Chris Till

1. To Burn or Not to Burn

In boulder colorado, cocaine, glen ellyn, glenbard west, marijuana, santa cruz, Sean Hayes, Stoner Noir on May 3, 2010 at 2:00 pm

            On May 13, 1985, newspapers reported that the US had sponsored a March car bombing in Lebanon.[i] In a failed attempt to assassinate a popular Lebanese civic and religious leader, the massive bomb devastated a crowded urban neighborhood, killing more than 80 people.

Isaiah

      “Let it burn,” Isaiah told himself, sitting on the bus watching a mansion in flames on the side of the road. “Rich bastards.”

      The Denver-to-Boulder bus had stopped on Highway 36 to let the red fire trucks pass. The mansion looked like it had been recently built and now its roof burned furiously. Isaiah had never seen the mansion before nor did he know the residents. All he needed to know was that it looked like some rich person’s mansion recently built over farmland.

      After a minute, the bus continued north. Looking back at the fire, Isaiah could see yellow-clad firemen begin to spray the fire with a water hose.

Boulder

      Isaiah stepped off the bus at the Boulder bus station in the early afternoon. 19 years old and thin as cardboard, the suspicion that something great had just ended gripped his empty stomach. What that something was, he did not know.

      With his long brown hair loosely tied back with a rubber band, he carried a small black backpack over his shoulder. Due to a prominent scar marking his left cheek, he presented two profiles to the world: fair on the right side and wounded on the left.

      Inhaling, the air smelled different than Illinois air: cleaner, but drier. As he walked towards the campus, a black and white magpie cavorted in the trees above him, seemingly following him. In the sun, its black tail feathers flashed iridescent green.

      “Brother bird, have you come to welcome me to Colorado?” Isaiah asked aloud.

Bobby

      “So when’s your friend getting to town?” Little Bobby asked Bobby, as they drank coffee in Little Bobby’s kitchen. On the table between them, two short lines of cocaine beckoned. Through the kitchen window, the white and grey tombstones of a cemetery contrasted with its green grass and trees.

      “Supposed to be this afternoon some time. Haven’t seen him since he was a kid,” Bobby replied.

      As a warm spring breeze blew in through the open kitchen window, both men sat shirtless at the table. Both clean cut and in their early 30s, Bobby had quick, intelligent eyes while Little Bobby cultivated a look of irreverent torpor.

      “Good for you,” said Little Bobby. “You know, I’m serious about being done driving empties back. It’s just not worth it for me.”

      “Me and his uncle used to be real good buddies back in high school.”

      “Real good buddies?” asked Little Bobby, looking at Bobby questioningly.

      “Not like that, but we tripped together a lot back then. Yeah… Three grand?” A vase of red tulips sat on the kitchen table between them.

      “God, I love tulips. Really, man, I just have a bad feeling about it.”

      “Four?”

      Little Bobby shook his head and sniffled. His nose was chronically runny.

      “So, does the kid know?”

      “Isaiah? No. Yeah, probably. Through his uncle, I guess. Maybe not. He’s a good kid. His mom died in some weird accident or something a couple years ago. His uncle, Zen, my old friend, used to be Ben, right? I told you about him, he’s like super spiritual, a guru-type… I mean, come on, man, what, five, six, seven, ten grand? What?”

      “Bobby, I’m just done. It don’t feel right. Not now. After the last time I got back from Florida, I threw the I Ching and it said ‘contract,’ as in ‘withdraw,’ ‘simplify’… like that.”

      “Maybe it meant ‘contract,’ like a business contract.”

      “Yeah, I knew you’d say that. I’m done driving: empties, full, anything, done. Find someone else. I’m just gonna work the bike shop and keep it simple.”

      “Bobby, you promised you wouldn’t flake out on me again,” said Bobby, exasperated. “I mean, how many times…”

      “Hey,” Little Bobby interrupted. “I gotta do what feels right, right? Last time I was in Florida, last month, it didn’t feel right. Like that one dick cop down there knows what’s going on and needs to make a bust just to make himself look good. You know?”

      Bobby quietly set his cup down, shaking his head and gazing across the cemetery. Out the window, a long-haired little girl wearing orange overalls and a bright green tank top wandered through the cemetery picking wild daisies.

Welcome to Boulder

      “Isaiah? Welcome to Boulder, man,” exclaimed Bobby, coming through the fence gate and striding across the back yard of his house.

      “Hey Bobby,” said Isaiah. “Thanks, man.”

      Both smiling widely, they shook hands and hugged awkwardly. Waiting for Bobby to get home, Isaiah had been fallen asleep on a cushioned lawn chair in Bobby’s backyard.

      “Haven’t seen you since, what, you were eight years old or something? How you doin’?”

      “Good. The Greyhound was all right. All night long though. Kinda tired but whatever.”

      “Well, come on inside. You got your own bedroom and…”  Bobby led Isaiah into his plain-looking ranch house. The interior resembled a new Holiday Inn hotel room.

      “Yeah, that room used to be the grow room for pot,” said Bobby, pointing to a simply furnished bedroom. “You can stay in there. And the garage, through there, used to be for growing mushrooms.”

      “Cool,” said Isaiah, dropping his backpack in the bedroom.

      “Yeah, that was a good time. It was like an indoor farm. So… you hungry? Tired? If you wanna take a nap…”
      “That’s cool, man. I’m alright. I’ll probably go to bed early, but… Actually, thirsty if…”

      “Tell you what, you just make yourself at home. There’s the kitchen. Help yourself. If you want, we can go for a drive up in the Mountains later on, maybe show you around town some.”

      Isaiah went to the kitchen and filled a water glass from the sink.  Bobby sat on a couch in the living room, dark because of the closed curtains.

      “Great. Yeah… I sure appreciate the hospitality,” said Isaiah, sitting in a living room easy chair. “My plan is to just get to California as quick as possible. I haven’t seen Uncle Zen in years and just totally am feeling the call to get out there.”

      “Yeah. Good for you. Family’s important. I got a letter from him a while back. He doesn’t use phones, right? Yeah. I guess he’s started his own church or something?”

      “Yeah, not a church, but like a spiritual group. He calls it the Inner Circle.”

      “Yeah right, I never really understood all that soul travel or Inner Circle stuff, but if he’s doing it, I respect it. He could have taken the easy way out, but he does it his way, even if it’s the hard way, right?”

      “Yeah,” replied Isaiah, shaking his head uncertainly.

      “He probably thinks I took the easy way out,” said Bobby, staring at the carpeted floor. “I guess our paths have kind of diverged, but maybe they’ll converge again.”

      Isaiah nodded and finished his water. The air conditioning kept the house quite cool and reinforced the hotel vibe.

The Rocky Mountains

Driving his black 1984 Jeep Wagoneer up Sunshine Canyon Road, Bobby pulled into a gravel turn-off with a panoramic view of the Great Plains.

“You can just about see Kansas from up here,” said Bobby, parking. “I like this spot. Gives me perspective.”

“Wow,” said Isaiah, looking all around as Bobby produced a thick already-rolled joint.

“Some indoor indica a buddy of mine grows,” said Bobby, handing the joint to Isaiah. “Three hundred bucks an ounce.”

“Damn, that’s expensive. It’s like a hundred or maybe ninety an ounce back in Glen Ellyn,” said Isaiah, smelling the joint and checking his pockets for a lighter.

“Yeah, well, it’s worth it. So, how’s old Glen Ellyn these days?”

“Same, probably. Land of wide lawns and narrow minds, like the old man said.”

“Hemingway, yeah,” said Bobby, handing Isaiah a lighter. “Yup, you know, back then, me and Benny were the only guys in the Glenbard West Class of ’71 to have pony tails? He was still Gentle Ben back then. Go ahead, take two hits, I don’t need much.”

“Yeah?”

“How often you hear from him?” As cars zipped by on Sunshine Canyon, the cloudless sky glowed a rich shade of blue. Isaiah pondered the word “azure” and passed the joint to Bobby.

“Just a couple times a year or something, but I still feel super-close to him. Even right now, like I’m digging being here, but I just wanna get out there to see him as soon as possible.”

From his car seat, Isaiah kept looking all around, up into the craggy red mountains and out into the absolute flatness of the Plains. A red-tailed hawk arced effortlessly far overhead.

“So, you got a girlfriend back home or a, uh…” asked Bobby, raising his eyebrows.

“Well, I just broke up with this girl Maureen a month ago but…”

“Me, I didn’t even know who I was until I was 25.”

“Yeah?”

A black Jaguar pulled into the turn-off and parked at a distance behind Bobby’s Jeep. Isaiah turned around and looked at the car.

“Don’t worry about that guy, he’s probably just cruising,” said Bobby, passing the joint to Isaiah.

“What?” replied Isaiah.

“Cops can’t afford Jaguars anyway. So, how you doin’ for money?”

“Uh, well, I got like almost two hundred bucks. I was working making like restaurant bun toasters for the last couple weeks.”

“Hmmm. Well, there’s easier ways to make money, you know?”

Bobby looked Isaiah in the face then down his chest. Not noticing, Isaiah took a second hit on the joint and passed it back.

“Yeah, people back home told me to mail acid and Ecstasy back from California ’cause it’s cheap out west.”

“Not bad. They front you the cash?”

“No.”

“Yeah, well… You got that lighter?” Isaiah handed Bobby’s lighter back. In the rear view mirror, Isaiah could see the black Jaguar still parked behind them.

“We used to bring weed in on speedboats to the Florida coast. The main ship would be out in the ocean and we’d meet it and offload the bales into the speedboat. That was fun.”

“Damn, sounds like something out of Hollywood.”

“There’s money to be made out of Florida. But shipping weed is a drag. It’s big. It smells. And the profit margin for the size is not great.”

“Yeah?” said Isaiah, as Bobby handed the joint back.

“The CC, on the other hand, is tiny. And it doesn’t smell. Know what I mean? Anyway, enough of that. You wanna see my retirement home?”

“Sure, man. Like an old folks’ home?” Bobby pulled the Jeep back onto Sunshine Canyon and they drove higher up the Mountains. The black Jaguar did not move.

“Not exactly. Cash can be a real problem, you know? It’s bulky. You end up with shoe boxes of it in your car trunk and that’s not good. And it’s noticeable when a guy tries to buy a car or something with, like, fifteen thousand cash. So… when you find a deal where the seller is cool and will take cash…”

“That is one problem that I do not have,” said Isaiah, exhaling. “Yeah, well. Maybe some day, right?” They drove in silence for a while. The road dramatically curved ever higher. Bobby pulled off onto a private driveway on the right and headed around more curves.

“I just rent it for now. It’s too flashy for me, but it’s not in my name, which is a big plus. Once you start getting assets, that’s when the cops wanna bust you. But this is where I’m gonna retire. Like maybe in a few years. The tenants might be home and I don’t want to hassle them, so I’ll just show you the outside real quick.”

The driveway ended in front of a strange glass house. Nestled into the mountains on three sides, it looked like two large flattened glass domes joined on the edges. It had a panoramic eastern view of the Plains.    

“Damn, dude. You own this?”

“100% paid in full. No mortgage. They pay the rent to me. I told them I’m just the property manager for the guy who owns the place. Not bad, huh?”

“I never seen a house like this. It’s like all glass. Or half glass.”

“I love it. Can’t move in here until I don’t have any more stones to throw, though, you know? Supposedly, some gay porn movie got shot here in the 70s, I don’t know. But that is my retirement home.”

Bobby looked at Isaiah intently then pulled around in the driveway and headed back to Sunshine Canyon. Isaiah, thoroughly stoned, still held a quarter of the joint in his hand.

“Go ahead and chuck it,” said Bobby. “Or keep the rest for later if you want. Whatever, I got more.”

As they drove past the turn-off where they had first parked, the black Jaguar had vanished. When they got back into Boulder, Bobby stopped at a parking lot payphone on 28th Street to make some phone calls. As Isaiah waited in the Jeep, he saw a black Jaguar pass on the street. It looked identical to the Jaguar that had pulled in behind them in the Mountains.

      “Always do your business on payphones and always change your payphone,” advised Bobby, getting back in Jeep. “It looks funny if a well-off guy is always using the same payphone. Hey look, you hungry? I usually go over to my buddy Little Bobby’s place for dinner around seven. He’s a great chef. Or if you’re tired…”

      “Yeah, man. Well, actually, I think I might just hit it early tonight and get rested up for tomorrow. I’m gonna check the University ride board in the morning to see if there’s any rides heading to Cali.”

