The Button

                                                            Receive the Holy Spirit.

                                                            If you forgive men’s sins,

                                                            They are forgiven them;

                                                            If you hold them bound,

                                                            They are bound.

John 20: 19-23

His eyes opened in a darkness deeper and more absolute than that behind his eyelids. The room was painted entirely black and had no visible seams, and thus seemed to have no boundaries.

In his mind was a void as complete as that which surrounded him. There was no recollection of his name, his occupation, his childhood, or indeed his age. He might have been a child still, for all he knew. Yet he felt that he was a man, and that men of necessity posses such things. He knew what a school, a playground, a church, a mall, were, but he could not say if he had ever been to one.

Though he was aware of this gaping emptiness in his being, he was, curiously, not greatly concerned about it. In fact, he was amazingly calm. Even the fact that he couldn’t move did not greatly disturb him. But that was not strictly true. He found that his right hand was free, his otherwise all-encompassing paralysis ending at the wrist.

Seeking to explore the boundaries of his world, he reached his hand as far as possible—this way and that—finding that when he fully extended his index finger its tip covered a raised circular button. Having nothing better to do, he pressed down upon it.

There was a momentary delay, and then a soothing, androgynous voice said, simply, “Hello.”

Before he could reply or inquire as to why he might be bound in such a manner, the voice enlightened him.

“You have volunteered to serve as an impartial court of last appeal for a condemned killer,” the voice explained. “To render you as impartial as possible, we have removed any memories of previous experiences that may have colored your judgment.

“If you so decide,” the voice continued, “you will be this criminal’s executioner, but it is also within your power to grant life. The person may walk out of this facility with no recollection of the crime or, indeed, the person’s previous life. The person will be given a job suitable to their particular abilities. In time, the person will become, once again, a productive member of society, with friends and loved ones. This has never, in a thousand cases, failed to come to pass. You need not fear that you are releasing a wolf amongst sheep. This person will never kill again.

“There is no reason to doubt the guilt of this person. The conviction was not based on circumstantial evidence, but a freely given confession supported by irrefutable proof. The condemned expresses profound grief over the act, which was committed in the heat of passion, and was in no way premeditated. The condemned realizes that act of killing another human is wrong, and feels no satisfaction over the death of his victim, only remorse.

“You are charged with determining this person’s fate. There is no further appeal. When you have reached your verdict, press the button again.”

His world was once again silence and tranquility. Free from memories and prejudices, he was left to struggle with what he knew of morality, of right and wrong. The decision was not a quick one or and easy one. As is proper with matters of life and death, it was slow and painful.

In his mind, it came down to three questions, which he asked himself repeatedly. Do you believe in the sanctity of human life? Do you believe that people can change? Do you believe in forgiveness?

When at last he had answered these questions in a manner satisfactory to himself, he pressed the button.

“What say you?” the voice answered. “Life—or death?”

He found that he could speak although, until this point, he had not tried to.

“Life.” It was said with the strength of conviction and a conscience at peace with itself.

“Very well,” replied the carefully modulated voice. There was silence.

Slowly, so as not to hurt his eyes, the room became lit. Gradually, in subtle increments, he found that he could move and, eventually, stand.

He walked through a door, which had appeared where none had been evident before, and down a lighted hallway that led him out of the facility and back into the fold of society, secure in the knowledge that justice had been served.

***

Meanwhile, in a room only scant feet from the one he had just vacated, a woman sat in an identical condition. She had awakened and pressed the button. The voice had told her much the same thing as it had told him, except in the particulars of the crime, which was coldly premeditated, exceedingly brutal, and from which the killer had derived a great deal of satisfaction. There was no remorse.

“When you have reached your verdict, press the button again.”

There was no hesitation, no great debate. To be charged with the fate of a human life! To take that life! Surely, there was only one choice to be made.

“What say you? Life—or death?”

The woman pressed the button convulsively, repeatedly.

“Death!” The woman rasped with finality, with a sense of power—and joy.

“Very well—and may God have mercy on your soul.”

A deadly current surged into her finger, still spasmodically pressing the button, and stilled her heart.

Justice served.

“The Button” was originally published by Minnesota Technolog, after earning first place in its 1999 Science Fiction Contest.

Drill & Kill

My classroom doesn’t have any furniture in it. It’s Tuesday, September 4, 2001, the first day of my first year as a third-grade teacher in Shadywood, California, and my students are sitting in a circle on the floor of our trailer — I mean, bungalow.

My students, the bright-eyed children of Mexican, Guatemalan, and Salvadorean immigrants, sit crosslegged on a carpet that is a mottled mixture of gray, blue, and red threads — the colors of a soiled American flag.

The Shadywood Unified School District selected this carpet, the night custodian informed me, because it hides puke stains better than any other blend of colors. Good. I feel like I’m going to throw up.

Parents peek through the front window, brows as furrowed as freshly plowed fields as they watch me pass out the twenty secondhand dictionaries that we will use as lapdesks until our thirdhand desks arrive.

***

The principal has a bolt in her neck.

I’d been trying so hard not to stare at her unibrow the first time we’d met that I guess I just didn’t notice. But there it is, neatly labeled in crayon, in Shirley’s drawing: “THE PRINCIPAL,” and below that, an arrow shaped like a bolt of lightning points to an object vaguely resembling a sparkplug protruding from a spot just above her shoulder, “THE BOLT IN THE PRINCIPAL’S NECK.”

My students are standing up one by one, sharing their pictures of the school. I’m only half-paying attention, wondering if 8-year-olds understand sarcasm well enough to appreciate a quip about the flatteringly slimming effects of stick-figure portraits, so, at first, I think that I misheard Shirley’s explanation of her drawing.

“Excuse me, dear, what did you say that is?” I ask.

“That’s the bolt in her neck,” Shirley says matter-of-factly.

“Now, Shirley, that’s not very nice,” I chide. “The principal doesn’t have a bolt in her neck.”

“Yes, she does, teacher,” blurts David, to a chorus of yeahs.

Turns out that it’s common knowledge on the playground that the principal does, indeed, have a bolt in her neck, though because her black hair hangs to her shoulders, it can rarely be seen.

The students are divided into several schools of thought regarding this bolt, the most popular theory by far being that the principal is, basically, a female version of Frankenstein’s monster. This theory is seemingly supported by the fact that she is a … um, sturdy woman with an ashen complexion and a penchant for wearing black.

A variation on this is that the principal is a cyborg, a robot wrapped in human flesh, and the bolt is where she clamps jumper cables attached to her car battery in order to recharge.

In either case, the consensus seems clear: the principal is a monster.

***

Years from now, people will ask, “Where were you when the World Trade Center towers fell?”

I’m in the teachers’ lounge. Someone has commandeered the principal’s small black-and-white TV and placed it on top of the Xerox machine. We watch in shocked silence. Outside, I can hear our students trickling in, blissfully unaware.

The networks begin to replay the grainy images. I avert my eyes, just as I would from the rhythmic flash of the Xerox machine upon which the TV is perched.

