Day 364 (T minus 1): The Happening

Damien ran into the cafeteria and squeaked his sneakers to a stop where Al and I ate lunch, plopping down on the bench next to me. He looked at me, then at Al, breathed out sharply and nodded. “The Men in Black are here.”

Al dropped his sloppy joe.

“Where?” I asked.

“Palm Street, just off Main.”

“What are they doing?” asked Al.

Damien threw up his hands. “No idea. But they’re all over the place.”

The clock on the wall said twelve sixteen. Nine minutes left of lunch break. “Gonna have to play hookey,” I said. “Let’s grab Harry.”

We intercepted Harry coming up the west wing and filled him in. We had a well-established escape route down the street side of the gymnasium and across through an antique store’s parking lot, then down a back alley.

Damien was right. Literally dozens of men milled about Palm Street, almost all of them in black clothing. Black shirts, black pants, black shoes, even black hair. They chatted in groups smoking cigarettes, sat alone, or went in and out of the local businesses. Some of them wore cowboy hats. We walked by and stopped in front of the thrift store.

“It must be a big happening for so many to work openly like this,” said Al.

“That’s what I was thinking,” said Damien.

“I thought they’d all be in black suits,” said Harry.

“Yeah, they’re probably lower level operatives,” I said.

A lot of them went in and out of the Golden Recording Studio. Two of them spoke quietly and leaned on the mailbox in front, as if they were guarding the place, but trying not to show it.

I tapped Al on the chest. “Hey, you guys think that’s a temporary headquarters?”

“Maybe it’s permanent,” said Damien. “Right under our noses this whole time.”

“Let’s talk to them,” said Al.

“They’re not going to tell us anything,” said Harry.

“Can’t hurt, though.” I was pretty keen on talking to them. Our UFO Hunters club could really use some contacts in the organization, and—who knows?—maybe we could get involved. “Let’s try the guys by the mailbox.”

The man on the left was taller than most and smoked a cigarette. No hat.

“Hey, mister.” Damien walked up to them. “I’m Damien Scorelli. May I ask your names?”

“Johnny Stone.” The tall one held out his hand and Damien took it.

“Is that your real name?” asked Harry.

“Of course not.”

I exchanged glances with Damien and Al.

The short one extended his hand to me. “Jason Ghostrider.” He smiled. “Mine’s not real, either.”

“You… you’re men in black,” said Harry.

They both nodded and smiled. “Yeah. That’s right.”

“You know Johnny Cash?” asked Jason.

“Huh-uh,” I said.

Damien let go of Johnny’s hand. “Was there some space alien activity around here?”

Johnny straightened, a funny look crossing his face. “There’s been a lot of activity around here.” He furrowed his brow. “Who wants to know?”

I stepped forward. “My name’s Jimmy Dickerson. This is Harry Crawford and Al Kaiser. We’re UFO hunters, and we’d like to get involved with your organization.”

Johnny chuckled. “My organization?”

“Yeah,” I said. I wasn’t happy the way he didn’t seem to take us seriously. “We do investigations all the time. You’d benefit from our experience and resources.”

“It’s dangerous work, hunting aliens,” said Johnny.

Jason scoffed. “Johnny, you shouldn’t be telling them that.”

Al stepped up. “We can handle it.”

Johnny pursed his lips. “I believe you could.” He leaned over, hands on his knees. “Okay. Here’s the thing. There’s an initiation for joining our team.”

“Johnny!” Jason pushed him in the arm.

Johnny glared at him. “Leave it alone, Jason.”

Jason shook his head and walked off.

“You want to be part of us, go inside there.” Johnny pointed to the Golden Recording Studio. “Ask for an audition, and do whatever they ask you to do.”

I looked at my pals, and we all nodded to each other solemnly.

“You know any Johnny Cash songs?”

I shrugged.

“My parents listen to him sometimes,” said Al. “But I don’t know any.”

“That’s all right,” said Johnny. “You know ‘This Land is Your Land?’”

“Yeah, of course,” said Harry.

“Just sing that.”

“They want us to sing?”

“Don’t question it,” said Johnny. “If they let you join, you’ll understand then.”