Bobby and Little Bobby

      The two men lay in bed at Little Bobby’s house watching the ten o’clock Channel 9 news. A number of Americans had been captured in Lebanon in the previous year. Little Bobby shifted restlessly on the bed, sniffling.

      “By the way, I seen one of your tenants and told her that their rent was going up,” said Little Bobby, voice somewhat groggy. The news showed black and white images of five Americans held by unknown captors in Lebanon.
      “Those Lebanese dudes are pissed,” said Bobby. “Can’t blame ‘em really. What, it was just like two years ago that the US was bombing the hell out of the place for some far-from-clear reason. What are you talking about?”

      “You don’t charge enough for that place.”

      “Look man, they got a one-year lease. They’re good tenants.”

      “Lease shmease, you should get more for that place.”

      “Dude…” said Bobby, crossly.

      “Hey, it’s money in your pocket. I told the girl to add a hundred bucks a month to the rent.” Eyes a bit glazed, Little Bobby grabbed a medicine bottle off the bed stand and shook out two pills.

      “Man, you should talk to me before you do stuff like that.”

      “Well, you should tighten up your business affairs. Take care of number one a little more. Like this kid, Isaiah or whatever, you’ve known him for, what, one day, and you’re offering him a job?” said Little Bobby, swallowing the pills with a glass of water. “That’s real cautious, man.”

      “Hey, why do we need a new empties driver? Huh? Yeah, so… And I’ve known him since he was a kid. And I’ve known his uncle since I was a kid. It’s all right. Plus he’d be cheap. He’d do it for a thousand bucks, I bet. Anyway, I haven’t asked him. Yet.”

      “You gonna set him up?”

      “What?”

      “You know what I mean.”

      “No. I’m not. Come on, dude. I know this kid’s family. I wouldn’t do that.”

      “You once told me you’d feed your grandmother to the wolves to stay out of jail.”

      “I was just messing with you, bro,” Bobby said, putting his arm around Little Bobby. “I’m not really like that.”

      Little Bobby looked at Bobby doubtfully. On the news, President Reagan vowed to punish those responsible for capturing the Americans.

      “Uh huh,” Little Bobby said, raising his eyebrows. “Right.”

      “Anyway, that whole thing was just a theory. One of the Columbians told a story, something about feeding a lamb to the wolves every once keeps the wolves happy. Maybe that’s true in Columbia, but… Up here it’s different.”

      “Cause the kid would just tell the cops who he worked for.”

      “Exactly. Down there, like the drivers and underlings are afraid of the bosses, but…”

      “Yeah, you nark the kid off to that one dick Florida cop and he’d just roll on you.”

      “Unless…”

      “Unless what?”

      “Unless, theoretically that is, I had something on him,” said Bobby.

      “Bobby Machiavelli. That’s who you are.”

      “Shut up. You look cute tonight.”

      “Bobby Machiavelli changes the subject with flattery. Don’t stop, big boy.” As a Bill Cosby New Coke commercial came on, Little Bobby rolled on his side and snuggled up to Bobby, sleepily kissing his shoulder.

The Offer

      Late the next morning, after Isaiah checked the University ride board, he got two dollars worth of quarters and found a payphone on Broadway on University Hill. Filling the phone with seven quarters, he made the call that he’d been both dreading and looking forward to.

      “Hey Maureen, how you doin’?” he said in his best warm tone. A small raindrop landed squarely on the scar on his left cheek.

      “Isaiah? I thought you’d forgotten about me,” she replied. “I’m okay. Finally out of that boring mental hospital.”

      “Good. I’m glad. Look, I’m sorry I left like the day before you got out. I just… I didn’t know what to do.” A college girl who looked like a hippie Raquel Welch passed by on the sidewalk, smiling easily at Isaiah. He turned and watched her glide gracefully down the sidewalk.

      “Well, your actions speak loud and clear.” Isaiah didn’t respond for some time.

      “Maureen, please, I’m really sorry. I still care about you a lot. It’s just… I made plans to go visit my Uncle Zen and I’ve just felt really pulled to…”

      “Isaiah, you don’t have to make excuses to me. We’re not boyfriend and girlfriend anymore, remember?”

      “No, I guess not.”

      “You guess not? You broke up with me last month then never visited me in the hospital. That’s not how you treat someone you ‘really care about.’”

      “I did visit you in the hospital, on the first day.”

      “Maybe, but not Mercy Center.”

      “Look, you made me promise to stay in touch with you and I am.”

      “Yes, you’re Mr. Isaiah Honesty,” said Maureen, bitingly. “Mr. True-to-His-Word. You love to brag about that.”

      “I’m not bragging, Maureen, I’m just… Anyway, look… I’m just glad you’re out. I do hope you’re feeling better. It’s just… Look, I felt like I was the reason you were so depressed and seeing me wouldn’t help you get any better. Plus I’ve been super depressed lately too so…”

      Another college girl passed. This one looked like a hippie Bo Derek, complete with cornrows in her hair. When Isaiah smiled at her, she frowned at him and quickened her pace.

      “You’re a free man. Anyway, I met this guy in the hospital, one of the nurses. He’s really cool. We’re supposed to go to the Dead show at Alpine Valley next month.”

      “Cool. Well… I just wanted to make sure you were back home safe and sound and to let you know where I’m at. I’m in Colorado and hoping to get to California any day soon.”

      “You know a girl disappeared on the Prairie Path the day before you split? Mary Lou Thorsen. It’s big news here. Cops are all over the Prairie Path.”

      “Mary Lou Thorsen? Damn. I knew her. I went to grade school with her. She was super shy.”

      “Yeah, the day before you left town, Isaiah? Like three days ago. Where were you?”

      “What? Come on, Maureen, gimme a break. That sucks. Mary Lou was a good girl. A little weird but… Hey, if the phone stops, it’s just ’cause I’m out of quarters.”

      “Oh, okay. Well, I’ve got to get dressed anyway. I just got out of the shower and am sitting here in a towel. Have a fun trip.”

      Click. She hung up.    

      Isaiah stood on the sidewalk with the phone in his hand and looked up at the grey sky. A black car drove slowly past. Startled, Isaiah recognized it as the same black Jaguar from the day before. After it passed, he realized it was a Datsun 280Z and felt foolish for being so paranoid.

      When he got back to Bobby’s house, Bobby was in the backyard, pulling the cloth cushions from the yard furniture. A slight drizzle fell.

      “Hey Bobby.”

      “Isaiah! Everything good?”

      “Yeah great, no rides on the ride board though. I guess I’ll just Greyhound it the rest of the way.”

      “Look man, c’mon inside. I got a proposal for you.”

      Inside, Bobby settled on the living room couch and pointed to the easy chair for Isaiah. Again, the curtains were closed.

      “Isaiah, I want to hire you.”

      “What?”

      “I need a driver that I can trust. I take it you’ve got a driver’s license?”

      “Heck yeah, I love to drive. Got no car, but…”

      “Good. It’s a pretty easy job. And safe. I need somebody to drive empties back to Florida.” 

“What?”

“Empty cars. We get full cars in from Florida. That’s the dangerous part. But the other half is driving the empty cars back to Miami. It pays a thousand bucks a car. Plus you get a plane ticket out of Miami to wherever you wanna go. For you, San Francisco. Takes you three days, maybe four. And there’s nothing illegal in the car. Clean as a brand-new jumping bean.”

      “Wow, man. Geez… Thousand bucks, huh?”

      “Yup, you could leave today.”

      “Damn, Bobby, it’s just… I’m super-set on getting out to California and seeing Uncle Zen like as soon as possible. I wrote him that I’d be out there right around now. I even had this weird dream last night that he was getting chased by the cops. I don’t know.”

      “Well, you gotta do what you gotta do, but… Look, it’s about 2100 miles to Miami. Two, three days driving. I give you five hundred bucks for gas, hotels, food, whatever. You fly out of Miami to San Fran, you’ll be there, what’s today, Tuesday? You’ll be in California early next week at the very latest with a thousand bucks cash burning a hole in your pocket.”

      “I don’t know man,” said Isaiah, getting up and walking to the fireplace. A shiny brass statue of the Buddha sat on the mantel. He rubbed the Buddha’s belly and thought of how much he disliked cocaine. It made people noisy and thoughtless and, now, here he was, contemplating working on the periphery of the cocaine trade. Turning around, he looked Bobby square in the eye.

      “Screw it. Hell yeah, I’ll do it. Yes. Fifteen hundred bucks including expenses and a ticket to San Fran out of Miami? And the car is empty?”

      “Yup, street legal as a registered full-blood beagle. When you wanna leave?”

      “Hell, I’d leave today if I could.”

      “Yeah? I hate to hurry you out of Boulder, but… If that’s what you want, great. The car’s in a garage on the Hill. I’ll get Little Bobby, you haven’t met him yet, right? I’ll get him to book the flight and you’ll be good to go.”

      “Yeah?”

      “Yup,” Bobby said, standing up and shaking Isaiah’s hand. “It’s good to stick with family and close friends for stuff like this. You know, people you can trust.”

The Magpie

      A black and white magpie, perhaps the same one that had followed Isaiah when he first arrived in Boulder the day before, sat perched on the very top branch of a silver maple in Bobby’s backyard. Still drying off from the morning’s drizzle, he flapped his wings to air them out.

      Puffing the black feathers on his breast, he chattered loudly and gazed southwest. On the very west edge of Boulder, the Rocky Mountains exploded from the Great Plains.

      Eyeing the Flat Irons, rock outcroppings resembling huge stone hand irons, the magpie enjoyed the fresh smell of the air. The morning’s drizzle had finally washed the smell of the previous day’s house fire from the air.

The Car

      Bobby and Isaiah walked in the front door of Little Bobby’s house. Bobby called his name but didn’t receive an answer. Still calling his name, they went through the kitchen into the garage. Little Bobby had the trunk open of a blue 1984 Toyota Camry and was messing with the spare tire.

      “Hey man,” said Little Bobby, slamming the car trunk quickly. “You must be Isaiah.”

      “Isaiah, this is Little Bobby,” said Bobby. Isaiah and Little Bobby shook hands. Little Bobby had a very soft handshake.

      “Hey man,” said Isaiah, backpack over his shoulder.

      “That’s the car,” said Bobby. “It runs great. Gets tuned up before every run.”

      “Florida plates,” said Isaiah, walking around the car.

      “I booked your flight,” said Little Bobby, sniffling. “Sunday night out of Miami International.”

      “Thanks man.”

      “That’s five days from now, just to give you plenty of time,” said Bobby. “There’s a McDonalds next to a Holiday Inn a couple miles from the airport. Just leave the car in the back of the McDonalds parking lot. The address and directions are in the glove box. Leave the keys in the glove box. That’s it.”

      “That’s it. Piece of cake,” said Isaiah. “Better than making bun toasters for $4.25 an hour.”

      “Moving on up,” sang Little Bobby, leading them back into the house. Bobby sat at the kitchen table counting out cash. Through the kitchen window, he glanced up and saw the long-haired little girl wandering in the cemetery again, now wearing purple pants and a sky blue t-shirt.

      “There’s a fifteen hundred bucks right there,” said Bobby, pointing to a small stack of currency on the table. Isaiah sat down at the table, while Little Bobby disappeared into another room.

      “If the car breaks down, just get it towed, get it fixed. Whatever. The emergency number is Little Bobby’s bike shop. Area code 303 2 B OR NOT. Get it? That’s the number. 303 2 B OR NOT. It’s funny, right? Just call when you get there. Otherwise, only call if it’s a total emergency and just be cool on the phone and give your call back number.”

      “Damn, it’s like all secret agent and stuff, huh? Love it.” On the far side of the cemetery, Isaiah could see a black car passing, but couldn’t tell what brand. His heart began to race.

      “Hey, you gotta be safe,” said Bobby. “The drug war is real. But what you’re doing is easy. And legal. It’s just driving an empty car ‘cross country.”

On the Road Again

    Isaiah drove the blue Camry south down Highway 36 to Denver in the early evening. The morning rain had cleared and once again the sky glowed crystal blue. Yet, his heart still raced and he couldn’t stop checking the rear view mirror.

      With the windows up and the air conditioner on, Night Ranger’s “Sister Christian” played on the FM radio: “you’re motoring.” In the rear view mirror, he could see a black car about an eighth of a mile behind him. It seemed to be gaining on him. On the steering wheel, a single bead of sweat formed on the middle knuckle of his left hand. He wiped it off on his jeans.