Mr. Perdú, a shell-shocked veteran of the trenches of Shadywood Unified, retrieves a flask hidden in the depths of the copying machine.

“Hey, Perdú, pass me some of that ‘toner.’”

***

Pitifully, the best reassurance that I can give my students is that no one knows where Shadywood is, that there’s nothing in Shadywood important enough to destroy.

“The terrorists won’t find us,” I tell them. “Even the furniture deliverers can’t find us, and they have our address.”

***

Something’s rotten in the cafetorium.

I’d like to think that, if I had designed our school, I could have come up with a name for a combination cafeteria and auditorium that wasn’t quite so ugly and authoritarian, like “dinner theatre.” But I doubt even that would have inspired the custodians to expend more energy on its upkeep.

Mostly, I think it’s the half-drunk cartons of milk curdling in the industrial-size trash bins pushed into the folds of the heavy canvas curtains that frame the worn boards of the proscenium stage.

As I carry the box containing my teacher’s guides for our new reading program back to the table the third grade teachers have staked out for the weekly staff meeting, my foot slips on a dark red splotch of what I hope is ketchup.

Sitting between my fellow rookie teacher, Millie, and Mr. Perdú on one of the long benches, I flip open a spiral-bound volume labeled “Presentation Manual” and am surprised to see that each lesson is completely scripted, the words I’m supposed to say spelled out in purple ink.

“What do I need a script for?” I ask. “I’m probably the only 22-year-old Midwesterner who ever moved to Southern California who doesn’t want to be an actor.”

Mr. Perdú turns to face me, but before he can reply the principal taps the microphone clamped to the podium with one blunt finger, signaling the start of the meeting.

“I see that everybody has picked up their teacher’s editions for our new reading program, Direct Instruction,” she says. “Typically, D.I. is used as an intervention program for remedial students, but our kids scored so poorly on last spring’s standardized tests that I’ve decided to adopt this as our core reading curriculum.

“Direct Instruction has been scientifically proven to elevate the reading skills of at-risk children like ours well into the average range,” she proclaims proudly. “Now, I’ll admit this isn’t the most exciting program. It places a heavy emphasis on rote repetition of vocabulary words as a means of building students’ decoding skills, but with so many inexperienced teachers on our staff, the scripted format should be helpful.”

Not quite sure if that was an insult, I squint at the principal’s face, hoping to glimpse some clue in her expression. Or that bolt.

“Repetition’s the key. What’s the key?” the principal asks. She looks right at me and raises an eyebrow.

“Repetition?” I venture.

“Exactly,” she says, smirking.

“Drill and kill,” Mr. Perdú sneers, pushing his materials away with disdain.

“What is it that gets killed, exactly?” I whisper.

“The children’s spirits, mostly,” he replies.

***

I knock lightly on the frame of the principal’s open door. She pries her eyes away from her typing fingers just long enough to squint at my face and venture a guess.

“Yes, Mr. … White, isn’t it?”

“Um, no. It’s Mr. Black, actually. Mr. White is black. I’m white.”

The principal snorts. Stops typing just long enough to scribble on a Post-It: “Mr. White = black. Mr. Black = white.”

“So Mr. …,” she consults her note, “Black, what can I do for you?” She turns back to her typing.

“My room doesn’t have any furniture in it.”

“Still? That was supposed to be delivered on Friday. Are you sure that they didn’t deliver it on Friday?”

“I’m pretty sure that I would have noticed twenty desks.”

She nods absentmindedly, ruffling the heavy black curtain of hair that hangs to her shoulder. For an instant, I catch the barest glimpse of … something, maybe a large mole, on the side of her neck.

“Yes, I suppose you would’ve,” she concedes. “Tell you what — I’ll call the district office about it right after I finish this.”

“Thanks.”

She nods without taking her eyes off her fingers, and there it is again, whatever it might be.

“So, what are you working on?” I ask, hoping to bait her into another nod through some clever conversational gambit.

“In light of recent events, I’ve decided to update the school’s emergency plan.”

“Say, that reminds me. I meant to ask you about the earthquake drill that we’re having tomorrow. We didn’t have earthquake drills where I grew up, but I gather that the students are supposed to duck underneath their desks for protection, right?”

“That’s right.”

“So what should my students do?”

“What do you mean?”

“They don’t have desks.”

The principal stops typing. Stares at me.

“They can’t participate in an earthquake drill if they don’t have desks,” she says.

“Exactly. I was thinking that maybe we could skip this one, since —” Her glare cuts me off.

“I take my drills very seriously, Mr. White. You’ll have desks by tomorrow morning.”

***

On Friday, the district is finally thoughtful enough to send us some broken-down thirdhand chairs and desks.

When my children spring up off of the floor and jump for joy over those rickety chairs and wobbly desks, I honestly think I’m going to cry. It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.

***

Dead weight. That’s what the pale blue plastic tub feels like in my arms, its contents concealed by the matching lid’s airtight embrace. I lower it gently onto the faux wood tabletop.

Curious, I pop open the lid, releasing a whiff of new plastic and … something else. A typed sheet of instructions perches precariously on top of the items inside:

Directorate: Operations

Medical Branch, Morgue

 

Start-Up Actions:           Set up morgue area. Verify:

·       Tile, concrete, or other cool floor substance.

·       Accessible to coroner’s vehicle.

·       Remote from student assembly area.

 

Operational Duties:        After pronouncement of death:

·       Confirm that the person is actually dead.

·       Do not remove any personal effects from the body. Personal effects must remain with the body at all times.

·       Write the following information on two tags:

1. Date and time found.

2. Exact location where found.

3. Name of deceased, if known.

4. If identified, how, when, and by whom.

5. Name of person filling out tag.

·       Attach one tag to body.

·       If the coroner’s office will not be able to pick up the body soon, place the body in plastic trash bag(s) and tape securely to prevent unwrapping. Securely attach the second tag to the outside of the bag.

·       When moving bodies, take care to lift with your legs, not your back.

·       Maintain a respectful attitude.

 

Shutting Down:              After all bodies have been picked up, close down the

morgue.

·       Return all equipment and unused supplies.

·       Clean up area. Safely dispose of hazardous waste.

 

Equipment:                   Tags                                         Vick’s Vapo Rub

Pens/Pencils                               Plastic tarps

Plastic trash bags                            Stapler

Duct tape                                   Pocket-sized mirror

 

“What the fuck?” I gasp, earning automatic glares from several of the other teachers gathered in the cafetorium for this week’s staff meeting.

Millie pulls her eyes away from the contents of her purple plastic tub.

“Triage?” she asks.

“Triage?” I ask.

“Yeah, I’ve been assigned to triage. What does that mean?”

“Um, I think it means that you decide who gets medical treatment and who … comes to visit me in the morgue.”

“Morgue?” she asks.

“Morgue,” I say.

***

“What’s the Vick’s Vapo Rub for?” Millie asks after reading my list of “equipment.”

Knowing, I sigh. “Ever seen The Silence of the Lambs?”

