his in-laws departed. Aya could only shake her head at her mother and utter a helpless sigh. All I knew about my grandparents’ standing in the community was that Gramp Yori was in manufacturing. I didn’t know what he manufactured or where he manufactured it, but even at the tender age of nine I understood this: there was money in it. As schoolchildren, we studied about the Meiji Restoration and our national slogan of fukoku kyohei — “enrich the country, strengthen the military.” By the early 1900s, our country was a power on par with those in the Western world, and the men who put us there reaped the benefits. Taro simply said old Yori was in the right place at the right time. My grandparents’ house across the inlet from us was not a palace, but with eight rooms, four baths, four gardens, and a private temple on six parcels of land, it could not be labeled austere. They had three servants and a motorcar, and they wanted Taro to retire from the military and go to work for Yori. Taro politely refused. When my father re-enlisted after Yuki was born, Yori wrote a letter to the Ministry of War requesting reconsideration due to family hardship. When that gamut failed, Gram Manami began inquiring as to when Taro’s unit might be dispatched to the front.

So here was Taro’s commander, barking his troops into formation, marching them to a train that would take them to another camp and another debarkation point, fulfilling Gram Manami’s wish. As the last of the men boarded the train and families waved their farewells, the purple blue skies that had hung so ominously over us finally let go, and fat drops of cold rain spattered on the pavement. Soon the rain came like water spilling over a fall. I looked up, thankful, and I wept amid the sound and the chaos. I turned, expecting another chastisement from Hana, but she was weeping, too. So was my mother. “Come,” Aya finally said. She snatched up Yuki, and we ran with the others for dry shelter.

The tottering streetcar we took for the crosstown journey to home was stuffed with wet, silent, stubbornly smiling people. It was one of the most Japanese of traits—to smile. It mattered not if you loathed the person in your company, if your soul was in the deepest throes of the abyss, if you were giving birth to a sea heron, you always presented a pleasant demeanor. I never knew differently. I smiled at the ancient woman pressed against me, her damp and dingy blouse offering an odor of fungus.

Book Excerpt: West of Sienna

2 Jan

West of Sienna

 

© Copyright 2010

by Roger White

 

Registered with WGA West


 

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

—Edna St. Vincent Millay


Chapter One

 

        Andy is alive.

        I held the letter at arm’s length, requisite for reading anything on a page. I read it again. I found it odd that in this day of e-mail and laptops and text messages that Scooter’s letter was handwritten. His penmanship was no better than when we’d been best of friends — more than 40 years ago.

        I found my flashlight and climbed to the attic. It was dim and stifling, and the air was thick with the aroma of things old, lost, forgotten.

        Andy is alive.

        I searched, still knowing where to find it. Knowing the stir of paralyzing images that would attend. It was in my awards box. I indulged myself at the box, fondling the favorites, reliving the track meets, breaking the tape with each medal and trophy dusted.

        It was at the bottom of the box, tucked into an envelope, the envelope folded into a watchbox. I had made a desperate, half-hearted attempt to hide it away, somehow hoping I would forget.

        The size of a quarter, once a shiny pewter, the medal was now a blotched relic. A faded ribbon of red, white, and blue dangled, attached with a cheap plastic ring. I turned the medal over in my hand, rubbing it with my thumb.

2nd Place

440-Yard Run

6th-Grade Relays

May 12, 1967

        I was the fastest boy in my class, had been for years. By sixth grade, when the annual track and field meet came in spring, lunch money rode on who would come in second. My event was the 440-yard run — a quarter-mile. One time around the track.

        As the days counted down to the meet my sixth-grade year, I was bolstered by the back slapping of my friends. Gary, you got first locked up, but I’m getting second. You’ll be in the Olympics someday. Nobody ever beats Gary Tolliver. I fielded the praise like any normal kid. I grew cocky.