      Isaiah exited onto Interstate 70 east. The black car exited too. He slowed down so the black car would pass him, but it slowed down too. Feeling paranoid again, he pulled off to lose the black car or at least see if it was a black Jaguar. East of downtown Denver, he exited on Havana Street south, watching his rear view mirror.

      The black car didn’t pull off. Relieved and looking for a place to turn around, Isaiah drove on.

      As he pulled into a Shell station to turn around, a black car pulled out of the gas station. It was a black Jaguar, heading back towards I-70. Then a Denver Police car sped by, also heading towards the interstate. Several beads of sweat formed on his left knuckles. Again, he wiped the sweat off on his jeans.

      Checking the rear view mirror, he pulled back onto the street, away from the Interstate. Havana Street led by Denver’s Stapleton Airport. Trying to stay cool, but feeling his heart racing, Isaiah rechecked the rear view mirror again and again. When the exit to the airport came, he sharply turned in without a turn signal and accelerated. He couldn’t tell for sure, but it looked like a black car was a block behind him. His forehead misted with sweat.

Little Bobby’s Barbecue

      Back in Boulder, Bobby and Little Bobby sat at a picnic table on Little Bobby’s back deck, barbecuing steaks on the gas grill. It was that hour before dusk when the world sometimes slows down.

      “I told you, man, I’m not gonna burn a family friend, or any friend, for that matter,” said Bobby proudly, drinking a bottle of O’Douls non-alcoholic beer.

      “What are you talking about?” asked Little Bobby, getting up and turning the steaks on the grill.

      “Isaiah. Last night you said you thought I was gonna nark him off to those jackass Florida cops. I’m really not like that.”

      “Hold on, Bobby. Last night, in bed, you told me you had something on him, and you’d feed him to the wolves if, like, he was afraid enough of you. Remember? Like the Columbians, you said.”

      “Yeah, sure. I mean, maybe, theoretically, probably not, but anyway, that’s not the point. The point is…”

      “Bobby,” Little Bobby interrupted, jiggling the spatula in his hand. “I know I was buzzing last night, but you told me you’d… You told me you had something on him and that you were gonna double-cross him or whatever.” The steaks began to smoke.

      “What? I did not say that. You started calling me Bobby Machiavelli or whatever, but I didn’t actually say I was gonna whatever.”

      Little Bobby sat down across from Bobby. He looked him in the eye.

      “Woops,” said Little Bobby sheepishly raising his eyebrows.

      “‘Woops’ what?” The steaks began to burn.

      “Remember when you came into the garage this afternoon with the kid? I had the trunk up?”

      “You did not!”

      “Yes, I did.”

      “How much?”
      “A fat eight ball under the spare tire.”

      Bobby shook his head and drained the bottle. He crossed his arms and looked at Little Bobby accusingly.

      “If he gets busted, there’s no reason he would not nark me, and you, off. I got nothing on him. Tell me you haven’t called that dick cop in Florida.”

      “I haven’t.” The steaks smoked, but Little Bobby didn’t get up.

      “You swear?” Little Bobby got up and took the steaks off in a desultory fashion.

      “Now, I have to swear oaths to you? These steaks are ruined.” Little Bobby took the plate of burnt steaks into the kitchen. Bobby watched Little Bobby walk away then gazed somberly across the cemetery. The colorfully-dressed little girl was not there.

The Decision

     Isaiah parked the Camry in the long-term lot of Stapleton Airport. For several minutes, he waited to see if the black Jaguar had followed him. It hadn’t, but his heart still raced. The knuckles on both hands now sweat. Trying to calm down, he wiped his hands off on his jeans and wiped his forehead with his forearm.

      He pulled a t-shirt from his backpack and wiped the steering wheel, the rear view mirror, and the gear shift for prints. Leaving the parking ticket and keys in the glove box, he locked the car without using his fingers and left the car with his backpack over his shoulder. A shuttle bus took him to the airport.

      Dissolving into the crowd inside the airport calmed him some. Finding a payphone, he dropped in a quarter and dialed 2 B OR NOT. The phone rang twice, but he hung up before anyone answered.

      Spotting the United Airlines counter, he got into line and tried to calm himself. Two young men in turbans stood in front of him speaking an unintelligible language.

      “Welcome to United Airlines, how may I help you?” asked the United ticket agent. Isaiah couldn’t stop staring at the man’s walrus mustache.

      “Can I change a Miami to San Francisco ticket to a Denver to San Francisco ticket?”

      “One way?” The man typed into his keyboard.

      “Uh yeah.”

      “Seventy-five dollars, sir.” Because it covered his mouth, his walrus mustache seemed to move instead of his lips.

      “When’s the next flight?”

      “The next flight is… Actually, there’s a direct flight in an hour that arrives in San Francisco at 1:10 am, but it is fully booked. No… Yes, there are two aisle seats available.”

      “Yeah?” A hard-looking man about 35 in a black suit stood in the back of the United Airlines line. When Isaiah looked at him, he stared right back with a sour expression.

      “Sorry, yeah, I’ll take it. Definitely. Ummm…” Isaiah pulled a wad of twenties from his front pocket. “Hey, is there like a bank or currency exchange here and a, uh, post office?”

      Isaiah followed the ticket agent’s directions to the World Wide Money Exchange. For half a minute, he stood in front of the shop hesitating. Finally, he walked in and impatiently waited in line, watching the clock.

      “I need a money order for fifteen hundred, no, for fourteen hundred dollars,” he told the cashier, a plain girl his age.

      “Fourteen hundred dollars? Yes, sir,” she replied, eyeing his long hair suspiciously. Minutes later, Isaiah left, carrying the money order in his hand.

      At a convenience-type store, he bought a whole box of envelopes, stamps, and got two dollars worth of quarters. Sitting on a hard plastic chair in a gate area, he pulled his notebook from his backpack and composed a letter.

Bobby,

      Man, I’m really sorry. The car was giving me engine problems. I couldn’t find a mechanic so I just decided to leave it at the Denver airport. It’s parked in the long-term lot section 7A with the keys and parking ticket in the glove box. Here’s your money back and I’ll reimburse you for the ticket when I can.

Thanks for everything and sorry,

Isaiah

      He stared at the letter for a hard minute and almost gobbled it up. Finally, he stuffed it and the money order into an envelope. Addressing and stamping it, he dropped the letter in a dark blue mail box by the convenience store and threw out the rest of envelopes.

      At a payphone, he dropped seven quarters into the slot and dialed a number.

      “We’re not home so please leave a message,” said a girl’s voice on the answering machine.

      “Hey Maureen, it’s Isaiah. Um, that was a tough phone call this morning, but I’ve been thinking about you and wanted to hear your voice. I miss you. Okay? Okay.” He hung up and quickly walked to his gate.

      Out of the corner of his eye, Isaiah saw the hard-looking man in the black suit from the United Airlines ticket line waiting at a gate. The man ignored Isaiah. Isaiah avoided eye contact.

      When Isaiah found his gate, he found a chair facing away from the crowd and sat motionless and breathless waiting for his flight. Still nervous, he convinced himself that the man in the black suit from the United Airlines line was about to arrest him. Every time that a bead of sweat appeared on a knuckle, he wiped it off on his pants.

      Finally boarding the plane, a nun with a pretty face not much older than Isaiah sat in the window seat next to him on the airplane. He grinned at her and she returned an inscrutable look. Putting on his seat belt, his heart finally calmed down. Soon, the plane rolled down the runway and took off.

      “California, here I come,” he said to the nun. She didn’t reply. Isaiah put on his wire-frame mirror sunglasses and slouched back in his seat, relieved.


[i] “CIA Link to Fatal Car Bomb Reported,” Chicago Tribune, 5, May 13, 1985.

2. Kreepy Krawlers

In Stoner Noir, marijuana, glen ellyn, glenbard west, grateful dead, iggy and the stooges, jodie foster army, christy canyon, jim morrison on April 28, 2010 at 2:59 pm

      On May 13, 1985, Philadelphia police bombed a row house in a crowded neighborhood from a helicopter. The resulting inferno destroyed 61 houses and killed 11, including five children. The residents of the targeted house called themselves MOVE, a small local religious fellowship.

Mole City

      “We should do something crazy tonight,” said Angela, squatting on the concrete floor of Mole City with Nick and Rose. Mole City was a tiny concrete room fifteen feet below a manhole cover in an old suburban neighborhood in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. By climbing into the dry storm sewer outlet at a small lake and walking hunched over for about a block, enterprising youths could enter Mole City. Colorfully spray painted, it was a tiny underground party club. In 1985, it was punk rock heaven.

      “Like what?” asked Nick, sitting in front of a pair of votive candles.

      “Ummm… we could put crazy glue in the door locks of the police cars over at the Civic Center or…”

      “Me and Oreo put glue in the locks at the bank once,” interrupted Nick, scraping his metal pipe for resin. “I ain’t going anywhere near the cop shop tonight. There’s probably a warrant on me for missing the court date on that weed possession thing.”

      “I know!” said Angela, nudging Rose. “Let’s trip tonight! Who’s got acid?”

      “What?” asked Rose, a mile away. “I was spacing out.”

      “Let’s trip tonight,” insisted Angela. “Nicky 666 is gonna turn us on.”

      “Nicky 666. Ha,” said Rose without laughing.

      “If I had acid, we’d all be tripping right now,” he said. “How about let’s just get super stoned and sneak into some rich folks’ house and creep around?”

      “That’d be trippy…” Angela said, as Nick lit a Marlboro Red.

Ox and Amber

      “Try that convenience store in Lombard just down from that bar,” said Ox.

      “Okay,” replied Amber. “But I don’t really care if we drink tonight or not.” Like Ox, a high school senior, she was driving her mom’s white ’81 Chevette hatchback late on a Monday night.

      “Well I told Nick and Angela and them all that I’d try to get some wine,” said Ox. They’d already tried one store in Glen Ellyn and now drove down Crescent Boulevard out of town.

      “Oh great,” she said sarcastically. “Well, then, we must drink tonight. Of course. I mean, do we really have to party every night? We could just go to my mom’s house and like bake cookies.”

      “Bake cookies? Come on Amber. It’s a kick ass night out. There’s a party in Mole City. It’ll be fun. Where’s your smokes?”

      “I’m out,” she said, as Ox rummaged through her purse, finding a half pack of Newports. “Nick is creepy. He looks at me in a disgusting way, like leering and laughing. And Rose just sits there, looking depressed and weird. You know?”

      “Baby, why you smoke menthol?” he said, lighting one. “They are disgusting.”

      “And Angela just totally flirts with you right in front of me.”

      “That’s totally not true. Anyway, it’s like whatever you wanna do, do it. I wanna party a little, I’m gonna party. It’ll be fun. Nick is cool. He laughs at everybody… Ernie’s supposed to be bringing some kick ass new weed too. You like him, right?”

      “No. He’s stoned all the time. He’s all right, I guess. I just… Are you directing me? ‘Cause I don’t really know where to go.”

      “Yeah, just keep going straight,” he said, as they drove past the dark hollow of the Churchill Woods. Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” played on the radio.

      Glen Ellyn was a terrifyingly wealthy old suburb west of Chicago and Amber and Ox were two of its children. Their bodies looked full grown, but their minds were as gullible as new born kittens. That particular evening, the night felt young, but was filled with just enough reckless energy that a single heedless decision could derail it forever into uncharted territory.

      “Ox, it’s just… I feel like they’re your friends, not mine.”

      “God, Amber. They’re your friends too. Why does everything have to be so difficult all the time?”

      Finally, they pulled into the White Hen parking lot as a loud yellow-jacket ’72 Chevelle Malibu pulled out. The big-haired strawberry blonde at the wheel eyed Ox as she passed. For a moment the AM radios in each car synched up, both tuned to WLS.

      “More more more, more more more!

      “Cool car,” said Ox, adjusting the rear view mirror and trying to flatten his thick mullet with his hands. Wearing a black Led Zeppelin t-shirt and a cut-off Levis vest, he looked like a typical teenage burnout. Yet, due to his almost giant size, he could sometimes pass for older.

      “You wait here,” said Ox, getting out and slamming the car door.

      “Yes sir,” said Amber, sulking and hiding her cigarettes under her car seat. The WLS news came on. Police in Philadelphia had firebombed a cult house, starting an inferno that burned two city blocks and killed a dozen people. Amber changed the station.

      Trying to look tough, Ox carried two bottles of Boone’s Farm wine to the counter. Over the radio, the middle-aged cashier listened to the same radio broadcast of the police bombing.

      “Crazy,” he said to Ox, squinting. “MOVE? Radio said they’re some kind of Negro back-to-the-land anti-government cult. Still I don’t see why the police have a right to bomb their house like that. It don’t seem… Hey, you’re Ox Lancaster.”