Millie, perplexed, frowns. “Yeah, but what’s that got to do with this? I mean, if Hannibal Lecter got loose on campus, that would clearly be cause for a lockdown drill, not an.…” She trails off, glances down at the still-warm, pale photocopy hanging limply in her hand. “An ‘Emergency Crisis Plan.’”

I roll my eyes. “This has nothing to do with Hannibal Lecter. Remember the scene where the FBI agents are examining a body they dredged out of a swamp?”

“Sorta.”

“They put Vick’s Vapo Rub under their nose to overpower the stench of decomposition.”

Millie looks down at the murky blue Vick’s bottle. “Ewww.”

Well said, Millie. Well said.

Gingerly, I unscrew the pale green lid. The pungent scent of the Vapo Rub hits me like a spring-loaded boxing glove in a cartoon. My head jerks away from the bottle and back into childhood: my mother smearing Vick’s on my hairless chest, daubing it under the red rims of my congested nostrils as I lay, limp and feverish, shrouded in my Charlie Brown sheets.

***

As soon as all the color-coded plastic tubs have been distributed, the principal steps up to the podium. This appears to be merely a small step forward, but is actually a giant leap backward.

She clears her throat theatrically, attracting our attention just long enough to get the meeting rolling.

“Since 9/11, I know that many of you have been asking yourselves ‘How can we protect our students from terrorism?’” she begins. “Well, I’ve come up with a historically validated anti-terrorist mechanism.”

We are a room full of jaded professional educators, yet we look up at the principal with wide-eyed wonder. Could it be true?

“You see,” she says, “when I was a child, we had air-raid drills. Every week, without fail, the air-raid siren would wail. Our teachers would don civil defense helmets and herd us into the only subterranean space in the school, the boiler room, where we would huddle next to crates full of Tang and shelves stocked with Spam. When we complained about the unbearable heat of the rattling old Weil-McLain boiler, our teachers would remind us that this was nothing compared to the flesh-searing effects of nuclear fallout.

“That shut us up, because we could see that our teachers were really afraid – they believed the air-raid drills were preparing us for something that was certain to happen, and soon.

“But those air raids never did come. The warheads never fell from the sky. Nuclear fallout never seared our flesh.

“And do you know why? Because we rehearsed for a nuclear attack. Because we were prepared. Think about it.

“Not convinced? I’ll give you another example. Mr. Perdú — how long have you been at this school?”

Mr. Perdú snaps to his feet like an old soldier nearing the end of his final tour of duty. “Twenty-five years now,” he barks.

“And in that time, Mr. Perdú, how many fire drills would you say that you have participated in? Hundreds?”

“Thousands,” says Mr. Perdú.

“And how many times has the school actually caught fire, Mr. Perdú?”

“Well, none, actually.”

“Exactly my point,” exclaims the principal. “This same mechanism will protect us from terrorism. The more we prepare for a terrorist attack, the less likely it will be to ever happen.

“Repetition’s the key. What’s the key?” the principal demands triumphantly.

“Repetition,” we drone in unison.

***

My hand shoots up into the air involuntarily.

“Yes, Mr. Black?”

I stand on shaky legs. “Why am I assigned to the morgue?”

The principal makes eye contact with Ms. Escalada, the school’s self-appointed safety coordinator. She is, without a doubt, the co-author of this ridiculous plan. Their mouths smirk knowingly at each other under arched eyebrows.

“Well, Mr. Black,” the principal says with mock gravity, “we thought that you looked the part.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“Well, you do wear a lot of black.”

“What? That’s a ridiculous selection criterion!”

“Well, what would have been a better one, Mr. Black? Previous work experience? We don’t have any former morticians on staff.”

I scan the list of emergency occupations to see who’s assigned to be my partner in the morgue. “What about Ms. Addams?” I ask. “She doesn’t wear a lot of black. Why did you pick her?”

The principal trades glances with Ms. Escalada again.

“Free association, Mr. Black,” she manages to say straight-faced. “Mortician, Ms. Addams — Morticia Addams.”

Mr. Perdú chuckles.

“The morgue will be located in Room 1,” the principal continues.

Mr. Perdú stops chuckling. His hand shoots up into the air.

“Yes, Mr. Perdú?”

Mr. Perdú stands. “Why is my classroom going to be the morgue?”

“Because your classroom has the most reliable air conditioner. Gotta keep those Popsicles frosty.” The principal chuckles and, with an almost imperceptible toss of her head, there it is again: that, that thing on the side of her neck.

Even if the kids aren’t right about it being a bolt, I can’t argue with their ultimate conclusion anymore: The principal is a monster.

***

My girlfriend can’t stop laughing.

“What the hell’s so funny about the thought of me having to stuff dead kids into Hefty bags?” I ask.

Gwen falls over sideways on the sofa, clutching her sides.

“Well,” she manages to gasp between guffaws, “you do wear a lot of black, babe.”

“That’s a mnemonic device to help the students remember my name, not an indication that I’d make a good undertaker.”

***

I’m sitting on the edge of the roughly finished concrete flowerbed, a kind of low earthworks fortification that is the school’s second line of defense — after the terrorists scale the fence of black iron bars that lines the perimeter, they’ll have to somehow surmount the withered rose bushes.

It’s 3:14. Contractually, I was free to hit the gate at three, but like most days, I’m waiting for Steph’s parents to pick her up.

Steph is a chubby-faced cherub in a baby T-shirt whose sequined letters reveal that “boys lie.” Like most of the kids milling around between the fence and the flowerbed, she’s slurping away at a frozen treat purchased from the ice cream trucks that circle our school like news choppers orbiting a particularly spectacular accident.

Steph must have been subliminally influenced by all the patriotic assemblies — she bought one of those red, white, and blue Popsicles. What are those called?

“Hey, Steph, what are those called?”

She pulls the torpedo-shaped treat out of her mouth. Regards it with a practiced eye. The red has bled onto the white. She frowns.

“These?” she asks. “Um, let’s see … oh, yeah — ‘Bomb Pops.’ ”

“That’s right,” I say. “How appropriate. Patriotism and explosions do seem to go hand-in-hand nowadays.”

“Huh?” asks Steph, bewildered. Then, suddenly, her face lights up. Does she get it, somehow?

Nope.

“My mom!” she yells, bolting from our perch on the flowerbed.

***

The first letters containing anthrax started turning up in Washington, D.C., in early October.

Our first book order of the year arrives in Shadywood a couple of weeks later.

One of the unadulterated pleasures of elementary school for me, both as a student and now again as a teacher, has always been the opening of the book-order box. Splaying the blunted blades of a pair of safety scissors and slicing through the brown packing tape with the top one to reveal the treasure trove of books that have somehow remained neatly stacked. Lifting the first volume to the nostrils for a sniff of that already effervescing new-book smell.

As much as my senses have been enthralled by those boxes over the years, I’ve never noticed the fine white powder that collects in the corners. Apparently, someone else has, if only recently.