        Weeks before the meet, a new boy moved to town and joined our class. I saw his name on the list of boys signed up for the 440-yard run. That was the first time I noticed him, as I sized him up. He was quiet and solitary. His name was Andy Reyes. I pointed out to Scooter the queer shape of Andy Reyes. Such a tiny thing, with head and ears too large for his frame. He looked like an anemic adult, misshapen and miniature. Another thing: He was left-handed. His right arm ended in a stump just below the elbow.

        The season Scooter and I came to know Andy has never left my mind. It was the summer I turned thirteen and somehow reached second on that awkward base path of sex, on which adolescent boys are forever stumbling and caught stealing. It was the summer of best friends. It was the time of innocence — and of a terror, deep and black.

        Spring had come early that year, and the days and nights were timid and pleasant. This was merely a portent of a short, furiously hot summer, according to the front-porch meteorological experts of West Sienna. The old men predicted without fail that too much of anything good meant something bad. They were usually right.

        West Sienna, ninety miles west northwest of Austin, was tucked deep into the Texas Hill Country — geographically, historically, and emotionally removed from the remarkable events of the time that were reshaping America’s psyche. The closest the community came to the ’60s was the time Jargus Webb accused his neighbor and longstanding enemy Dewey Hempstead of slipping LSD into Webb’s cattle tank. Jargus was a taciturn old straight-razor of a man whose only regular appearance in town came at the end of each month, when he sat in the third chair in Taylor’s Barber Shoppe for a mostly imaginary trim back and sides. He would sit and read Time magazine, occasionally pausing to give onlookers a hard-boiled glare and make clucking noises in his throat. One edition of Time had apprised old Jargus of the country’s current appetite for controlled substances — mainly the counterculture’s drug of choice, acid. It was the year of free love and dropping out. The next week, Jargus watched with horror as, one by one, his big Santa Gertrudis cows drank from his tank and proceeded to drop out all over his pasture. It took a pickup truck full of neighbors and two Concho County sheriff’s deputies to convince Jargus that Dewey Hempstead hadn’t doped his prize cattle. The cause was discovered to be a leak in a natural gas line that ran under Webb’s cattle tank.

        The fact that West Sienna was out of step with the rest of the state and the nation came as no revelation to the town’s citizens. That’s why most of them were here in the first place. It was community heritage to not fit in. Two weeks after Texas joined the Confederacy, the original town of Sienna voted on seceding from Texas. The motion to secede was defeated by a two-to-one margin, so one-third of Sienna’s population — about 200 people — picked up and moved several miles northwest. There they raised a Union flag and called themselves the Free State of West Sienna. In a prelude to the larger disagreement, the men, boys, and some of the women of Sienna promptly attacked. One West Siennean was killed by a blow to the head with a shovel, and the Union flag was ripped down and burned.

        Every West Sienna citizen knew the emotional history of the town by heart. But it wasn’t passion or natural selection that kept the town on the map. It was the Missouri-Pacific railroad, which pushed through in the 1890s, on a line that roughly followed the northern property line of the farm and vineyard owned by Jargus Webb’s grandfather.

        Beyond comfortable reach of the Missouri-Pacific, Old Sienna lost out to its contrary offspring and gradually melted into the Texas bluebonnets by the turn of the century. An old church and the shells of four or five irregular dwellings still stood as the original community’s epitaph. A worn dirt path was all that connected West Sienna to its dead mothertown.

        In April of our sixth-grade year, Scooter and I rode our bikes to Old Sienna to explore the ghost town’s peculiar church. It was a long rectangle of a building, the wood intact but sun-faded to a weak gray-brown. Small shards and pieces remained of the stained glass that had adorned the church’s windows. There were two windows, one on either long side of the church. Boards had been placed over the windows to cover them, and they had been nailed in place from the inside. Two-by-fours had been bolted across the big front double-doors and the single back door of the church.

        We had just convinced ourselves of our resolve to get inside when a low rumble welled from deep within the building. We clutched each other in white fear. We were back on our bikes, pedaling furiously for home, before we said a word. The whole place had seemed stale somehow. Rotten.