      “No,” said Ox glumly.

      “Yes you are. Why didn’t you go out for football this year? I mean, last year, you started on a team that won state. This year, you might of could of got a college scholarship. I seen you play Proviso Black your junior year and you done…”

      “Hey look,” Ox interrupted. “I’m kind of in a hurry here. Gimme a box of Marlboro Red.”

      “Ox Lancaster, how ’bout that? Look, Ox, I can’t sell you no liquor. You ain’t of age. I’ll sell you the smokes but…”

      “Whatever. Stupid laws. How much?”

      “See right there? Lombard Police. Two ninety for the smokes.” A patrol car had pulled into the parking lot in front of the store.

      “Damn police state,” said Ox, paying the cashier and leaving. The cashier watched Ox leave and shook his head in doubt.

      “Youth is wasted on the young,” said the cashier, frowning and waving a greeting at the cop in his car.

Mole City, Part Two

      “I am gonna get messed up tonight,” said Angela. “And seduce Ox.”

      “Yeah right,” said Rose. High school juniors, Angela and Rose could pass for twin sisters. Skinny shapeless blondes with identical puffed-up fried fluffy hair and black eye shadow, they both wore loose black t-shirts and tight stone-washed jeans. Yet, their personalities were opposites. While Rose was dark and quiet, Angela was sassy and loud.

      “Do it,” said Nick, three years older, sticking a homemade mix tape into his cassette deck. Wiry, Nick had a shaggy mohawk and wore ripped jeans with a studded belt, an old flannel shirt with a skull stenciled on the back, and a studded collar.

      “You jump him and I’ll jump Amber,” he said. “She wants me.”

      “You wish. Nick, you know you’re the only one I want,” cooed Angela fakely.
      “Yeah right,” he said. “This tape is kick ass.”

      “She’s serious,” said Rose, fixing her intense eyes on Nick. Shadows from the candles danced dully on the sewer walls. One graffito read: ALIEN SEX KITTEN.

      Joy Division’s “Transmission” played on the tape deck. Nick scraped resin from his little metal pot pipe with a butterfly knife.

      “When’s Ernesto getting here?” he asked.

      “I don’t know,” said Angela. “That boy operates outside of time. Rose, when’s your true love getting here?”

      “About ten, he said,” replied Rose. “It’s supposed to be totally seedless weed. Naperville Windowbox.”

      “Naperville Windowbox? That stuff sucks,” said Nick, taking a resin hit and coughing.

      “Well I could call out when the going gets tough, the things that we’ve learned are no longer enough,” he sang along to the tape.

Amber and Ox, Part Two

      “Just let me off here if you don’t wanna go,” said Ox, sitting in the passenger seat. Amber had parked behind the football bleachers by the lake.

      “And you don’t care if I don’t go? I mean, we’ve got school tomorrow. Look, if you wanna see Angela that bad, why don’t…”

      “Amber,” interrupted Ox. “I don’t care if Angela is there. You’re just making that stuff up. Anyway, your mom doesn’t care what time you get home. I mean if you wanna go home and bake cookies, be my guest, I’ll just see you to…”

      “Okay I’ll go,” she interrupted, getting out and slamming the car door. “Come on, your buddies are waiting for the great Ox Lancaster.”

      Short and very busty, Amber wore a ripped denim mini-skirt, old green Converse, and a black leather jacket over a tight orange Reeces Peanut Butter Cups t-shirt. She walked quickly, leaving Ox to catch up with her.

      “That’s right, me and my boyfriend are going on a date in the sewers tonight,” she said. “You better not let your buddy Nick drool on me, Ox.”

      Ox shook his head and stuck his hands in his pockets. They walked the rest of the block to the Mole City entrance in silence.

Partytime

      “Just Say ‘NO’ to Nancy” by the local hardcore punk band, Slave Revolt, played on the cassette deck. In a moment, Nick, Angela, and Rose all stopped moving or speaking. Nick turned off the tape deck.

      “Friend or foe?” he called down the sewer pipe.

      “It’s Officer Mike Hunt of the Glen Ellyn Police Department,” replied Ox, in a deep voice. “Come out with your hands up and your pants down.”

      “You’ll never take us alive, pig!” shouted Angela, as Nick turned the tape back on. “Unless you got liquor!”

      “Maybe he’s got some weed,” Nick whispered to Angela. With Nick’s face close to hers, she quickly kissed him on the cheek. He looked at her quizzically.

      “She loves you, Nick,” said Rose somberly.

      “Shut up, Rose,” said Angela. “Ox, sweetie, hurry up, I’m thirsty.”

      Ox and Amber kept walking hunched over down the storm sewer pipe towards the candle glow.

      “I should have brought a flashlight,” said Amber.

      “It’s fine,” said Ox. “I can see the candlelight up there.”

      Nick whispered to Rose and Angela. Angela snickered. As soon as Ox and Amber made it to Mole City, Nick blew out the candles and Rose shrieked.

      “Come on dude!” exclaimed Ox, searching his pocket for a lighter. Coolly, Amber lit her lighter, reached down and relit the candles.

      “Welcome to the afterworld,” said Angela, imitating Count Dracula. “You get me something to drink, Oxie?”

      “We tried, but no luck. This cop in Lombard was like staking out the White Hen. I got some weed, though. And smokes.”

      Nick, Angela, and Rose ignored Amber. She sat in the sewer pipe on the edge of the main chamber.

      “You got weed, dude?” said Nick. “Let’s smoke out. We’re thinking about getting super stoned and doing something freaky.”

      “Yeah, like what?” asked Ox, settling down on the floor and fishing a plastic sandwich bag of weed out of his front pocket.

      “Like… sneaking into some rich folks’ house and just creeping around.”

      “Kreepy krawling!” said Angela snickering. “Freaky, man. Right, Rose?”

      Rose just shook her head, off in her own world. Glen Ellyn had two classes of kids: those who lived in houses and those who lived in apartments. Most of the kids who lived in houses didn’t even realize the depth of this class divide, but those who lived in apartments certainly did. Amber and Ox grew up in houses, the others in apartments.

      “Where’s Ernie and Isaiah and them all?” asked Ox, fidgeting with his weed bag.

      “You wanna roll a joint, dude?” asked Nick, passing him some Zigzags.

      “Uh, I haven’t seen Isaiah since Maureen the Beauty Queen tried to kill herself, but he supposedly just split for California or something,” said Angela.

      “That’s what he told me. He went to see his Uncle Zen or something. Angela, may I have a cigarette?” asked Rose.

      “Maureen’s out of the mental hospital,” Amber said. “She’s okay.”

      “How you doin’, Am?” asked Angela, smiling faux-pleasantly at Amber and handing a Marlboro Light to Rose.

      “Fine thanks, Angela. Another day in paradise. Yourself?”

      “Okay. I like your jacket.”

      “Sure, man, it’s hump day,” said Ox, taking the papers from Nick.

      “Thanks,” said Amber. “My mom’s boyfriend gave it to me.”

      “Oh yeah?” said Angela. “I wish one of my mom’s boyfriends would give me a leather jacket instead of a…”

      “Y’all hear about the police bombing them black people in Philly?” interrupted Nick. “Bombed their house from a helicopter and burned down the whole damn neighborhood. Pigs. Oh here’s the tune.”

      “When they kick out your front door, how you gonna come?” sang Nick, turning up The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton.”

      “Great song,” said Ox, rolling a joint with difficulty over his baggie. “The only rock band that matters. I heard something about it on the radio.”

      “Come the revolution, that’s the only way they’ll get us out of Mole City,” said Nick dramatically. “Pigs’ll drop explosives on us through that manhole cover up there.”

      “What?” asked Ox. Nick chuckled.

      “So, Am, you miss cheerleading?” asked Angela, casting a sideways glance at Rose.

      “Hell no,” lied Amber. “It’s totally superficial. Me and Ox both decided we’re done with all that fake stuff.”

      “Oh hey, speaking of which, you hear they’re gonna make a movie in town this summer?” said Angela. “Like a Hollywood movie filmed at the high school. We should all go be extras in it. We’ll be like the mean stoner kids.”

      “With your hands on your head or on the trigger of your gun,” sang Nick to the tape.

      Ox lit the fat joint, took a big hit, and handed it to Nick. Nick raised the joint in the air, said “hail Satan,” and hit it.

      “Yeah,” says Ox, exhaling. “It’s good. You gonna smoke tonight, Amber?”

      “No,” she said, hitting the joint after Nick handed it to her.

      “Cool. You’re hilarious when you get high,” said Ox.

      “They’re fake,” said Nick to Angela, taking the joint from Amber.

      “I thought so,” said Angela, looking at Amber.

      “What?” asked Amber.

      “Uh, your boobs,” said Angela.

      “Yes, you’re right. They’re just balloons I tape to my chest,” said Amber. “Very clever of you to figure it out.”

      “This smoke is good,” said Nick, taking a hit while holding his butterfly knife in his other hand.

      “Boobs are just fat anyway,” said Angela. Rose nodded.

      “You two are just jealous ’cause you don’t have any,” cackled Nick, looking Amber up and down appraisingly. Amber looked at him disdainfully and zipped up the front of her leather jacket.

      “I love me some Reeces Peanut Butter Cups,” said Nick. “Don’t you, Oxford? Oh yeah. We is gonna get super st-st-stoned tonight…”

A Very Dark Night

      A second joint later, the five teenagers made their way back down the storm sewer pipe. Hunching their way through the pipe, the faint circular light of the outside world was visible ahead.

      “Damn, I scraped my head again,” swore Ox. “Damn it.”

      “Get lower, big boy,” said Angela.

      Making their way out of the sewer pipe onto the grassy shore of Lake Ellyn, the night was dark. Foreboding clouds covered the sky with no moon visible. The lake was absolutely still and perfectly reflected the thick cloud cover.

      “It is exactly midnight,” intoned Angela, doing her Dracula imitation again. “Children of the night, awake.”

      “I am st-st-stoned,” slurred Ox, imitating Nick. The five began walking aimlessly along the east shore of the small lake.

      “Ox?” asked Amber quietly, pulling him aside as the others walked ahead. “I’m kind of tired. You wanna go back to my mom’s house maybe and…?”

      “Baby, come on,” Ox interrupted. “You still wanna make cookies or something? Let’s keep hanging out. I mean, if you wanna…”

      “Oh never mind,” she said, shaking her head.

      “So?”

      “I’m not leaving you alone with…”

      “You two lovebirds coming?” interrupted Angela, looking back at Amber and Ox.

      Ox took Amber’s hand and led her back to the group. Just then a police car came down a cross street towards the lake.

      “Pigs!” Angela called.

      In an instant, they all went down, flat on their stomachs, laying on the grass by the lake. The police car drove slowly down Lake Road and passed them. Rolling onto their backs and watching the impenetrable midnight sky, they waited for a minute to get up.

      “Damn pigs,” said Nick, getting up with his tape deck. “I ain’t goin’ to jail tonight. Screw it.”

      “Damn, it’s dark,” said Angela.

      “It’s almost new moon,” said Rose quietly. “In Taurus. The Bull. It’s a night for breaking through barriers.”

      “Breaking through barriers?” said Nick. “Rose, you is one trippy gal. And that’s just one reason why I love you. Hey, you know that funky old mansion on Crescent with the brass lions in front of it? Some super old dude lives in there by himself. He’s like a 100. Let’s go hang out with him.”

      “You know him?” asked Ox.

      “Hell no. Well, I used to mow his lawn way back when. He never used to lock his doors. Follow me, my pretties. And once we start climbing the hill, let’s be real quiet.”

      “Angela, maybe we should just go home,” said Rose. “I’m feeling kinda tired.”

      “You ain’t going nowhere,” said Angela, taking Rose by the hand and pulling her foreward. “Your mom don’t care when you get home and neither does mine for that matter. Let’s keep partying.”  

      Nick led the gang down Lake Road and cut up the hill on a wooded private drive, quietly singing “Guns of Brixton.”

      “You can crush us, you can bruise us, but you’ll have to answer to, Oh the guns of Brixton.”

The Dark Mansion

      Silently, the gang approached a dark two-story Spanish Colonial mansion just on the other side of the hill. They stood among the trees in the back of unfenced yard, looking across the wide rear lawn.

      “There it is,” whispered Nick. “It’s just one old dude, about a 100 years old. Let’s just go in and move some furniture around to freak him out.”

      “Freaky,” whispered Angela, grinning.