Perched on top of the pile of Harry Potter and Captain Underpants novels is a slip of white paper. “Dear Educator,” it starts, “As part of our continuing commitment to serving teachers, parents, and children, and in light of the current difficult climate, we want to provide you with the following information:

“It is a common and longstanding industry process among book printers to use powders (such as cornstarch) in the printing process of magazine and book products to prevent pages from sticking together. This process sometimes results in a visible white residue in book and magazine packages. Our printers have assured us that this substance is safe and poses no health risk to consumers.”

Oh, OK. Good.

***

The alarm sounds. Two short bursts. The dry-erase marker in my hand squeals to a halt three-quarters of the way through the loop of a cursive k. I try to unscramble the alarm’s morose Morse code. Two short bursts?

“Fire drill?” I venture.

Wordlessly, Kimberly — my brightest student, a natural leader — drops her pencil, walks toward the door. The other kids follow her lead, form a line as straight as Kimberly’s bangs.

“Good job, guys. Excellent line,” I mutter as I extricate their emergency cards from my desk drawer.

Since 9/11, the principal has redesigned the emergency cards. When we were almost as innocent as our students, they were just 5” x 7” white index cards bearing each child’s name and a couple of emergency contacts. Now, the principal has expanded them to an 11” x 17” tabloid sheet to make room for a photo, a full set of fingerprints, current dental records, and a strand of the child’s hair (for the purposes of DNA identification).

I wedge the emergency cards under my left arm, pull the plastic tub out of its hiding place under my desk, and lug it to the head of the line one-handed. I pop the door open with my left hip.

“All right, guys,” I say. “Here we go.”

We file out of the room, heading for the gap between our bungalow and the next, the claustrophobic causeway that will lead us to our designated assembly point on the upper grade playground. Hopefully, we won’t be the last ones there.

Nope.

We’re first.

Well, not quite. The principal is standing there, alone, her broad back to us.

“Uh-oh,” I say.

She whirls around, her two-inch heels stirring up a cloud of dust that swirls around her like a tornado and lifts her hair skyward, exposing the nodule jutting out of her neck. She levels her battery-powered bullhorn at us as if it were a gun.

A tornado. That’s one thing they don’t rehearse for out here in Hollywood. Good thing, since most of the schools out here are at least half trailer park, I mean, bungalow grove.

Tornado drills — back pressed against a windowless wall in the southwest corner of the school, put your head between your knees and kiss your ass good-bye — were just one of the things I had left behind in the Midwest. One time, my teacher confused the tornado siren for the fire alarm, led us outside, heads bent forward, struggling against the gale force winds that whipped woodchips at our faces —

Shit. This isn’t a —

“This isn’t a fire drill, Mr. Black! This is a lockdown drill! Get those children inside! Now!”

***

Gwen’s pet name for me is “goat,” and I call her “duck.” There’s a story behind that, of course – we wandered into a petting zoo during one of our first dates – but it’s one those anecdotes that’s really only cute if you were there at the time.

When they finally delivered my desk to the classroom, I decided that I didn’t want to display a photo of Gwen and I on it – you know how kids get the giggles – so I keep a stuffed goat and duck on it to remind me of her, instead.

***

“Next word. That word is ‘plans.’ What word?” I call, following the purple arrow under the word in the Direct Instruction presentation manual with my index finger.

The kids in the lower reading group, seated before me in a ragged half circle of rickety chairs, follow my finger with their eyes. The movements of their pupils are eerily synchronized.

“Plans,” they drone in monotone voices.

“Good,” I read from the script. “Next word. That word is ‘planes.’ What word?”

“Planes,” they intone, mesmerized eyes tracking my finger like a hypnotist’s swinging pocket watch.

Leaning against the back wall of my classroom, the principal glances at her stopwatch, then checks a box on the evaluation form clamped to her clipboard. We’re behind schedule, she’s informed me. The President had read “The Pet Goat” to the class he was visiting in Florida the morning of September 11th; we’re just getting to it today.

“All right, guys,” I say, setting the script aside for a minute. “Today’s story is about a girl with a pet goat. Who knows what goats are called in Spanish? I’ll give you a hint: it’s the name of a Mexican soccer team.”

“Just follow the script, Mr. Black,” the principal barks from the back of the classroom.

Glaring at the principal, I read exactly what it says in the presentation manual: “[First child to teacher’s right], could you read the first four sentences, please?”

The students exchange confused looks.

“Mr. Black,” the principal growls.

“David, could you read the first four sentences, please?” I ask, feeling my cheeks flush with humiliation as I lower my eyes.

“Sure, teacher,” David says. He reads haltingly: “A girl got a pet goat. She liked to go running with her pet goat. She played with the goat in her house. She played with the goat in her yard.”

“Good reading,” I read. Refusing to make eye contact with the principal, I stare past her instead, at the stuffed goat on the corner of my desk. “Cristobal, the next five sentences, please.”

Cristobal gulps, then picks his way through lines laced with landmines of nonsense. “But the goat did some things that mad the girl’s dad mad. The goat ate things. He ate cans and he ate canes. He ate pans and he ate panes. He even ate capes and caps.”

I don’t look up from the script, even after I hear the principal slam the door behind her while Carlos trudges through the next paragraph. “One day her dad said, ‘That goat must go. He eats too many things.’”

Yeah, the goat eats too many things. Like his pride.

***

Another thing that my room doesn’t have is a public address system. What, actually who, we have is Carmen, the librarian, going door to door down the double rows of bungalows. Not used to being the center of attention, she looks down nervously at the two sentences printed on the note card in her hands, reads her lines like a movie extra surprised and frightened to be granted a speaking part in the larger drama unfolding around her.

“This is an earthquake drill,” Carmen reads, risking a quick glance away from the card to make a token attempt at eye contact with the students. “Please DROP, COVER, and HOLD.”

Then she’s gone, the director cutting away from the extra, leaving Carmen only two speaking parts shy of earning her SAG card, leaving us crammed under our desks.

DROP to your knees, COVER the back of your head and neck with your right arm, and HOLD on to the leg of your desk with your left. And then WAIT.

And then the lights go off. Several of the children gasp. I sigh. The principal must have killed the electricity to simulate a power disruption.

In the darkness, my students’ faces are reduced to sidewalk chalk drawings – tan smears against a blacktop backdrop, features sketched hastily in black.

Five minutes later, we’re still huddled under our desks. It’s especially hard on the chubby children, the red-fingered rascals who seem to subsist solely on a diet of Hot Cheetos.

David groans under his desk. “Teacher, I can’t feel my legs anymore.”

I can feel them,” grumbles Shirley.

We giggle, the kids and I, and our smiles are quick strokes of white chalk against the black of our mouths. But the laughter fades quickly, and the darkness remains.

Suddenly, frantic knocking on the door.

“Mr. Black?” calls a muffled voice. “Mr. Black, are you in there?”

Ha. I’m not falling for that old chestnut. “It’s just the principal trying to fool us into opening the door again,” I tell the children in a stage whisper.

The knocking trails off, but reoccurs periodically for the next twenty minutes or so. A marathon drill, it has to be getting close to half an hour.

Once again, a knock at the door, this time followed swiftly by the telltale jingle of keys.