        We had heard the story about Pepper Ellard and the church, but Scooter and I were determined to see for ourselves. The story had been around long before we were born.

        I found my mind drifting back to the church often as the days slowly ticked toward summer that year. But Mrs. Barger was always there to pull me back.

        She popped me hard on my right ear.

        Mrs. Barger was our eighth-period English teacher. She had liver spots on her arms, teeth that clicked, but she had perfected the art of cupping her hand so that a tight slap to the ear induced acute tinnitus for days.

        “Mr. Tolliver.” Surname. Trouble.

        “Yes, ma’am.”

        I tried to strike a note of humility, not quite groveling. I rubbed the violated ear.

        “Since we appear to be so preoccupied with the goings on outside the window, we must know all there is to know about the gerund.”

        I did not know all there was to know about the gerund. I spent fifteen humiliating minutes at the chalkboard. Scooter and Bibby Cantrell, who sat next to him, took turns making faces at me and flipping me the finger. I discreetly returned the gesture by pretending to scratch my back with a middle digit.

        Mrs. Barger eventually sent me back to my seat with an admonition to excel in areas of endeavor other than track and field. She thought I was daydreaming about next week’s class relays.

        Scooter laughed loudly at the comment, and I punched him as I walked by to my seat.

        “And if you hit Mr. Travis again, you’re taking a trip down the hall, young man.”

        Scooter Travis was a teller of tales, a master of the Lady of Venus pinball game at Dairy Twin, a good wide receiver, and my best friend. He had a small triangle patch — a bald pink scar on the back of his head — and an occasional stutter, both the result of an ill-timed lightning strike. I suppose any collision between a bolt of lightning and one’s skull is ill-timed, but this one was especially unfortunate. We were in fourth grade, playing a pick-up game of football with the usual gang, and we were tied, 28-28. I was quarterback and Scooter was receiver on the play that would have broken the game open.

        It had been raining off and on all day. The worn practice field next to the high school was slop, ideal for us. Forrest Scoggins was covering Scooter on the play, and when I saw Forrest slip down in the mud, I knew we had a touchdown. Scooter was running a post pattern, straight over the middle, and I had lofted Scooter a high, slow spiral. He caught the ball and was heading for the end zone when the entire sky went white, a flashbulb horizon. I didn’t have time to cringe. A great electric finger touched a light tower of the school football stadium next to us. The bolt splintered, sending a snaking shard to reach down and slap Scooter Travis, still galloping to glory.

        We thought he was dead. Scooter lay on the end zone line, knocked cold and his head smoking, as seven young boys huddled over him in awe. Everyone was scared to touch him, so Bibby Cantrell tied his belt to one of Scooter’s legs and we dragged him to the nearest house.

        Scooter insisted he didn’t remember anything, but I grilled him mercilessly for weeks, trying to find out if he crossed the end zone before he lost the ball. I refused to give up the argument that we scored and won the game, but Forrest Scoggins and the other opposing players said no way. We finally compromised and agreed it was game called on account of God.

        It was Wednesday, which meant riding home with Scooter’s father. Mr. Travis had Wednesdays off, so he would roar into the Jane D. Patrick Junior High parking lot with tires squealing and the top down on his ’67 Pontiac. The principal hated it and had twice warned Mr. T of police intervention if he didn’t slow down. But Mr. T worked closely with Sheriff Tommy Dale and the Concho County Patrol, so the worst penalty he got was some ribbing from Sheriff Dale that he was trying to impress the cheerleaders, with the wife gone and all. Scooter’s mother was an Army nurse, recently dispatched to South Vietnam.

        I was giving serious consideration to hitting Scooter on his cranium scar with a paper wad when the low, bubbling growl of his father’s GTO came from the parking lot.       