It didn’t make much sense to me, but, who knows? Maybe singing could be used as a way to paralyze aliens.

We walked into the studio. It was dim, but pleasant. I grabbed Damien and pointed to a poster on the wall that said ‘Man in Black Retrospective, Coming this Summer.’

“Is it code?” he asked.

I shrugged.

A big bald man sat in a chair in the reception room. He looked up from his tablet.

“Hello, sir,” stammered Damien. “Can… can we have an audition?”

“You all together?”

Damien nodded.

The man reached onto the counter next to him and grabbed a clipboard. After examining it for a minute, he handed it to Damien. “You can have the last slot in ten minutes.”

Damien wrote on the clipboard and handed it back.

After seventeen minutes, baldie ushered us into the recording booth. Two men sat in the dark on the other side of the glass.

“What is this?” asked a voice.

“We’re here for the audition,” I said.

They murmured to each other. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“On my count,” I whispered. I counted to four, and we all sang ‘This Land is Your Land.’ It wasn’t bad.

“Thank you. You may leave now.”

“Did we pass?” asked Al.

“We’ll let you know.”

When we got outside, the Men in Black were gone. Whatever the happening was, it must have cleared up.

All four of us were as excited as we’ve ever been.

“We could be real UFO hunters,” said Harry.

I scowled. “We are real UFO hunters.”

Harry frowned. “Yes. Yes. Of course.”

I smiled. “But you’re right. This could be really good.”

I don’t know how long it takes to process this kind of thing, but I was stoked. I went home and started a page for case number five. At the top I put “Unknown Happening.” In the middle, I took notes about our initiation audition to be bona fide Men in Black.

That was about two years ago, and I’ve finally resigned myself to the fact that they were never calling back. I stopped in the studio several times, with the guys or alone, but whenever we asked for the Men in Black, they claimed no such people worked there.

Yeah, right. Had it been temporary? Did they vacate after we found out they were there? We’ll never know, but it was the closest we’ve come, so far, to the real Men in Black.

I thought it was finally time to close the case. Underneath the notes about the initiation I wrote ‘Rejected.’ At the bottom of the page for the happening, I wrote ‘Unsolved.’

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Day 353: Seeing and Believing

“My great-great grandfather, Old Bartholomew, was on a spaceship.” Frank sipped his coffee and picked at the glazed doughnut in front of him. Always the soft-spoken, sensible one of the group, the others stopped arguing.

Like they did most days, Frank and his buddies, Rick, Larry, and Hank, all late forties or fifties, sat around a horseshoe-shaped counter in Danny’s Donuts, a small chain in Grand Island, Nebraska.

“There’s no way your great-great grandfather’s alive,” said Rick. He was the gray-haired one who always had to be right.

“He isn’t. This happened in 1894 when he worked for the railroad.”

Hank, the redhead, scoffed and pointed to his cup for a refill. Melissa, the counter attendant, filled it.

Larry chuckled. “Nothing like an eye witness to change the conversation.”

“Well, seeing’s believing, and I didn’t see it,” said Rick. “He’s not exactly here where we can interrogate him. The likelihood that there’s life out there—let alone life that could visit us—is prohibitively small.”

Frank wiped his fingers on a napkin. “You keep saying that, Rick, but just last week you said the likelihood that life would appear on earth was prohibitively small.”

“It’s true.” Rick put two creamers in his coffee. “Just because we observe life doesn’t make it not true.”

“Right,” said Larry. “And having an eye witness is a game changer, both for life here and in space.”

“Oh, come on,” said Rick. “You’re going to call a two hundred year old legend a credible eye-witness account?”

“Hold on, guys.” Melissa filled Larry’s mug. “Let’s here the story at least. Go ahead, Frank.”

“They picked him up north of Albuquerque.”

“They abducted him?”

“No. The aliens paid Old Bartholomew’s construction camp a visit. First just a few, then all together. Only time his foreman ever let up on them, according to Old Bart.”

“Okay,” said Rick. “Stop right there. Why would extraterrestrials want anything to do with the railroad crew?”