Keys?

This is new, possibly a novel variation on a lockdown drill. Curious, I stand up, holding the lightweight table over my head, lest the principal should discover me unducked and uncovered, and wobble woozily towards the door on cramped legs.

The door swings open. I throw my right arm across my squinting eyes to shield my dilated pupils from the waning sunlight. The smooth metal table leg rotates in the sweaty palm of my left hand, wrenches itself free. The table slides off the back of my head and crashes to the floor, pulling me down with it.

The silhouette framed in the doorway convulses in a fit of laughter.

“Mr. Black? Whatchu still doing in here?” he manages to gasp between waves of laughter.

“Walter?” I croak, recognizing the night custodian. “Why are you here so early?”

“Early?” asks Walter. “School got out ’bout fifteen minutes ago.”

***

“I tell you, this scripted reading program is insulting to teachers’ intelligence, Millie,” I complain during recess duty. “A monkey could do this. All it would have to do is point at the word —”

“— and maybe have a parrot on its shoulder to squawk, ‘Next word. What word?’” she interjects, cracking up.

“That’s brilliant!” I laugh. “I can see it now: The monkey holds up the presentation manual with his prehensile tail, then ruffles the parrot’s feathers. As the monkey traces the arrow under the word with one banana-stained index finger, the parrot screeches: ‘Next word. What word?’”

“Zombie,” Millie drones, playing the part of the children.

“Next word. What word?” I parrot.

“Lobotomize,” Millie drawls.

“Well, well,” says the principal as she stomps by, clutching a clipboard in one hand and a stopwatch in the other. “I see a couple of young go-getters are already practicing the vocabulary list for the next level in our reading program.”

The laughter dies on our lips.

***

On the fifth day of Christmas, my principal gave to me: one caulking gun, two tubes of silicone rubber door-and-window sealant, three rolls of duct tape, four rolls of plastic sheeting, five packages of respirator masks.

“‘Tis the season …” begins the card taped to the lid of a new plastic tub. Afraid of where this is going, I issue a preemptive sigh before thumbing the card open to read: “… for preparing for chemical and biological attacks.”

Right.

How does that old poem go? “The plastic sheeting was hung over the windows with care / In the fear that anthrax soon would be there”?

***

A helium-filled red balloon floats behind each of the padded black shoulders of the principal’s suit. On the one hovering over her right, someone has used a Sharpie to write the word “RED”; on the left, “ALERT.”

“Tomorrow,” she intones, beginning the staff meeting, “we will run through a complete dress rehearsal of the Emergency Crisis Plan.”

Surprised whispers cascade across the cafetorium.

“This will entail a complete evacuation of the campus,” she continues. “Ms. Escalada is passing out a map that shows every class’s assigned rendezvous point. In general, lower grade classes will exit the main gate and line up on Ánimo Avenue. Upper grade teachers should lead their students out the kindergarten gate and line them up on Término Avenue.”

“Wait a minute,” I say. “I must be confused. You don’t mean that we’re supposed to line our students up in the street, do you? Isn’t that incredibly dangerous?”

“Not as dangerous as a hijacked 747 slamming into the school, Mr. Black.”

“But that isn’t really going to happen,” I say.

“Don’t say that!” the principal bellows. “It’s precisely those kind of thoughts that will guarantee a terrorist attack.”

Momentarily stunned into silence by the intensity of her anger, I notice my mouth isn’t the only one left gaping.

Maybe it’s our collective intake of breath that pulls the balloons forward, their residual static-electric charges levitating the coarse black strands of the principal’s mane. A spark from “RED” leaps through the air and strikes the now-exposed nodule.

The principal winces, shields the puzzling protuberance with her right hand as she turns her head away and blinks her heavy-lidded eyes.

“Dangerous?” she muses softly. “Was it dangerous for my teachers to pack us around that rattling old Weil-McLain boiler? That day, it was so hot, too hot …”

As we stare, transfixed, the principal’s thick fingers tug on the node. She shakes her head.

“Still, this … this was nothing compared to the flesh-searing effects of nuclear fallout. Nothing.”

Millie valiantly changes the subject. “Um, what will be the bell signal for the Emergency Crisis Plan?”

“I’m glad that someone is asking a practical question,” the principal says, blinking out of her reverie. Millie, in spite of herself, beams at the principal’s verbal reinforcement.

“The Emergency Crisis Plan is beyond bells,” the principal continues. “You will hear the following message: ‘Attention teachers, this is a RED ALERT. Please evacuate the campus.’”

***

“Attention teachers, this is a RED ALERT. Please evacuate the campus.” Message delivered, Carmen’s head pops back out of the doorframe.

We walk in straight lines, calmly putting insignificant distance between ourselves and the imaginary bombs and phantom airliners.

***

Término Avenue runs north-south along the school’s eastern perimeter; Ánimo Avenue, west-to-east along the southern. The principal has harangued three sheriff’s deputies into cordoning off the resulting dyslexic L of blacktop with their squad cars.

The principal herself stands in the middle of the intersection of Término and Ánimo, where she can simultaneously monitor the evacuation onto both streets.

“Remember, people, if we do this now, we shouldn’t have to do it later,” she yells into the bullhorn.

In the squad car next to my class, a deputy shakes his head and yawns. I watch as he begins a thorough investigation of the contents of the pale blue pastry box that’s riding shotgun.

Thus distracted, he fails to hear the recorded calliope music.

The principal does, but not soon enough to escape the ice cream truck that swerves around the squad car.          

Her blood sprays into the air, the reddest of red alerts. Her bullhorn clatters to the pavement, the impact jarring it into siren mode. A shrill wail fills the air.

“Air raid drill?” I whisper.

***

The nearest deputy springs from his black-and-white and runs after the ice cream vendor, who is fleeing down Término on foot. The other deputies get out of their cars, as well, but neither is able to fight his way upstream through the waves of screaming children.

In the midst of the chaos, Ms. Escalada stoops down and reaches for the principal’s fallen bullhorn.

I slap her hand away. “Do not remove any personal effects from the body,” I recite. “Personal effects must remain with the body at all times.”

Ms. Escalada pulls back, struck as much by the callousness of her own script as by my open palm, I hope.

I break the seal on the plastic tub, pull out the pocket-sized mirror, and hold it under the principal’s nostrils. No fog.

I return the mirror to the plastic tub, swapping it for two tags. I write the following information on both tags:

  1. Date and time found.

Friday, Dec. 21, 2001. 1:09 p.m.

  1. Exact location where found.

Intersection of Ánimo & Término Avenues.

  1. Name of deceased, if known.

Ilsa Enorme, principal.

  1. If identified, how, when, and by whom.

Visually. 1:09 p.m. F. Black.

  1. Name of person filling out tag.

Forrest Black, morgue director.

For a moment, I’m unsure just how I’m supposed to “attach” one of the tags to the body. Just as my left hand begins to drift toward the stapler, it comes to me.

With trembling fingers, I pull the coarse strands of black hair away from her neck. I lean close to peer at the bolt.