        “That’s why Gary was looking outside, Mrs. Barger,” Melissa Acton whined. “Gary can’t wait for Scooter’s father, so him and Scooter can ride in his hot rod and break the speed limit.”

        “So Scooter and he can ride in his hot rod and break the speed limit. Thank you, Melissa. Scooter, it would be appreciated if you would remind your father of the speed limit in school zones.”

        Scooter’s face reddened. Melissa Acton looked at Scooter and me, puckering her face with malevolent satisfaction.

        In the hall, we watched Melissa and her friend Pam Stiles walk by to their lockers. Pam was easily the prettiest girl in class, the object of every boy’s crush. I asked Scooter about another expedition to Old Sienna. I’d thought of little else since that grinding sound rose from inside the church.

        “Funny you m-mentioned it,” Scooter said. “I’ve been thinking about that trip. Could’ve been a raccoon or something. I’ve been wanting to go back myself, but I didn’t know if you were scared or something.”

        “I’m not scared,” I said quickly. “I think it was a coyote.”

        “You were scared.”

        “The only reason I was ahead of you is because you’re a slowpoke.”

        We agreed on a campout in my back yard Friday night and an early departure Saturday. We sealed the agreement with the usual punch on the arm.

        In the back seat of the Pontiac convertible, Scooter’s father had stocked the ice chest with the usual: Pearl Beer in cans for him, and two Chocolate Soldier sodas in long bottles for us. The Wednesday afternoons of that spring had become ritual.

        We hefted our bottles in a toast and yelled at Forrest Scoggins, who was mounting his stingray bike for home.

        “Need a chauffeur?” Scooter yelled.

        Forrest smiled and shook his red head. “Cool car. The apes in the back sure ugly it up, though.”

        A block from the school, I noticed him.

        “Hey, look.”

        I pointed to a swirl of leaves blowing to the right of us. Walking down the side of the road crossing us was a gaunt little figure, tan-brown with coal hair. He was clothed in a faded plaid winter coat, toting three books. The coat was too big for him, too hot for the season. We watched in silent amazement as we passed, our paths perpendicular.

        The leaves crackled past him, and the boy turned with the sound. The leaves danced around him as the wind pushed them by, and he stabbed at them playfully with his free arm. He couldn’t catch them. His left arm was full of books, and his right arm had no hand.

        He saw us watching him, and he immediately pulled his right arm down and in. He hugged it against his body and let the coat sleeve swallow it. He turned sharply and walked on. He had been smiling so happily in his dance with the leaves that I had begun to smile with him. But when he saw us, in a split of an instant, he lost all expression, as if he’d been caught doing something he wasn’t supposed to be doing. I felt bad — vaguely guilty — that perhaps he thought I was laughing at him. I felt instantly, genuinely awful.

        “That’s that new kid. Andy Puh-Perez, or something.” Scooter was turned completely around to watch him to the very last. “He sits in the back of class and never says a word. Like he’s not even there.”

        I thumped Scooter on his lightning scar to make him turn around. “Reyes. It’s Andy Reyes.”

        “Ow. Butthole.”

        “Scooter Travis.” Scooter’s dad interjected some half-hearted parental discipline. I never quite understood Mr. T’s hierarchy of acceptable obscenity. We could say shit, but we couldn’t mention the orifice.

        “He’s entered in the 440 run next week,” I said. That’s how I remembered Andy Reyes’ name. I studied that list every day to keep apprised of my competition. He was the only unknown variable. Everyone else I could beat, except perhaps Gordon Shaver. He had failed once and was a year older.

        “Shoot. You’ll beat that-that little guy easy.” Scooter finally turned around. He took a final, long drink of his soda. “You could beat him with one hand tied behind … Ooh, I didn’t mean it that way.”

        “You’re sick, Scooter.”

        I went to hit him again, and he parried my moves. “No, really. I didn’t mean it.”

            Curiosity got the better of my tact, and I peeked back one last time. Our quiet classmate was running as fast as he could for home.