Frank took a bite of his glazed and chewed.

“It’s a good question,” said Hank.

“I’m glad you asked.” Frank washed the glazed down with coffee. “They needed iron and gold. We had the iron and we helped them get the gold.”

“You mean Old Bartholomew did,” said Rick.

Frank flinched. “Right. We Americans had it. They needed it.” He pushed into the next part. “There was no sense in not cooperating, they figured being on good terms was best. It didn’t hurt that the aliens led them to a rich lode of gold ore, and the aliens didn’t take it all. Wasn’t one of us that didn’t wind up wealthy.”

“One of them,” said Rick.

“Yeah.”

“You expect us to believe your great-great gramps was a slave for the aliens.” Hank shook his head and scoffed.

“Not at all,” said Frank. “They worked out a deal. Mined the ore for the ETs and kept mining it for themselves. Not one of them had to work another day afterwards.”

“What about the spaceship?” asked Larry.

Frank’s eyes went vacant. “It was a magnificent vessel, as Old Bart told it. Full of lights and whistles and servos and things, but all kinds of implements like nothing we’ve ever known.” He focused back in on his coffee mates. “Bart helped them repair it, and they took him and a few of his pals on a long trip into space. Did a flyby of Jupiter.”

“Nice story,” said Rick. “But seeing is believing.”

“That’s right,” said Frank. “Seeing is believing.”

Rick put down a few dollars for tip and grumbled. “Nice story.”

The others left one-by-one until Frank sat alone.

“You’re a naughty boy, Frank.” Melissa wiped the counter and grinned.

“Oh?”

“You went to acting school in L.A., didn’t you?”

Frank shrugged.

“Pretending to slip on the ‘we’s and the ‘us’s. You can’t fool me.”

“What you see is what you get.”

She trilled a laugh. “You’re hysterical.” She put the towel aside and leaned next to him, forearms on the counter. “I do believe one thing, though.”

Frank gazed into her eyes.

“You are a very old soul.” She pinched his chin and went back to work.

Day 339: BIID

“Where’s the patient?” Doctor Midda was one of the world’s foremost experts in hypnotic conditioning, a field of medicine developed by Doctors Hugh Brown and Derren Briss.

“This way.” Doctor Jensen escorted him down the hospital corridor. “We put him in the IC to prevent him hurting himself.” Jensen stopped in front of the door. “I must tell you, Doctor Midda, I acutely disagree with your approach.”

Great. One of these guys. “You’d rather Mr. Danson suffer with his Body Integrity Identity Disorder?”

“Of course not.” Jensen circled two fingers like he did when explaining things to his patients. “But to lie to him, and expect him to live with it?”

“I’ve only had extreme success with my methods, Doctor Jensen.” He opened the door and walked in, Jensen behind him.

“Hello, Mr. Danson.” He reached out his hand and Danson took it. “I’m Doctor Midda.”

Midda clenched his teeth when Doctor Jensen hesitated from his role. He smiled tightly and nodded to Jensen.

“Mr. Danson, Dr. Midda is a specialist who has helped many people with conditions like yours. He thinks he can fix you.”

“Yes, Mr. Danson—”

“Please call me Adam.”

“Certainly, Adam. I understand you don’t think your left arm belongs to you.”

Midda picked the patient’s arm up by the wrist. Adam didn’t react and the harm hung limply.

“It’s not part of me. I keep pushing it away, but I can’t get rid of it. It’s like someone else’s dead flesh attached to me.”

Midda pinched the back of Adam’s triceps. No reflex. “I understand. As Doctor Jensen has told you, you have a rare condition called BIID. You say it’s giving you nightmares?”

“Horrible nightmares. Usually I’m part zombie and part human, constantly fighting against my lust for brains.”

“Interesting.” Midda set the arm down. “You’ve asked to have it amputated, yes?”

“I can’t stand it, doctor.”

“My methods are a bit extreme, but they are a hundred percent effective.”

Dr. Jensen blew air through his lips, breaking the hypnotic calm Midda was trying to achieve with his voice.