The pallid skin around it is puckered and shiny, as if cauterized by intense heat. However red-hot the bolt had been when it struck her, the metal – blackened over the decades by the touch of her oily fingers – is cold to the touch now. Imprinted at the end are two letters: WM.

“Weil-McLain,” I hiss in recognition.

I hang one of the tags on the bolt, then lift her feet off of the blacktop long enough to pull a black Hefty bag up over them.

She was big. It takes two bags. I duct-tape them securely together in order to prevent unwrapping, then staple the second tag to the outside of the bags.

***

I slide my arms under the body, taking care to lift with my legs, not my back.

***

Dead weight. That’s what the body feels like in my arms, its face concealed by the Hefty bags’ clinging embrace. I lower it gently onto the faux wood tabletop.

I walk over to the wall thermostat. Turn on the A.C. full blast. Gotta keep those Popsicles frosty.

“Drill & Kill” was originally published by Black Denim Lit in 2014.

Wally the Wrong-Way Gray Whale

(OR, A WHALE OF A CHRISTMAS TALE)

Gustavo had dozed off leaning against the rail of the Belmont Pier, but the flap of wings startled him awake. His eyes snapped open just in time to see a squawking seagull swoop down and steal one of the small pieces of fish that he and his dad were using to bait their hooks.

“That’s the first bite we’ve had all morning,” Gustavo complained. “Why do you always want to fish here? We never catch anything.”

His father grinned, but calmly cast his line into the ocean with a flick of his fishing pole before answering. While he waited, Gustavo rubbed his hands together to warm fingers stiffened by the early morning chill in the ocean breeze. Usually, his dad would be giving him a ride to school in his delivery truck right about now.

“Special delivery!” his father would always shout when he dropped Gustavo off in front of the playground.

But this wasn’t a normal Friday. That night would be Christmas Eve, so they both had the day off.

When his father finally turned to face him, Gustavo recognized the mischievous twinkle in his eye. “One time, m’ijo, I caught something on my hook that was very strange, indeed,” his dad said.

“Oh, really?” Gustavo asked. His dad was always trying to freak him out with tales of “very strange” things like La Llorona, the ghostly woman in white condemned to wander the earth for all eternity, crying out for her lost children.

“Really,” his father said. “Although I should really say that it caught my hook. I was watching the sun rise over the ocean, so I wasn’t really paying attention to my line until I heard something tugging on it. When I looked down at the water below the pier, what should I see but a tiny man, holding my hook in his miniature mitts. He had rosy cheeks and a long white beard and wore a pointed red hat.”

“You mean … Santa Claus?” Gustavo asked with wide-eyed wonder.

“That’s what I thought at first, too,” his father said. “So I called out, ‘Santa, how did you get down there?’ But the man yelled back in a high-pitched voice, ‘No, I’m not Santa. But I get that a lot. I’m a gnome. Name’s Ole.’”

“A gnome?” Gustavo asked. “One of those little statues that grownups put in their gardens?”

His father looked up and down the pier to make sure that none of the other fishermen were listening, then leaned closer to Gustavo and whispered, “That’s what grownups tell children, and most of us probably believe it ourselves, but it’s not true. Garden gnomes aren’t statues. They’re alive.”

“If gnomes are alive, why don’t they run away?” Gustavo asked.

“You know how your fingers get stiff when it’s cold?”

“Yeah,” said Gustavo, rubbing his hands together again.

Well, because gnomes come from a place near the North Pole where it’s freezing cold all the time, they get stiff when it’s warm. So when grownups buy them from gnome trappers and plant them on their lawns in Southern California, they can’t run away because it’s so hot. Their bodies are paralyzed by the heat.”

“Wow,” Gustavo gasped. But then he frowned. “But if gnomes can’t move when it’s hot, how did Ole escape?”

“That’s what I asked him,” his dad said. “He promised me that it was ‘a whale of a tale,’ but he’d only tell it to me if I did him a favor.”

“What kind of favor?” Gustavo asked.

“He shouted, ‘I’m burning up down here. Put me in the cooler full of ice that you brought to keep the fish you catch in.’”

“You mean, this cooler?” Gustavo asked, inching slowly away from the white foam box by his feet.

“Si, that’s the one,” his dad said. “I reeled Ole in. Then I dropped him inside the cooler, and he told me the story of Wally the Wrong-Way Gray Whale. Want to hear it?”

“Well, okay, I guess,” said Gustavo, still looking suspiciously at the cooler. “But it had better be a good story.”

“What did I tell you?” his father asked. “It’s a whale of a tale. Really. It’s a Christmas story that almost no one’s heard, even though most of it happened right here in Long Beach.”

“A Christmas story? Right here in Long Beach?” Gustavo asked.

“Si, right here in Long Beach,” his dad said. “But it didn’t start here, exactly. It was actually a little farther south, along the coast of Baja California.…”

***

You see, every winter gray whales migrate south from where the people call them antokhak to where folks call them ballena gris, all the way from the Chukchi Sea down to the lagoons of Baja California. It takes the whales two or three months to swim that far.

During the migration, people living all along the coast of the Pacific Ocean take boat trips out to watch the whales. And some of the whales watch them back.

Wally was one of those whales. He was young, still a calf, but brave enough to break away from the other whales in his pod, swim up close to small boats, and listen to what the people had to say. One day, less than a week before Christmas, Wally was posing for some tourists snapping photos of the white spots that mottled his dark gray skin when he heard a little girl ask her mother what Santa Claus looked like.

Now, the Chukchi Sea is up by the North Pole, but Wally had never heard of this “Santa Claus” before, so he used his flippers to paddle even closer to the boat to eavesdrop.

“Santa Claus is a jolly little man with rosy cheeks and a long white beard who wears a pointed red hat,” the girl’s mother said.

“And he brings toys to all the good children, right, mommy?” the little girl asked.

“Yes, he brings them the toys that they asked for in the letters they sent to him,” her mother said.

“Toys?” Wally whispered to himself. “All I got for Christmas last year was a new family of barnacles that cemented themselves to my left side. How can I get toys?”

He leaned in closer to listen.

“But what if I changed my mind, mommy?” the little girl asked.

“Changed your mind about what, honey?”

“About the toy I asked Santa to bring me?”

“Well, it’s too late to send another letter now,” her mother said. “It wouldn’t get to Santa before Christmas Eve. I guess the only way to let him know what you wanted now would be to go up the North Pole and tell him yourself.”

“Oh,” the little girl said. “Can we go to the North Pole, mommy?”

Now, because they move around so much, gray whale calves don’t get to have too many toys. But at that moment, more than anything else, Wally wanted for Santa Claus to bring him a Kaptain Krill Amphibious Action Figure. He was supposed to spend the holidays with the rest of his pod in Baja, but he made up his mind right then and there to turn around and swim all the way back to the North Pole and tell Santa exactly what he wanted for Christmas, instead.

Wally was so excited, he shot two spouts of water out of his twin blowholes. The people on the whale-watching boat clapped their hands and took more pictures.

“Where are you going, Wally?” the other whales in his pod called as he turned around and set off in the opposite direction with two strong strokes of his flukes.