      “I am not burglarizing someone’s house,” whispered Amber. “Right, Ox?”

      “What are you talking about? It’s not burglary if you don’t take anything,” whispered Nick. “Come on, Ox. I’ll bet you five bucks the doors are open.”

      Uncertain, Ox looked from face to face. Rose looked terrified and Amber shook her head with disapproval.

      “I’m telling you, it’s a trip,” whispered Nick. “Just to go to in there and feel the fear. It’s like butt hole surfing down a hill of pure fear.”

      “Oh man man man,” whispered Angela. “You’re coming with, Rose. Let’s just go in for a minute.”

      “Ox, this is stupid,” whispered Amber. “Let’s just go home.”

      “Oxie’s coming with me,” whispered Angela, taking him by the elbow and leading him towards the house.

      “Hell yeah,” whispered Nick, wide eyed. “Okay, Amber, you’re the lookout. If anybody comes or anything, just whistle as loud as you can. And guard my tape deck.”

      “You guys are idiots,” whispered Amber. Nick handed her his tape deck and the four crept towards the house. When they got up to the back door, Nick turned to them.

      “Okay,” he whispered. “If we have to make a run for it, everyone split up and meet back at Mole City. Okay?”

      “I can’t move,” whispered Rose. Nick tiptoed up to the back door and turned the doorknob with his flannel shirt covering his hand. The door was unlocked.

      “You punks owe me five bucks,” he whispered. “You first, Ox.”

      With hesitation, Ox stepped towards the door. Suddenly, Angela pushed him into the house in front of her. Ox tripped over the sill of the door and almost fell into the house. Angela grabbed Rose’s hand and pulled her into the house with her. Nick followed them, shutting the door quietly.

      Cursing Nick and Ox and all of them, Amber crouched in the furthest recess of the backyard. She could hear her own heart beating.

      The four kreepy krawlers stood on the carpet just inside the dark house. Waiting for his eyes to adjust, Nick sat down on the sofa and Ox sat next to him. Angela nestled down between Nick and Ox and put a hand on each boy’s knee. Rose stood still as a statue just inside the door. Gradually, their eyes adjusted somewhat. Smelling of leather, the room appeared to be a well-appointed living room.

      After sitting in silence for a minute, Nick stood up and signaled with his head for the others to follow him. Angela pulled Rose with her. The next room was the kitchen. Without the others noticing, Nick picked up a butter knife and slid it into his back pocket.

      They crept into the dining room. The dining room opened onto a grand stairway.

      “Move the chairs around,” Nick whispered. As Angela and Ox quietly began to move the dining room chairs around, Nick silently darted up the stairs when they weren’t looking. At the top of the stairs, he could faintly hear snoring.

      Creeping towards the snoring, he found the old man’s open bedroom door. Reaching just inside the doorway, Nick flicked on the light switch on the  bedroom wall. In a flash, the old man’s eyes opened and Nick silently slipped back down the stairs.

      Instead of turning towards the dining room where the others were, Nick took the other way around to the back door. Quickly slipping out, he shoved the butter knife into the bottom of the exterior door casing to prevent the door from being opened from the inside, then sprinted towards Amber in the back yard.

      “A light just came on upstairs,” whispered Angela to Rose and Ox, in the dining room. “I think somebody just woke up. Where’s Nick?”

      “He’s not here?” whispered Ox. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”

      The old man sat up in his king-sized oak bed and slid his feet into his slippers. In the light, his bedroom was luxurious and wood-paneled. Tastefully framed woodcuts of American pioneers hung from the walls. In one, mohawked and shirtless Indians lay the woods outside a pioneer log cabin, tomahawks in hand, getting ready for a terrorist attack.

      A World War One veteran, he kept his old service pistol in his night stand. He slid open the drawer and pulled out the gun.

      “No good thieves,” he grunted, picking up his phone and dialing 469-3131.

      “Amber, come on!” whispered Nick, rushing up to Amber in the backyard. “The old dude woke up. Where’s Ox and Angela and uh…? We’re all meeting at the Bahas. Come on!”

      He took his tape deck from her, grabbed her hand, and ran with her by the side of the house to the front yard. Heading in the opposite direction of Mole City, he led her down the driveway to Crescent Boulevard.

      “Where’s Ox and the girls?” she whispered to him, once they reached the street, both still running.

      “I don’t know,” replied Nick. “They must have come out before me. I thought they would have gone to you first, but they must be ahead of us.”

      Inside the dark mansion, Ox tried to open the back door, but he shook so much he couldn’t get the door open. Rose stood paralyzed in the dining room, beginning to cry. Angela grabbed her hand and pulled her towards the back door.

      “I’ve got intruders at 722 Crescent Boulevard in Glen Ellyn. Come immediately,” the old man gruffly told the 911 operator. He hung up, turned out the bedroom light, and walked out of his bedroom, pistol in hand. Hearing noise from the back of the first floor, he slid open the second-floor hallway window and intently watched his backyard with his pistol ready.

      Nick and Amber ran down the sidewalk along Crescent Avenue. Not talking now, they headed for the Taylor Avenue Underpass and the dark safety of the railroad tracks, the Prairie Path bike path, and the Bahas. In the distance, a police siren began to wail.

      Angela pushed Ox aside and tried to open the back door. Turning the door knob and pushing the door with her slight shoulder, she couldn’t get the door to move. It was solidly stuck shut.

      “Bust it down, dude,” she whispered to Ox. Ox, almost a giant, lifted his right leg and smashed the doorknob with the bottom of his foot. With a loud crash, the door flew open. Pulling Rose, Angela ran out first and Ox followed.

      The old man saw his prey from the window: three dark figures fleeing across his back lawn. As a teenage American soldier in 1918, he had killed six Germans in France with this gun. He raised the pistol and set his sights on the thick body of the largest of the three fleeing thieves. The gun was a Colt .45 semi-automatic, blue steel with a walnut grip.

      In the back of the backyard, Ox, Angela, and Rose paused for a moment looking for Amber. In the distance, they could hear the police siren wailing.

      When the thieves paused in his backyard, the old man set his sight on the big head of the largest of them. He intended to just shoot through the window screen.

      “Where the hell is Amber?” whispered Ox, looking back at the dark mansion. “And Nick? Let’s get the hell outta here.”

      The old man pulled the trigger. The hammer rose. The hammer fell. Click. The gun was not loaded.

      “No good rotten thieves,” the old man said, watching them run away, disappearing over the back of the hill, towards the lake.

The Prairie Path After Midnight

      A warm spring night, Nick and Amber walked east along the crushed white limestone gravel of the Prairie Path. Both tried to catch their breath from the run. The siren had stopped.

      “Those guys probably got ahead of us and already got a fire started at the Bahas,” Nick said, no longer whispering. “That was one trippy scene inside that house.”

      “That was stupid. Why do you even want to do stuff like that? And I’ve got school tomorrow,” Amber said petulantly.

      “Yeah, well… Hoowee,” said Nick, exhaling deeply. “The old dude must have heard us. I don’t know. Ox bumped into a chair and knocked it over, that must have woken him up. You got a smoke?”

      “No,” she replied, digging in her jacket pocket and handing him a Newport. He lit it and watched across the railroad tracks as the dark blanket of clouds began to peel back.

      “Thanks, I’ve actually been liking menthol lately,” Nick said, exhaling. “Check it out, the stars are coming out.”

      “Nice,” said Amber, looking up and across the tracks. “So, like where do you live anyway?”

      “Nowhere, really, I got a fort over on the other side of St. Charles Road mostly.”

      “A fort?”

      “Yeah, there’s a big empty field behind those tracks on the other side of Ackerman Park and… yeah, I just live out there pioneer-style.”

      “Crazy.”

      “Hey, it’s this society that’s crazy, not me.”

      “I didn’t mean crazy-bad. I just meant crazy-different. You’re different, that’s all. Like in a good way, probably, okay?”

      “Yeah? Hey, you wanna know what’s crazy that I noticed? Like, in this town, of all the people I know, like nobody has a dad. Nobody. Think about it. You, Ox, Angela, Rose. Me? None of us. Ernie. Isaiah. Maureen. No dads. Talk about crazy.”

      “That is messed up.” Smoking, the two walked quickly down the dark bike path.

Mole City, Part Three

      Ox, Angela, and Amber sat in the main chamber of Mole City, panting. Angela lit the two votive candles, which cast strange shadows on the spray-painted walls. One graffito read: RISE.

      “That was freaky,” giggled Angela, eyes shining. “Like it was scary as hell, but you gotta admit, you felt totally alive in there.”

      “I am never doing anything like that ever again,” said Rose, pale and trembling. “I have never been so terrified in my life.”

      Ox started cackling. Angela joined him. Both felt exhilarated.

      “What a trip,” he said. “It was like…like…I don’t know. I just felt like… Hey, where the hell is Amber and Nick anyway?”

      “I hope he got out of there, but it looks like…” said Angela.

      “It was like…” Ox interrupted. “I mean, like yeah, I was scared but it was like I was totally aware of like every little…”

      “Total awareness, man,” interrupted Angela, sarcastic but grinning. “Looks like Amber-ger blew you off, huh?”

      “I guess,” he said.

      “Her loss,” said Angela, getting up and sitting in his lap. Rose was rocking back and forth on the floor, holding onto her knees.

      “Roll us a joint, big boy,” whispered Angela, biting his ear.

The Bahas

      East of the Underpass, the Prairie Path gradually diverged from the railroad tracks. In that divergence, several acres of woods grew between the bike path and the tracks, hidden by a steep ridge that rose along the path. Another secret party spot, local youths called those woods “The Bahas.”

      ” Ox? Angela? Rose? What the hell?” called Nick, walking down the ridge into the dark Bahas. “If you guys are hiding, I’m gonna kick your asses.”

      Amber followed him, feeling uncertain. She zipped her leather jacket all the way up.

      “Ox?” she called. “Ox? This isn’t funny.”

      Nick started picking up small branches as they approached the cold fire pit. He broke up the branches and dropped them into the pit.

      “Rip up that box, Amber,” he commanded, pointing to an empty Miller bottles 12-pack box in the pit. “Please. Maybe they’re behind us. Maybe they took the tracks or are coming through the back way, by Jenny Bell’s house.”

      Soon, they had a small fire going. Nick found more branches and broke them up, building up the fire.

      “I used to be a boy scout,” said Nick, as Amber raised her eyebrows. “Yeah, I know.”     

      Amber sat on a large log used as a fire-side bench and lit a Newport. Nick turned on his tape deck: the Replacements “Androgynous:” “now something meets boy and something meets girl, they both look the same, they’re overjoyed in this world.”

      “You thirsty?” Nick asked, offering her a silver flask. “Good stuff.”

      “What is it?”

      “Like whiskey. Mostly. Try it. It’s good for the nerves.”

      “Holding out on us, huh? I see the way you are.”

      “Well, there ain’t much. If I shared with everyone… you know.” With the fire burning, he sat next to her on the log bench.

      “I like this song, Nick,” she said. “It’s sweet.”

      Hesitating, she took a small swig from the flask and handed it back. Nick just held it between his hands without taking a sip.

      “Hey Amber, I know I been kinda rough on you. Like hazing you and all. I’m just not used to hanging out with girls of like your caliber. I guess you used to kinda scare me a little.”

      “Thanks, I guess, but I scare you? Now that is weird. You’re like the scariest guy in town and I scare you? Huh.” Nick handed her back the flask and she took another small swig.

      “Yeah, right, well, like I’ve never hung out with a cheerleader before, I’m like a total burnout freak and you’re like the hottest girl in town, going out with Mr. Football Star and all.”

      “Hey, I’m not a cheerleader anymore and, thanks, but I really don’t think I’m the hottest girl in town either.”

      “To me, you are.” Nick turned and faced Amber, gently taking both of her hands in his. “I would kill for your love.”

      “Oh my god, you are totally freaking me out,” Amber said, taking another swig from the flask and feeling a bit woozy.

Mole City, Part Three

      As Rose lay curled on her side on the concrete floor, hands folded beneath her head, Ox took off his jean vest and laid it across her small body. Angela still sat in his lap, rubbing his back.

      “Ox, I love the way you feel. Like a man. Not like a skinny little stoner boy.”

      “I thought you loved Nick?”

      “Well, all the girls love Nick, right? I guess I’ve always loved him and all… probably always will. But! I think it’s really actually probably like brother-sister love, you know, not boyfriend-girlfriend love.”

      Angela kissed him quickly on his lips. He hugged her. She bit his lip.