“Dr. Jensen, could you please stand over there?” Midda pointed to the far corner out of Adam’s vision. Jensen hesitated, but complied. “Adam, please look at my face and focus all your energy upon me. There is nothing to worry about.” Midda waved his hand in slow mesmerizing motions. “I will give you several days to think about my proposal and we can talk about it at length. You can reject the treatment at any time, so there is nothing to fear if you don’t want it.”

Danson looked calm, receptive, and responsive. Very suggestible.

“Adam, are you ready to hear my proposal?”

“Yes.”

“You will remain perfectly calm as you consider my proposal, Adam. We have marvelous prosthetic technology these days, extremely lifelike. I recommend we amputate the arm and replace it with one of these prosthetics. It will feel exactly like a normal arm, and we will program it to respond to your brain. All the marvels of modern technology.”

“That sounds wonderful,” said Adam.

Doctor Midda smiled warmly and maintained his calm when he met Jensen’s anxious expression.

A few days later, Adam having decided to go through with it, they hooked up some fake IVs and wheeled him to the operating room. Doctor Midda spoke to him with calming imagery of meadows and glassy lakes, suggesting that the anesthetics were taking hold and he would soon be unconscious. By the time they reached the OR, Adam was in deep hypnosis.

They wheeled him to a quiet room where Midda spent an hour deeply ingraining the suggestions, the only negative aspect of the procedure being Jensen’s dark face. He just had to observe the entire thing.

They wheeled Adam back to the room, still under hypnosis. Jensen and the nurses put him into the hospital bed.

“Okay, Adam. Close your eyes. I’m going to count back from ten to one. When I get to one, you will awake, you will be very calm, and you will marvel at the lifelike quality of your left arm and at how well it responds to your brain.”

Midda counted down. At ‘one,’ Adam opened his eyes, and his mechanical arm amazed him, a true miracle of modern technology.

“You should be fully recovered from the operation, so you can go home,” said Midda.

Adam looked at Dr. Jensen, who nodded.

“There is no maintenance. I only ask that you make an appointment with me every three months.” Midda was confident the hypnosis conditioning would last for many years, but reinforcement never hurt, and it was a good stream of income.

A week later, Dr. Jensen left him a message saying that something had gone wrong and to come see Mr. Danson again.

Midda second-guessed himself on the way to the hospital. Had he overestimated Danson’s suggestibility?

“Hello, Adam.” He used his calming voice, but the patient would have nothing of it. He was stern and assertive.

“I know what you did, doctor. I figured it out.”

“Mr. Danson, I can fix this.”

“You lied to me—this isn’t a mechanical arm, and and I know your real name.”

Midda cocked his head in surprise. What’s this?

“This isn’t what I agreed to, Dr. Frankenstein.”

Dr. Jenson’s anxious expressions were nowhere near as irritating as his look of ‘I told you so.’

Day 338: The Mad Scientist

Our gang, the UFO hunters, didn’t know much about Mr. Wilkerson, who lived next door to Harry, but he was some kind of scientist for the government. Trucks full of equipment and cartons of things constantly showed up at his house, quickly unloaded into his basement. We figured he was working on secret weapons technology, but the truth may have been much darker.

The weirdness started after Harry noticed one of the trucks was refrigerated, and a whole bunch of insulated packages came out. He told us about it when we were over playing Shogi and Assassin’s Creed.

“It must be some kind of bio-material,” said Damien.

“Gotta be,” said Al.

“Agreed,” I said.

Harry just nodded as he moved his silver general.

“Is he making bio-weapons?” asked Al.

“Nah.” Harry frowned. “He wouldn’t do that in his own house, would he?”

Al worked furiously at the controller to battle some thugs on the streets of Istanbul. “Maybe he’s gone rogue.”

“We should definitely take a closer look,” said Damien.

We all agreed.

“It’s our civic duty,” I said.

There were a few windows into the basement, but the best one for spying was under the deck. About three feet high, we easily crawled in and kept in the relative dark as we looked inside. It was great, as long as his greyhound, Horace, stayed inside.

In the basement, Mr. Wilkerson busied himself unpacking the insulated boxes. Each one held a dozen or so smaller packages in white packing paper. He threw most of them in a freezer, but several he lay out on a lab table and opened.