“To the North Pole to see Santa Claus!” Wally shouted back.

“Stop, Wally,” the other whales cried. “You’re going the wrong way!”

But Wally didn’t turn around. He swam and swam for hours and hours until he saw something very strange – someone had built a wall in the ocean.

***

“Wait a minute,” Gustavo interrupted. “A wall in the ocean? Who’d build a crazy thing like that?”

“Just look behind you, m’ijo,” his dad said.

Gustavo looked out past the end of the pier, and, sure enough, he could see a wall stretching from one end of the beach to the other.

“Why do you think the waves are so small in Long Beach?” his father asked.

“You mean … Wally was here? In Long Beach?” Gustavo asked.

“Yep.”

“Cool,” Gustavo said. “But wait a minute. I thought this was supposed to be a story about how Ole got away.”

“I was almost to that part,” his dad promised. “Now, as I was saying.…”

***

Wally floated in front of the seawall, not sure which way to go. He looked left. He looked right. He spotted an opening not too far down the wall, so he swam to it and through it.

He paddled around a long finger of land pointing to the east and into a part of Long Beach called Alamitos Bay. Now, it just so happened that Wally had arrived as the people who lived on the bay were beginning their Christmas Boat Parade. A long line of decorated boats was winding its way through the narrow canals of Naples Island, puttering past crowds of people standing in front of beautiful homes draped with strings of Christmas lights. Even the palm trees were lit up.

And there, in the last boat of the parade, was a jolly little man with rosy cheeks and a long white beard wearing a pointed red hat. Just like the little girl’s mother had described him.

“Santa Claus!” Wally cried and started following the parade.

Fast as whales are, however, they don’t have outboard motors, and Wally couldn’t quite catch up to all the boats. By the time he was gliding through the canals, most of the people who had been watching the parade had gone home to drink hot cocoa. Wally was terribly disappointed, but then he glimpsed something floating just up ahead.

Bobbing in the calm water was a tiny man with a pointed red hat, rosy cheeks, and a long white beard.

“Santa?” Wally asked.

“No, I’m not Santa,” the little man said. “But I get that a lot. I’m a gnome. Name’s Ole.”

“A gnome?” Wally asked. “Why are you in the water?”

“I’ve been standing next to that rosebush up there for years, petrified by the heat,” Ole said. “But when everybody was leaving after the parade, a little boy kicked me into the canal.”

The little man’s story was interesting, but Wally had more important things on his mind. “Listen, do you know where I can find Santa?”

“Sure, kid,” said Ole. “Santa lives up at the North Pole.”

“Do you know the way?” Wally asked.

“To the North Pole? You bet,” Ole said. “I was born in captivity, but my family is originally from Alaska. Gnome, Alaska. If you’ll give me a ride up there on your back, I’m sure I can show you the way. It’s in my blood.”

So Wally flipped Ole onto his back with his snout, and they set off for the North Pole. Now, Ole swore that he could find the way to the North Pole, but he admitted that he wasn’t sure about the best way to get out of the seawall. So they headed over toward the Aquarium of the Pacific to ask some of Wally’s fellow marine mammals for directions.

“Who do you think we should ask?” Wally asked Ole.

“How about a dolphin?” the gnome suggested. “Dolphins are supposed to be smart, right?”

“That’s what everyone says,” Wally replied. “But if you ask me, they’re too smart for their own good. They made up their own language, and it’s just impossible to understand all that clicking.”

“Maybe we don’t need directions, after all,” Ole said. “When I was growing up, my older brother always told me the North Pole was easy to find. You just had to look for the biggest Christmas tree in the world, and it would be right there.”

“Sounds logical,” Wally agreed. “Let’s try that.”

Now, gray whales like Wally have this move called spyhopping, where they poke their heads straight up out of the water and then paddle themselves in a slow circle to look around. So that’s what they did, with Wally holding Ole gently between his jaws so he could take a look, too.

“There’s a big tree over there,” the gnome called out. “And it looks like it’s on top of a whale’s back!”

“Really?” Wally asked. “Let’s go!”

But when they got there, it wasn’t a whale at all, but a big old boat called the Queen Mary. There was a Christmas tree on it, though, one that seemed almost as tall as the ship’s three towering red smokestacks.

“Maybe the boat’s going to take the tree up to the North Pole for Santa,” Wally suggested.

“Good point,” Ole said. “Let’s ask somebody.”

They spotted an old woman walking along the ship’s railing, so Ole called out, “Excuse me, madam, is this ship sailing for the North Pole?”

“The North Pole?” she shouted back, laughing. “Why, this ship doesn’t go anywhere at all.”

***

“Wait a minute,” Gustavo interrupted. “A ship that doesn’t go anywhere at all? Who’d believe a crazy thing like that?”

“Just look to your right, m’ijo,” his dad said.

Gustavo peeked over the pier’s railing, and, sure enough, he could see a huge ship with three towering red smokestacks. And it sure didn’t look like it was going anywhere.

“Huh. How about that,” Gustavo said, shaking his head. “But isn’t there an even bigger Christmas tree around here, anyway? On top of the big hill?

“I was almost to that part,” his dad said. “Now, as I was saying.…”

***

So, Wally and Ole did the spyhopping thing again, and this time the gnome spied what sure looked like the tallest Christmas tree in the world, right on top of Signal Hill.

“But how can I swim up there?” Wally asked. “It looks awfully far from the ocean.”

Wally swam back and forth in the harbor, pacing, as they tried to figure out how to get closer to the North Pole. Suddenly, a Christmas tree came floating around a corner.

“Where did that tree come from?” Wally asked.

“It’s a sign, kid. Let’s go check it out,” Ole said.

Wally swam in the direction the tree had come from, and pretty soon they came to the mouth of a concrete channel much wider than the canals of Naples Island. Turns out the Christmas tree wasn’t the only thing floating down it into the ocean. Wally and Ole saw a baseball bat, a soccer ball, a doll, and even a toy sailboat drifting out toward them.

“Look at all those toys,” Wally said. “That must be the way to Santa’s Workshop!”

“Yeah,” Ole agreed. “It must be a shortcut to the North Pole.”

So Wally started swimming up the Los Angeles River. At first, the going wasn’t too tough, but soon enough the water started to get shallow and Wally began having a really hard time swimming.

“Hey, kid,” Ole said. “Maybe we should turn back.”

“No. I need to see Santa in person to ask for that Kaptain Krill Amphibious Action Figure,” said Wally, grunting with the effort of trying to keep his belly from scraping against the bottom of the concrete channel.

No sooner were the words out of his mouth, though, than they stopped moving altogether just below a freeway overpass.

“What’s wrong?” Ole asked.

“I’m … I’m stuck,” Wally cried, his flippers paddling at the air. “The water’s too shallow.”

“Can you turn around?” the gnome asked.

Wally flopped against the floor of the concrete channel, but it was no good. He was stuck.

“It’s no use,” he said. “I’m just too tired.”

“How long has it been since you slept?” Ole asked.