      “Ouch, that hurt,” he said, feigning pain. She ran a hand under the back of his t-shirt and scratched his back. Rose appeared to be asleep or at least pretending to be.

      “Oxford Lancaster,” Angela cooed in his ear. “Looks like you’re all mine tonight.”

The Bahas, Part Two

      As the midnight stars spangled above the dim trees, Nick stared into Amber’s eyes. Leaning forward, he kissed her once, softly, on her lips. With hesitation, she kissed him back. From the tape deck, the Replacements played “Sixteen Blue:” “your age is the hardest age, everything drags and drags…

      Tenderly, he ran his hands through her hair and down her cheeks. For a moment, his body trembled. Finally, in the May firelight, he kissed her again, deeply, and unzipped the front of her leather jacket.

      Running both hands inside the front of her orange t-shirt, he cupped her bare breasts. Both Amber and Nick let out a deep sigh. A tiny breeze passed and the two teenagers fell into each other.

3. The Elves of Santa Cruz, California

In Stoner Noir on April 27, 2010 at 4:19 pm

On May 15, 1985, a bomb disguised as a three-ring binder exploded in a computer lab at the University of California at Berkeley, maiming a student. The FBI deemed the bombing the work of the Unabomber, his second bombing of the year.                          

St. George Hotel

      “Hey, I’m here to see Zen McDougal,” Isaiah told the desk clerk at the St. George Hotel. On the wall, a prominent “Visitors Must Check In” sign was posted.

      “And you are?” asked the young clerk in a south Asian accent. Located on the Pacific Avenue Garden Mall in downtown Santa Cruz, the St. George was an historic three-story residential hotel.

      “I’m his nephew Isaiah,” he replied, lightly touching the scar on his left cheek.

      “I see. Zen ‘checked out,’ but he left a note for you.” The clerk surreptitiously glanced around the lobby, then stepped back from the desk and returned with a sealed envelope. A handful of white-haired men, seemingly suspended in amber, populated the half-dozen old couches around the spacious lobby. Looking around the lobby again, the desk clerk slid the envelope to Isaiah. “To ISAIAH” read the only address.

      “What is this?” asked Isaiah. Looking nervous, the clerk shrugged. Isaiah carefully opened the envelope and read the note.

Dear Nephew,

      Welcome to California. So glad you made it. I’ve reserved a room with a view of the Avenue for you.

      Unfortunately, my dear consort Ayloni and I had to leave town rather abruptly due to an uninvited visit by the local constabulary. Please find my dear colleague Rhion under the Soquel Avenue bridge some evening. Just follow the sound of the wooden flute…

      We do look forward to seeing you soon.

      May the Blessings Be, With all the love in the world,

      Your uncle, Zen

      Still standing frozen at the desk, Isaiah looked up at the clerk with consternation. The clerk nodded sympathetically.

      “I am Cyrus. I like Zen very much, but my father was quite upset with what happened. If you meet my father, do not tell him that you are Zen’s nephew. Would you still like the room?”

      “What happened?”

      “That’s not really for me to say.”

      Isaiah shrugged weakly and checked in at the righteously low price of $13 a night. His second floor room had ten foot high ceilings and a shared bathroom and shower lay the hall. A pair of tall windows overlooked Pacific Avenue and its mall.

      Tired, Isaiah pulled a chair up to the window and watched the colorful parade beneath him on the Avenue. Hip college kids, grizzled old hippies, and wealthy yuppies criss-crossed: some shopping, some lounging, and some just looking. Isaiah listened to a black hippie guitar player across the street playing “Horse with No Name.” A half-block away he could see a grim man dressed as a clown, sitting on a bench facing the St. George and smoking.

Rhion

      “Please find my dear colleague Rhion under the Soquel Avenue bridge some evening. Just follow the sound of the wooden flute.

      That evening, Isaiah made his way down Pacific Avenue and turned left on Soquel Avenue. A bridge over the wide San Lorenzo River lay in front of him. As he approached the bridge, a dark figure emerged from the dimness beneath the bridge. He wore a dark cloak with a peaked hood. Seeing Isaiah, the dark figure scurried back beneath the bridge.

      The bridge was a modern concrete and steel four-lane roadway. Isaiah stood on the sidewalk at the edge of the bridge, peering into the blackness under the bridge. Several cars passed at moderate speeds with headlights on.

      A soft wisp of melody seeped from under the bridge. “Follow the sound of the wooden flute.”

      Before Isaiah could summon the courage to step off the sidewalk and walk down the embankment below the bridge, the flute stopped. As Isaiah leaned forward to see into the darkness below the bridge, he felt a warm, but strange, presence behind him. Quickly turning, Isaiah was surprised to come face to face with the hooded flutist. He had snuck up behind Isaiah, having apparently emerged from the other side of the bridge and crossed the street to surprise him.

      The hooded flutist had pale skin and long straw-blonde hair flowing from under his hood. With pale blue eyes fixed on Isaiah’s eyes for a moment, the hooded flutist dramatically turned away and made his way down the sidewalk, again playing his flute.

      “Rhion?” Isaiah called out. The hooded flutist stopped but only cocked his head to the side. Isaiah took several steps towards him. The hooded flutist turned.

      “Isaiah?” he asked.

      “Yeah, man. I’m Isaiah, Zen’s nephew from Illinois.”

      “Well, then, you’re my brother,” Rhion said warmly, grinning and giving Isaiah a hug. He smelled pleasantly of incense, the precise scent of which Isaiah could not place, and high grade cannabis.

      “Right on. Yeah, I just got into town late this morning and Zen’d left a note for me at the St. George. Like… what happened?” The two stood under a street light on the sidewalk. Rhion’s flute disappeared inside his dark cloak.

      “What happened?” Rhion echoed. Looking into Rhion’s phenomenally pale blue eyes felt somewhat disconcerting because his pupils were the size of tiny, sharp pins. Isaiah shrugged.

      “The forces of darkness have moved in,” Rhion said, furrowing his brow. Isaiah nodded knowingly, but didn’t understand.

      “There’s a war on one of the astral planes,” Rhion said, watching the headlights of a car pass. “You smoke herb?”

      “Heck yeah, man,” replied Isaiah. Still standing under the street light, Rhion passed Isaiah an empty black stone bowl. The headlights of a passing car illuminated a slender four-inch quartz crystal pendant strung around Rhion’s neck.

      “Uhh, I don’t have…” said Isaiah.

      “I know. Just showing you the bowl. Nice, huh? Let’s go down by the river. I’ll bring you up to date.”

      The two made their way down the river bank and settled into the grass. The San Lorenzo River was wide, slow, and dark. Draining the Santa Cruz Mountains to the east, it was in its last mile before emptying into the Pacific.

      “So what’s up with Zen?” asked Isaiah, as Rhion packed the stone bowl from a leather pouch.

      “The forces of darkness have made an advance, but shall be reversed. Light always prevails.”

      “Right. So where is he? And Ayloni?” Isaiah watched as Rhion methodically pinched and spread the flower buds before packing them into the pipe.

      “Matches?” asked Rhion, holding out his hand.

      “Uh…” replied Isaiah, checking his pockets.”I don’t think so.”

      “I got a half-broke lighter,” Rhion said, producing an old-fashioned metal lighter from inside his cloak. Rhion raised the pipe to the four directions then to the river and the sky.

      “Blessings,” he said, handing the pipe to Isaiah. “Go ahead, you first.”

      With difficulty, Rhion got the lighter working and lit the pipe for Isaiah. Isaiah hacked out the smoke, coughing.

      “Wow,” said Isaiah, eyes watering, handing the pipe to Rhion. “That is some sweet bud.”

      “Blessings,” said Rhion, taking a hit and holding it. In the night’s darkness, the river didn’t seem to move at all, but only drift in a slow spiral.

      “Rhion. So what happened? To Zen?” asked Isaiah. Rhion fixed the pins of his pale blue eyes on Isaiah.

      “The constabulary moved in on Zen. The marshals searched his room when he wasn’t home. They found some illicit sacraments. Zen and Ayloni got back to the St. George while the search was going on. The desk clerk warned them away and they took off into the Mountains. He’s still free, though…”

      Rhion passed the pipe back to Isaiah. Isaiah took a smaller hit.

      “Damn, that sucks. I just got a letter from him like last week.”

      “How much do you know about the astral war?” asked Rhion, in a conspiratorial whisper.

      “Uhh, well. Not much, I…”

      “Okay, see, I’ll bring you up to date real quick,” Rhion interrupted. “Two years ago, there was a coup within ANEEZA. ANEEZA? You know, the spiritual path that we follow? Or that we used to follow?”
      “Right.”

      “A cabal of black magicians seized control. Since then, they have rampaged on a certain astral plane, running amuck, wreaking havoc.”

      Rhion paused to take a big hit. Isaiah watched the shadows of headlights play along the bridge’s railing. He nodded, trying to understand.

      “What is the great hermetic truth?” asked Rhion, sitting up straight and gazing across the river theatrically. Isaiah stared at him uncomprehendingly.

      “I’ll tell you: ‘as above, so below,’” said Rhion, answering himself. “As there is great conflict on a certain astral plane, so there is great conflict here on the physical plane.”

      “Geez,” said Isaiah, taking the pipe from Rhion. “What illegal sacraments did the, uh, constabulary seize from their room?”

      “The great medicine. The Liberating Sacrament of Divinity itself.” Rhion’s eyes narrowed to needles, piercing Isaiah.

      “Man, this is intense,” said Isaiah, pulling his arms into this shirt sleeves and hugging himself.

      “I see stars all over you,” said Rhion, nodding. “Zen said you were a powerful crystal warrior.”

      “Stars? Yeah? Uhhh…”

      “Speaking of which, this is for you. You can pay me later. Ten bucks’ll do.” Seemingly from nowhere, Rhion produced a crystal necklace similar to his own and handed it to Isaiah. A three-inch quartz crystal pendant with a leather wrap at the top hung from a leather cord.

      “Thanks, brother,” Isaiah said, putting it on.

“Now you’re in the Inner Circle. The Inner Circle is the circle of truth,” pontificated Rhion. “Through the Inner Circle, we are all connected, like leaves upon the same tree. Beneath the same sun. Pretty good smoke, huh? Let’s do another. One good smoke deserves another.”

“Cool. So, I gotta see Zen. I came all the way out here. You know where he is?”

“Zen is everywhere,” said Rhion, packing another bowl from his leather pouch. “I do know that he was really looking forward to seeing you. You seen the clown on the Mall yet?”

“The clown on the Mall? I don’t think so.”

“He’s with the dark forces. Stay away from him. Don’t let him see us together. If he follows you, lose him.”

Isaiah nodded, arms still inside the sleeves of his shirt. The river smelled like thick mud. A woman’s voice shrieked from a car passing on the bridge then faded into the night.

“You take first hit,” said Rhion, passing the pipe to Isaiah. As Isaiah took the pipe, he saw the apparition of a pale electric star on Rhion’s forehead. Or maybe it was just a piece of glitter.

“Blessings,” said Isaiah, raising the pipe to his mouth.

“You like DMT? I got some for sale,” said Rhion. “Pharmaceutical quality.”

“Yeah? I heard of that stuff. It’s like acid that lasts half an hour.”

“Less.” Isaiah passed the pipe to Rhion. “It takes you deep inside Faerie Mountain. Straight to the Hall of the Elfin King himself.”

Rhion gazed at Isaiah with his oh-so-strange pale blue eyes. It seemed like he never blinked.

“I wanna try it. I’ll take whatever. A hit or dose or whatever.”

“It’s fifteen. Ten for you. Smoke it on top of some bud. I’ll throw in the bud. One hit.”

“Cool, man.” Rhion passed the pipe back to Isaiah and they sat in silence.

“Look,” said Rhion, furtively. “Truth is, Zen and Ayloni are holed up in a cave in the Mountains. Meet me tomorrow at the city bus terminal. 12:30. The 35 bus. And don’t act like you know me.”

“Okay,” said Isaiah, exhaling a giant hit. “Like ignore you?”

A large black bird flew slowly down the river towards the ocean, several feet above water level. At least, it looked like a bird to Isaiah. Its long wings flapped methodically and powerfully.

The Library

The next morning, Isaiah wandered around the top of the Mall. Standing outside the St. George, he admired its Spanish Colonial architecture and orange roof tiles. At the top of the Mall stood an old ornate clock tower. On a hillock overlooking the top of the Mall stood the white cathedral and bell tower of the 200-year-old Mission Santa Cruz.