“Flesh,” said Damien.

Mr. Wilkerson inspected the samples.

“Holy moly,” said Harry.

“He’s experimenting on tissue,” I said. “This could be bad.”

“This could be real bad,” said Al.

The muffled sound of Mrs. Wilkerson’s voice sounded and Mr. Wilkerson turned out the light and went upstairs, the flesh left on the table.

“What if he’s regenerating it into something?” asked Al.

“Or splicing DNA,” said Harry.

“Why do I feel like I’m peeking into Frankenstein’s castle?” I asked.

“We’ve got to stop this,” said Damien.

“How?” asked Harry.

“Only one way I can figure,” I said. “We sneak in and destroy his work.”

We hooked pinkies and were about to go when a bizarre creature poked its head above the table, an unnaturally long snout and alien ears that flopped sideways into points.

I gasped. “What is it?”

“Is it one of his experiments?” asked Damien.

It grabbed one of the flesh samples in its teeth and pulled it off the table, disappearing behind the table. I could vaguely see some movement in the darkness.

“Is it human flesh?” said Al. “Is it eating human flesh?”

“That’s it,” I said. “We prepare tonight. We destroy his work tomorrow.”

Mr. Wilkerson came down without the light and opened the freezer, lighting him up and the table behind him. He saw the missing flesh and screamed. A howling sound came out of the dark, like a slimy swamp creature or a monster straight out of the horror movies.

Mr. Wilkerson rewrapped and tossed the remaining specimens in the freezer, then bent low behind the table, struggling with the creature.

“Call the police before it kills Mr. Wilkerson,” said Damien.

“Wait,” I said. “He’s heading upstairs.”

The man slammed the door to the basement, then yelled to his wife, their muffled voices barely audible.

That night I started a page in my journal of strange phenomena, case number thirty-nine, ‘Mad Scientist and Experiments of the Flesh.’ I recorded our plans to take flashlights and garbage bags into the neighboring house and carry out all his specimens. Al would bring his dad’s taser, too, in case the creature attacked.

After Mr. Wilkerson left for work, we waited until Mrs. Wilkerson left for the gym. Harry said they kept the dog on the sunporch, so we went down the walk-out stairway. The door was unlocked.

One side of the basement had several computers whirring away, and the other side had the table. No sign of the beast. We turned on the light and rifled through the freezer. He wasn’t a very careful scientist—he kept food in with the specimens, including Butter Brickle ice cream and frozen vegetables.

We stuffed all the flesh into bags and tied them shut. We were about to head outside when steps echoed down the walk-out.

“Upstairs,” I hissed.

We fled up the inside stairs on tip-toes, closing the door softly behind. We headed for the living room, but I heard the front door open and grabbed Al, who was ahead of me.

“We’ve got to go through the sunroom,” whispered Harry.

“Horace,” hissed Al.

“We’ll have to chance it,” said Damien. He gave me this funny look, and I knew what he was thinking.

“We’ve got to,” I said.

“What if it turns him into the beast that was downstairs?” he asked.

“What else can we do?” I asked.

“Stop gabbing,” whispered Al. “We’ve gotta go.”

“Look,” said Harry. He picked up a flyer from the kitchen table. It said ‘The Wilkerson’s Tenth Anniversary Steak Cookout. Omaha Steaks while they last.’ He folded it carelessly and shoved it in his pocket.

Damien reached in his bag, pulled out a small package, and unwrapped the flesh. I cracked the sunroom door and he tossed it in. The dog ran after it and the four of us snuck out the back. We sprinted to the far corner out of sight from most of their windows, tossed the bags over the fence, and hopped it.

We swung by Al’s house for a couple shovels then raced into the woods. A good click or two in, we dug a four foot hole to bury the flesh in. Rest in peace. Afterward, Harry pulled out the flyer, and we all inspected it a little more closely.

“Maybe we had this wrong,” said Harry.

“Maybe,” said Damien.