“About two months,” Wally answered.

“Two months!” Ole exclaimed.

“When gray whales migrate, we don’t take any breaks for 6,000 miles. Except for me. I took a break to go find Santa and got myself into this mess,” Wally wailed, starting to cry.

“Quit your blubbering, buddy boy,” Ole said. “We’ll get out of this yet.”

“But I can’t help it,” Wally whined. “I’m covered in blubber.”

“Jeez. I’m sorry, kid,” said Ole. “Don’t blame yourself. It’s my fault. I really thought I could get us to the North Pole.”

“No, it’s my fault,” Wally said. “I should have spent Christmas in Baja with the rest of my pod, but I wanted that stupid toy so much. In Mexico, they throw big parties at midnight on Christmas Eve. It’s so much fun to go with my family, but now I’m going to miss everything. If I saw Santa now, the only thing I’d ask him for is to get us out of here, so I could be with my family for the holidays. Maybe Santa could do that, huh?”

“No offense, kid, but you’re so big, it would take about eight Santas to push you up out of this channel,” Ole said.

Suddenly, something that looked like a shiny silver whale rumbled toward the overpass. It was a bus, but in the spot where most buses have a picture of a greyhound, this one had … a reindeer?

“Hey, kid!” Ole shouted. “I got a good feeling about this bus. Use your spout to shoot me up into the air, and maybe the driver will see us.”

“Okay,” Wally said. He took a deep, deep breath, and the next thing Ole knew, he was riding a spout of water about 15 feet up into the air. The bus driver must have seen the gnome because he slammed the brakes, and the bus screeched to a halt in the middle of the overpass.

Just as Wally’s spout began to run out of steam, Ole saw the door of the bus open and … eight Santas pile out onto the shoulder of the freeway!

“Kid, kid!” Ole yelled as he sank back down toward Wally’s blowholes. “Eight Santas! We’re saved.”

***

“Wait a minute,” Gustavo interrupted. “Eight Santas? That’s impossible. Everyone knows there’s only one Santa Claus.”

“Don’t you remember all the different Santas we see at malls around Long Beach, m’ijo?” his dad asked. “What did I tell you about them?”

“Oh, yeah!” Gustavo said. “Santa can’t be everywhere at once, so he hires helpers to ask all the children what they want.”

“Exactamente. The bus that stopped on the overpass was the one that picks up all of Santa’s jolly apprentices from the malls at the end of their shifts,” his dad said. “Now, as I was saying.…”

***

Filled to the brim with Christmas cheer, Santa’s helpers clambered down the concrete embankment, laughing all the way. Using the giant plastic candy canes they grasped in their black-gloved hands as levers, they managed to lift Wally up and get him turned around with a hearty “HEAVE HO, HO, HO!”

Even though Wally was still tired, the river’s current carried him back down to the harbor.

Wally had learned an important lesson. The best Christmas gift of all isn’t some fancy toy, but the chance to spend that most special time of year with the ones we love. And, just to make sure that he didn’t get lost again, Ole insisted that he follow a whale-tailed cruise ship back to Baja.

“But what about you, Ole?” Wally asked. “Do you want to come to Mexico with me?”

“Nah, kid. It’s even hotter down there,” the gnome replied. “Just drop me off here in the harbor, and I’ll take my chances.”

“Okay,” Wally said, rolling over on his side to plop Ole back into the water. “Good luck, Ole. And Merry Christmas!”

“Merry Christmas to you, too, kid,” Ole said, watching his newfound friend swim away.

***

“Wow, that really was a whale of a tale,” Gustavo said. “But what about Ole?”

“What about Ole?” his dad asked.

“Wally got to go home to this pod, but who did Ole get to spend Christmas with?” Gustavo asked.

“M’ijo, I work for a delivery company, remember?” his father asked. “Let’s just say that a family in Gnome, Alaska, unwrapped a very unusual package that Christmas.”

“You mean?” Gustavo asked.

“Yep: Special delivery!”

“Wally the Wrong-Way Gray Whale” in its entirety for the first time on MY 40. A shorter, earlier version was published by the Press-Telegram in 2004.

Academics of Mistletoe

Standing under it at the college’s Christmas celebration, the first temptation of the professor of mythology was to tell the professor of botany how the only vulnerability of the Norse god Baldr was a mistletoe arrow to the heart.

Her first temptation was to explain to him that mistletoe was a hemi-parasitic plant native to Northern Europe.

Both of their second temptations were to kiss the other.

They went with that, instead.

“Academics of Mistletoe” was originally published by Paragraph Planet in 2013.

Adrift

“Time to decorate the tree!” I grumbled. I slid the red plastic disc across the green surface of the shuffleboard court, hoping it would become an “ornament” when it stopped inside the triangle-atop-a-trapezoid pattern that looked like a Christmas tree.

On the balcony above, the woman in the straw sunhat lowered the book that obscured her features and arched an eyebrow above the frames of her sunglasses.

In an effort to win her full attention from whatever literary fireworks flashed across the pages, I began showboating. I kicked my right leg into the air like a pitcher with a wild windup. Then I snaked the shaft of the cue underneath it to line up a between-the-legs shot. For my next trick, I went with behind-the-back, adding a flamboyant half-twist on the follow through. That put me in the perfect position to fire index-finger six guns indiscriminately into a crowd that, except for one member, was imaginary.

In that instant, I had a vision of myself swaggering into the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club as the “bad boy” of the pro tour – all trash talk and cutting catchphrases, personifying the youth movement the sport so desperately needed to attract widespread media attention.

Back at the Hyatt Newporter, I came crashing onto the deck as the sole of my sandal stuck in the sap of the lavender jacaranda blossoms carpeting the courtyard. When the woman in the sunhat tittered and turned her attention back to her book, I realized that I was, indeed, adrift.

I wouldn’t have even noticed the shuffleboard court if not for the weight of Bob Dylan’s genius, which had stretched the handles of the plastic shopping bag from the Barnes & Noble on Fashion Island to the breaking point just as I had drawn even with it. The 788-page songbook had been thumping against my leg as I had hustled across the courtyard separating the valet stand from the hotel room my wife’s company was putting us up in while she attended a conference there in Newport Beach. But the real jolt came when it registered that I had left my guitar at home. So much for my plan to show off by learning to play “Just Like A Woman” before Heidi returned from her afternoon session.

So I was drifting, like the koi lazing through the channels cut into in the courtyard at Fashion Island, enlivening only for crumbs of attention. There in Newport, I was – like the mall koi – a decorative object, one meant to complement my wife’s ensemble at corporate mixers. Perhaps the woman in the sunhat was in the same boat.

I scraped myself off the shuffleboard court, pried a wilted jacaranda blossom off my forearm, and began another game.

Maybe she would notice.

“Adrift” was originally published by Fewer Than 500 in 2016.

Lower My Mace?

Turned out the drunk who hollered “$20 to blow this” was referring to his dashboard breathalyzer.

Didn’t immediately lower my mace, though.

“Lower My Mace?” was originally published by One Forty Fiction in 2012.