Ambling around the Pacific Garden Mall felt delightful. Built as a combination Main Street and outdoor mall, leafy trees and blossoming flowers grew in abundance. A colorful parade of California lovelies, street musicians, and healthy-looking bums made their way up and down the triple-wide sidewalks. Only buses passed on the street.

In front of the gorgeous Beaux Art-style brick Cooper House, a very old woman in rainbow clothing stood smiled at Isaiah as he passed. She looked like she was about to start dancing on the sidewalk, if only someone would provide music. In front of the bank, a block from the St. George, a man dressed as a clown sat on a bench, smoking and looking both bored and malevolent.

Soon, Isaiah made his way over to the Santa Cruz Library on Church Street. There, he headed straight to the periodical section. In the Santa Cruz Sentinel from two days before, he found the article.

LARGEST LSD BUST IN A DECADE

Last night, Santa Cruz Police executed a search warrant at the St. George Hotel on Pacific Avenue and uncovered a stash of just over 144,000 doses of LSD. The occupant of the room, Benjamin Alexander McDougal, 32, is still at large.

“We have not seen this volume of LSD in a decade,” said Police Sergeant Maurice Porcino. “We intend to prosecute this crime to fullest extent possible to protect our youth from this dangerous mind-poison.”

Unconfirmed reports indicate that the LSD is of an exceptionally high quality. In past years, LSD seizures in Santa Cruz County have involved low-grade LSD, typically mixed with methamphetamine or other adulterants.

“There has been some righteously pure acid on the streets this summer,” said one source, familiar with the local illicit drug market. “It’s like the old-time 60s acid. Puts you face to face with God herself.”

      “Poor Zen,” Isaiah said to himself, looking around the library. Many of the denizens appeared to be older, bearded, and semi-homeless looking gentlemen.

Heading Up into the Mountains

     At noon, Isaiah made his way to the bus station on Pacific Avenue. Sitting on a bench next to a wealthy looking green-haired punk rock girl with a Walkman on, he waited for Rhion and the number 35 bus.

      The bus pulled up at 12:24. As various folks got on the bus, Isaiah waited with no sign of Rhion. At the last minute, the punk rock girl got on.

      At 12:30, the bus driver shut the door of the bus. No Rhion. The bus pulled away. No Rhion.

      Isaiah sat on the bench for another half-hour until another 35 bus came and went. No Rhion. He fished an empty New Coke can out of a trash bin and walked back up Pacific Avenue.

DMT

      Sitting in the chair by the windows, Isaiah fashioned a pipe out of the can. He pushed one side of the can in on itself to make a bowl-like depression then pushed half a dozen small holes into the depression with a safety pin. Finished, he tossed the can pipe into his backpack and slung the backpack over his shoulder. As he headed out of his room, he almost bumped into a man standing directly outside his door.

      “Uh, hey,” said Isaiah to the man. The man had very long, very straight black hair parted down the middle and an odd angle in his eyes.

      “Hey, you wanna buy some food stamps?” asked the man in a soft voice.

“Seven bucks for a ten?”

      “Mmm, no thanks,” said Isaiah.

      “I’m Reemat,” said the man, not extending his hand for a handshake.

      “I’m Isaiah.” Isaiah began to edge his way past the man.

      “I’m from Neptune,” Reemat said, standing up straight.

      “I’m from Illinois. Good luck with the food stamps, man. Maybe some other time. See ya.” Isaiah made his way past Reemat, down the stairs, and out of the hotel.

      At the Soquel Avenue bridge, he called Rhion’s name several times. No response. Making his way down the grass towards the river, he called Rhion’s name again. No response. In the daytime, Isaiah could see a grassy town park on the opposite bank of the river. He made his way back up to the sidewalk and crossed the river.

      Sitting privately down by the river bank in San Lorenzo Park, Isaiah kept an eye on the bridge on the other side of the river to see if Rhion returned. Meanwhile, he pulled out the can pipe and the baggie that Rhion had sold him the previous night. He put the small reefer bud over the small holes he’d punctured in the can then drizzled the white DMT powder over the bud. As he’d seen Rhion do, he raised the can pipe to the four directions, the sky, and the river.

      “Blessings,” he imitated Rhion, then lit it with a match.

      Before he could take the pipe out of his mouth, Isaiah felt higher than he had ever been in his life. He sat frozen.

      Pastel gears appeared in the sky: pale orange, pale pink, and pale rose. They turned excruciatingly slow and seemed to be paradoxically located both beyond and within the sky.

      Suddenly but gently, two, maybe three, short elves stood at his side, ignoring him. Standing just inside his peripheral vision and dressed in working elves’ attire, these elves radiated a mood of mild petulance. For a long while, Isaiah sensed that they had been trying to get organized, but could never quite could get sufficiently organized. The world was a messy place and the elves needed a broom to clean up the mess. They had no broom. They could not find a broom. Perhaps, brooms had not yet been invented in their elfin world. Regardless, the elves knew that things needed to be cleaned up and they could never quite get things cleaned up adequately.

      A handful of minutes, or eons, later, Isaiah mentally returned to the park on the river. Like a statue of a sitting man, he still held the can pipe up to his mouth. Looking into it, he saw that another, much smaller hit remained. He lit it and held his hit.

      Time slowed to crawl. The elves did not reappear, but the shadow of their shadow appeared. Looking into the sky, the pastel gears did not reappear, but the underside of a cumulus cloud caught his fancy. It looked like a cauliflower. Isaiah liked cauliflower. He smiled and mentally returned to the park.

      Near Isaiah, three young children ran down to the riverbank chattering. They threw small sticks into the river then ran back into the park. Isaiah sat by the river and wondered how much time had passed. Fifteen minutes maybe half an hour. Maybe two hours. He didn’t know.

      Isaiah stood up. A tree branch brushed his head. Looking around, there was no tree. The branch lightly brushed his head a second time. He swept his hand over his hair, touching a sparrow as it flew away. It had been trying to land on his head.

      Isaiah looked around, feeling strange. He crossed the river back to Pacific Avenue, heading toward the ocean. After his internal voyage, he felt apart from the people walking and shopping on the Avenue. He felt quieter and not quite of their ilk.

Pacific Avenue wound around for a few blocks and ended at a municipal beach on the Pacific Ocean. Sun worshippers and families crowded the beach. To the south, the roller coaster and carnival rides of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park rose.

A wharf led out into the ocean for a quarter mile. Isaiah walked down the wharf watching the white and grey sea gulls dive. One gull swept in towards Isaiah several times, seemingly playful rather than aggressive. At the very end of the pier, he stood watching the ocean in silence for a while, looking for clues. It was truly the end of America.

St. George Hotel, Part Two

That night, as Isaiah sat in the chair by his windows at the St. George, a soft knock sounded on his door. In the inner silence of his post-psychedelic calm, he didn’t answer. Another soft knock sounded and Isaiah answered the door.

“Hey brother,” said Rhion quietly, looking both ways down the hallway then slipping into Isaiah’s room. He wore a white t-shirt, white painter’s pants, and white sneakers. His long blonde hair was pulled back in a pony tail.

“Missed you this afternoon, man,” said Isaiah, shutting the door, feeling slightly miffed. Rhion walked over near the windows but kept himself back as if concerned about being seen from the street.

“I saw you there,” Rhion said, pulling the chair back from the window and sitting down.

“You did?” said Isaiah crossly, sitting on the floor.

“Yup, you were right on time.” Rhion pulled his leather pouch and stone pipe from his front pants’ pocket.

“Yeah, man. So what’s up?”

“The time wasn’t right. The clown was on the Mall, front of the bus station. Did he follow you down there?” Rhion stuffed the pipe full of crystalline green and red flower buds.

Isaiah shook his head in resignation. Rhion raised the pipe to the four directions, the sky, and, this time, the street.

“Blessings,” Rhion said.

“I don’t know, man. I just… I don’t know…” said Isaiah, watching Rhion take a huge hit. “Man, Zen’s in trouble. I read the newspaper today. After my Mom died or whatever, he’s pretty much like the only family I got.”

“He told me about your Mom. Sounds pretty mysterious, what happened to her. The Inner Circle will protect Zen,” said Isaiah, looking at Isaiah knowingly. “All of us in the Inner Circle have been meditating for his safety.”

Rhion passed the still-smoking pipe to Isaiah. The smell of a slight summer rain drifted in through the open windows as it began to drizzle outside.

“Yeah? Cool. So what is the Inner Circle?” asked Isaiah. Rhion ignored him, took the pipe back, and squinted out the window. With his pinky finger, he poked at the burnt buds in the pipe.

“They sell Franz Bardon’s Initiation into Hermetics at the Logos bookstore down the street. I had to sell my copy. You should check it out. He wrote three books on how to develop your astral, mental, and, uh, physical selves to increase your occult powers. I think there’s a hit left,” said Rhion, handing the pipe to Isaiah.

“Yeah, so that’s what the Inner Circle is into?” asked Isaiah. Rhion ignored the question again, squinting out the window. A small wind smelling of rain blew in the windows.

“No, not really, I just like the book. Bardon was a powerful magician. After that, there’s, uh, The Practice of Magical Evolution and, uh, The Key to the True Kabballah. He just lays it all out: elemental magic, sigils, letter magic… Here, man, I’ll pack it again.”

Isaiah handed the pipe back to Rhion. Rhion packed it again.

“Cool,” said Isaiah. “Yeah, so let’s go see Zen tomorrow. I’ll be more careful going to the bus station.”

“If the clown follows you again, go in the front of a store, lose him, and hustle out the back way. Say, you need any money?” Rhion sat with the packed pipe in one hand and a lighter in the other.

“Uh okay. Money? Yeah, actually, I’m getting pretty low.”

“Taco Bell is hiring. Past the bus station on the Avenue. They’ll hire anyone. I used work there.”

“Yeah? Okay. So, we’ll go up to the Mountains tomorrow to find Zen? I had another weird dream about him last night.” Outside the window, the rain grew stronger.

“Blessings.” Rhion raised the pipe to the four directions, the sky, and the street.

“So, the 35 bus tomorrow?” asked Isaiah excitedly. “At 12:30?”

“Just lose that no-good clown,” said Rhion, nodding his head. “And don’t act like you know me on the bus. Just keep an eye on me and get off when I do.”

The Bus

At 12:20 the next afternoon, Isaiah made his way down Pacific Avenue on the still rain-wet sidewalk. Glancing about, he did not see the clown anywhere. A block from the St. George next to the Cooper House lay a narrow pedestrian alley lushly overgrown with flowering vines. Without looking around, Isaiah abruptly ducked into the alley then sprinted through it to Front Street on the other end. Running the rest of the block down Front Street, he looked back. No clown. Keeping close to the buildings, he hurried down Front Street to the bus station.

The 35 bus arrived at the bus station just as Isaiah arrived. Once again, Isaiah could not see Rhion anywhere. Isaiah sat at the same bench as the day before. No Rhion. A dozen folks got on, including a teenage girl with sunshine hair who smiled at Isaiah. At 12:30, the bus driver began to shut the doors. Suddenly, from nowhere, Rhion appeared and darted onto the bus, just as the doors shut.

Alarmed, Isaiah jumped up and knocked on the bus doors as the bus driver released the parking brake. Through the doors, the bus driver looked at Isaiah with annoyance. Isaiah pled with her with his eyes. Finally, she relented and opened the doors. Rhion had sat in the very back seat, slumped down so his head did not show above the windows. He wore the same all-white outfit as the night before and had tucked his hair into an all-white baseball cap.

Isaiah ignored him and sat in front of the teenage girl who had smiled at him. As the bus pulled out, he looked back and she gave him a half-smile.

“Hey,” said Isaiah.

“Hey,” she said, coolly. She had long straight sunshine hair and a look of inner bemusement. After a minute of silence, Isaiah caught her looking at him with a pleasant look.

“How you doin’?” he asked, as the bus passed Mission Street.

“Great,” she said. “How ’bout you?”

“Good. Just visiting out here, never been up in the Mountains.”

“Yeah? Cool. Where you from?”

“Illinois. I just came out here to visit my uncle.”

“Fun. You like it?” Isaiah shifted in his seat and put an arm on the backrest so he faced her. Looking to the back of the bus, Rhion still sat slumped in his seat, with his cap pulled low.

“Yeah, just been here a couple days, but, yeah. You live here?”

“Well, I live up in Boulder Creek, like half an hour from town.”
      Soon, the bus arrived at Highway Nine and began to ascend into the redwood Santa Cruz Mountains.

“Wow, I think you’re the first real California girl I’ve talked to so far.”

“That’s me. A real California girl. Born and raised. I love it here. Couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.”

“Yeah? I’m Isaiah, by the way.”   

“I’m Naja Aneezman,” she said, extending her hand.
      “Naja?” Tentatively, Isaiah took her hand and shook it gently. Her fingers looked long and slender.

“Yeah, Naja with a ‘j.’ N-A-J-A.”

“I love it. That’s a great name.”

“Yeah, well. My parents were hippies when I was born. ‘Were’ being the operative word.” The road twisted and turned and climbed higher. Isaiah broke their eye contact to watch the landscape passing.

“It’s mostly redwoods, like those,” she said pointing. “And those. Then, there’s some bay laurels, like… that one.”

“Cool, you can be my travel guide.”

“Sounds like fun. Where’s your uncle live?”

“Uh, he was living in Santa Cruz, right downtown, but he just moved up to the Mountains.”

“I’d like to have a place in town, maybe by the ocean, then a little cabin to visit in the Mountains. Or maybe a house in the Mountains and a cabin in town. Or whatever, I guess. Did you know there’s still wild panthers up in the Mountains?”

“Really?”

“I heard one once but didn’t see it. My brother and I were in the state park, we’ll drive by it, and we heard this low moaning. We just kept quiet and walked away from it. My brother got super scared.”

“How do you know it was a panther?”
      “Cause it sounded like this: ‘mooooooooooowwwwwwnnnnnnn.’” They both laughed.

“Hey,” she asked with a crooked smile. “Why wouldn’t the lobsters share their lunch?”

“Uh, why?”

“Because they’re shellfish.” Isaiah laughed. Her blue eyes looked into his with a trippy intensity.

“I love dumb jokes,” she said.

“Me too. Uh, hold on, no, okay, why did the mermaid wear seashells?”

“I do not know why,” she said in a fake German accent.

“Because the b-shells were too small.” As Naja erupted in laughter, a spittle from her mouth landed on Isaiah’s face.

“Oh god, I am so sorry!” she said. Isaiah wiped his face off and smiled.

“Don’t worry about it. People always do that when I tell that joke.”
      “I love that joke. I’m really sorry.”

“No sweat. Hey, check this out. I swear it’s true,” Isaiah said confidentially.

“What?” She leaned forward.

“Like yesterday, I was in that park by downtown, on the river, just hanging out by myself, nothing special, and, out of the blue, a sparrow landed on my head. Boom, like I was a bird’s nest.”

“Wow,” she said, wiping her mouth. “What’d you do?”

“I just stood there and watched it fly away. It was weird.”

“That’s auspicious. Birds trust you. It definitely means something.” In the back of the bus, Rhion edged his eyes over the back windows and watched the cars behind them.
      “Yeah? I don’t know, but another time, when I was a little kid, maybe seven, I was out in the woods and a tiny bird started fluttering in front of me. I put out my hand, flat, like this, and it landed on my hand.”

“Shut up!” she said, looking into his eyes with the intense trippy look again.

“I swear! I stared at it for I don’t know, ten or fifteen seconds and it flew away.”

“You’re the birdman. Cool.” Isaiah sat back in his seat and Naja looked out the side window.

“I gotta be careful or I get car-sick,” she said. “Or bus-sick.”

The bus stopped in front of a Safeway grocery store in the small town of Felton. Some folks got off and some got on. Isaiah watched Rhion, who remained immobile, slumped firmly down in the back seat.

“How far you going?” Naja asked.

“Uh, just up aways further,” replied Isaiah.

“Boulder Creek’s the last stop,” she said. “Where my family lives.”

“Yeah? Never been there.”
      “It’s just a little Mountain town. It’s pretty. The river runs through there. Or the creek, I guess. Boulder Creek. Yeah…”
      “Yeah?” said Isaiah quietly. The bus pulled away and got back on Highway Nine, winding its way up the Mountains. After Felton, the bus passed a state park. Once again, Rhion peeked above the back windows of the bus to survey the cars behind the bus.

“That’s where we saw the panther,” Naja said, pointing at the state park. “Or heard the panther. I think it was a female panther, but I don’t really know.”

“Cool. Yeah… Are a lot of Californians into spiritual stuff? Like, my uncle and all his friends are really into spiritual stuff. It’s all new to me. Or mostly new, I guess.”
      “Like Christian stuff or New Age stuff?”

“Definitely not Christian. I guess New Age stuff.”

“A lot of people around here are into that stuff. Not everybody. My mom’s into that New Age stuff. I’m open minded but, for me, science and numbers make more sense than most of that stuff.”

“Numbers? Like math and stuff?”

“Yup,” she said, stretching her fingers on the back of Isaiah’s seat. “I’m into numbers. I don’t know why, really, but it’s my thing.”

“Hey, to each, his own. So, do you have a favorite number?”

“Prime numbers are my favorite. You know, 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, all that. When I need to calm down, I just recite prime numbers in my head. Weird, I know.”

 “Wow. I guess I have a scientific mindset, too, but, yeah, I’m open minded. Who knows what’s really going on, you know, like what ‘reality’ really is.”
      “For sure,” she said. Isaiah smiled at her and repeated her name inside his head. Naja Aneezman. She half-smiled at him then looked out the window. The small town of Ben Lomond approached. The bus crossed a river and stopped in front of a coffee shop by the grocery store. After pulling away from the bus stop, just before another bridge over a river, the bus passed a stone building that looked like a small European castle.

“Whoa, what is that?” Isaiah asked, looking back at the castle. Below the bridge, a handful of small cottages right on the river also caught his attention.

“They call it the Vampire Castle,” said Naja with a mysterious look. “Supposedly, some like actor who played Dracula used to live there.”

“Cool.”

The bus slowed but didn’t stop at a tiny town named Brookdale, seemingly consisting only of a bar and a lodge. As the bus sped up again, Rhion repeatedly poked his head above the back windows, looking back.

“So, how long you out here for?” Naja asked.

“I’m not sure. Maybe the whole summer. Probably gonna get a job.”

“A midwestern boy on the loose, huh?”

“I guess.”

“So, how’d you get that scar? I’m sorry, is that too personal? It looks kinda cool, though?”

“Yeah? No, it’s fine. I actually don’t know. I got really high a couple years ago and woke up in the bushes with my cheek all bleeding. It healed and now I got like a crescent moon on my cheek.”

“Seriously, you don’t know how?”

“Yup.” Isaiah touched the scar gently with the tips of his fingers and shrugged.

“It makes you look like a pirate. In a good way.”

“Yeah?” As Isaiah happened to glance back at Rhion, Rhion’s hand shot up and pulled the bus wire, which rang a bell, indicating for the driver to stop at the next stop. After pulling the wire, Rhion slunk back down in his seat, but kept his eyes above the back windows, looking back.

When the bus stopped, Rhion darted out the side door. Isaiah stood up and faced Naja.

“Well, this is my stop. It was really fun talking to you, Naja Aneezman.”

“Yeah, maybe I’ll see you again before you leave.”

“I hope so. Bye,” said Isaiah.

“See ya, Birdman.”

He smiled at her and she returned a half-smile. As he bounded off the bus with his eyes on Rhion’s back, he already missed her.

The Cave

Isaiah and Rhion sat on the bench inside the bus stop kiosk where they had gotten off the bus. Rhion looked up and down Highway Nine nervously.

“All right,” Rhion said. “Keep an eye on these cars. If the same car passes, either way, we go back to town… In a couple minutes, start walking up the road. A couple hundred yards up, turn left up the third driveway. I’ll meet you there.”

Only a couple of cars passed the rural bus stop. Finally, Rhion indicated with his hand for Isaiah to start walking. The thick and tall redwoods shaded the two-lane highway such that only erratic shafts of sunlight shone through. Unlike town, the Mountains possessed a stately quiet. Isaiah walked up the highway then turned left at the third driveway and slowed his walk.

After a few minutes, Rhion caught up. A wise and satisfied look filled his pale face.

“I think we’re good. Come on,” said Rhion, hurrying along. The driveway passed one house on the highway then climbed steeply. After several minutes, they passed an abandoned and dusty vintage burgundy Cadillac. Someone had drawn an ‘Om’ symbol in the dust on the windshield. Eventually, Isaiah could see ahead that the driveway ended at a small somewhat decrepit one-story apartment building. No cars were parked in front of it. Before they walked in plain view of the building, Rhion quickly turned left onto a slight path off the driveway.

“Follow me,” Rhion said, climbing the steep path. Isaiah slid once, but Rhion kept climbing, rapidly and sure-footed. Curiously, Isaiah spotted a small banana on the path and bent to pick it up. In his fingers, the banana felt gooey, alive, and had a small pair of tiny horns at one end.

“What in the world?” exclaimed Isaiah, dropping the yellow thing.

“Banana slug,” said Rhion, looking back then continuing the climb.

“Banana slug,” repeated Isaiah, watching the bright yellow slug slowly writhe on the ground.

At last, the path leveled out in front of a rock outcropping that tunneled back into Mountain. Darting into the outcropping, Rhion began lifting stones and snooping around.

“Is this it? The cave?” Isaiah asked.

“ZEN!” Rhion called. There was no response.

“He would have left a note,” Rhion said.

“Uncle Zen!” Isaiah called. Again, there was no response.

The floor of the cave outcropping was perfectly level and smooth. On one edge lay a ring of stones circling a small fire pit. On a ledge on the side, Isaiah found half a dozen fine quartz and amethyst crystals arranged.

“Looks like he might have been here,” Isaiah said.

“Look for a note or something.”

“Right.” Isaiah looked inside the fire pit. No fire smoldered at all, but it looked like a single sheet of notebook paper had been burned on top of the fire remnants. Isaiah could see the lines on it. He tried to pick it up, but it crumbled into ashes in his hand.

“Here it is,” said Rhion, pulling a dry piece of folded notebook paper from under an album-sized flat stone on the ledge by the crystals.

R (and I?),

The Eagles have flown us north. We look forward to seeing you soon. We’ll be in touch via the riverine grapevine.

With all the love in the world, May the blessings be, Z & A

      Resigned, Isaiah and Rhion sat down on the floor of the cave outcropping and gazed across the tops of the redwood trees. Rhion pulled his black stone pipe out and packed it, dusting the top with white DMT powder.

      “Who are the Eagles? Like the rock band?” asked Isaiah.

“Yes, the rock band. Just kidding. No, not the rock band. You know, I was one of the last Americans drafted into Vietnam,” Rhion said. “December 1972. Zen drew a high number and missed it. Yeah… In the summertime, the river in town is much drier. A bunch of Vietnam vets live down in the bottoms camping out. ‘The Eagles.’ Yeah.”

“Okay, but… So, that’s who the Eagles are, huh? A bunch of homeless Vietnam vets?”

“Wanna get high?” asked Rhion, raising the pipe.

“Sure, man. The Eagles, huh?”

“Owe me the ten?”

Isaiah nodded and Rhion raised the pipe to the four directions, the sky and the mountains.

“Blessings,” Rhion said. He took the first hit, making sure to ignite only half of the DMT. Closing his eyes, he handed the pipe to Isaiah.

Isaiah lit it. Once again, he felt higher than the clouds before he could take the pipe all the way out of his mouth.

Looking up into the sky, instead of pale pastel gears, he saw a vast pale pastel architecture behind the sky. It was phenomenally ornate and geometric. Not buildings, but the inner machinery of buildings. Shades of orange, pink, and rose: all pale and pastel.

Gradually his awareness left the sky and settled on his immediate surroundings. He realized that this very mountain was Faerie Mountain. Or used to be Faerie Mountain. Inside was the Hall of the Elfin King. Or used to the Hall of Elfin King. He couldn’t be sure.

On the perimeter of his vision, but within his awareness, elves hid behind the redwood trees, watching him. He couldn’t see them, but he could sense their movements behind the trees. Hiding. Watching. Judging him. Weighing his soul on elfin scales.

Isaiah pulled the pipe away from his mouth. Again, he didn’t know if fifteen minutes or two hours had passed.

Rhion had vanished. Standing up, he found Zen’s cryptic note amongst the crystals and amethyst on the cave ledge and reread it.

“RHION!” Isaiah called loudly. “HEY! RHION!”

There was no response. Isaiah sat down and took a last hit on the pipe. The DMT was gone and it was a reefer-only hit.

“RHION!” Isaiah called again. No response.

      As Isaiah pondered the psychedelic mysteries he had just encountered, a physical calm spread through his limbs. He accepted Zen’s flight. He accepted Rhion’s abrupt disappearance. And he thought of the smiling sunshine-tressed teenage girl on the bus: Naja Aneezman.

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