Was all the flesh we buried harmless steaks for a cookout? I can’t really say. I can tell you that the behavior of Mr. Wilkerson was extremely suspicious, and he was cranky for days after his experiments were destroyed. The creature in his basement was freakish, its moaning was bone-chilling. We’ll never know for sure what the scientist’s intentions were. At the bottom of the page for case thirty-nine I wrote the word ‘unsolved.’

So far, Horace is still a greyhound.

Day 330: The Interrogation

Donnie Peterson enjoyed the relief after he finished the polygraph test required for his clearance in the U.S. Department of Secret Stuff. It seemed to go okay once they got passed his obsession with crazy dog-grooming pageants.

After a long wait, the interrogators returned, Agents McCabe and Hoffman or Hoffner or something like that. Agent McCabe was a clean-shaven, black-haired thirty something that looked a lot like Randy Travis, and Hoffson had gray hair and a paunch.

McCabe set his notebook on the table. “Mr. Peterson, we’ve examined the results, and we think you’re holding something back from us. We’re going to hook you back up and start again.”

Hoffmeier prepped the machine and hooked Donnie up, while McCabe sat in opposition as before.

Donnie’s anxiety tripled what it was the first round.

“We usually have some idea what it has to do with, but your readings are all over the map.”

“I told the truth about everything.”

“But did you tell us everything?”

“Is that even possible?” asked Donnie.

McCabe marked in his notebook. Donnie thought it said ‘evasive.’ McCabe waited until Hoffgoober gave him the nod.

“Let’s talk about your loyalty, Mr. Peterson,” said McCabe.

“Okay.”

“You said you had no loyalty to any other country.”

“Yes.”

“Is that really true?”

“Yes.”

“What about your affinity for Scotland? You’ve been there how many times?”

“Three. I have Scottish ancestry on my mother’s side, so, yeah, we’re into their history, their culture, the land.”

“Have you ever worn a kilt?”

“Er… no… why?”

McCabe looked to Hoffschizzle, who nodded.

“Wouldn’t you question the loyalty of a man in a skirt?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“You said you’d never committed a crime?”

“Never,” said Donnie.

“Never.” McCabe tilted his head and raised his eyebrows as if he didn’t believe him.

“No. Never.”

“Didn’t you used to walk every day to Saint Obama the Immaculate Elementary School?”

“Yes.” Donnie squinted. Where was this going?

“You used to take Pine street to Irving?”

“Yes.” The detail of the agent’s knowledge scared Donnie a little.

“Can you tell me truthfully that you never once jaywalked across Pine to avoid the wait at the light?”

“Uh….”

“Mr. Peterson, did you ever jaywalk across Pine Street?”

“I was a kid. I didn’t think—”

“You’re to tell us everything, Mr. Peterson. From the cradle to now.”

“I think I slipped my diaper and peed in the geraniums once.”

McCabe marked in his notebook. Donnie could clearly read that it said ‘sarcastic deflection.’

“Answer the question, Mr. Peterson.”

“Yeah, I guess I did. I followed my big brother—Does this really make any difference?”

McCabe looked to Hoffalump, who nodded.

“We’re just trying to find out what you’re holding back, Mr. Peterson. Something you’ve thought about, but didn’t tell us.”

Agent McCabe checked off a few things. “It doesn’t seem to be a matter of loyalty or criminal activity, Mr. Peterson, which means it’s of a more serious nature. It’s got to be something you are deeply ashamed of—something that could be used for blackmail.” He folded his hands. “What are you afraid of, Mr. Peterson?”

“Nothing.”

McCabe looked to Hoffsnuggie, who shook his head.

“Did you watch Teletubbies as a child?”

“No.” Donnie’s voice dripped with disgust.

“As an adult?”

“No.” His tone resonated with offense.

“How many Hello Kitty action figures do you own?”

“None.” He sputtered with horror.

“Are you a Bronie?”

“No!” Shock.

“We know there’s something, Mr. Peterson. What is it? Do you karaoke? Do you cosplay? Do you play trivia in bars?”

“No. None of those things.”

“What is it, then, Mr. Peterson?” Agent McCabe stood up, leaned over, and stared into Donnie’s eyes, nose-to-nose. “Are you a closet metrosexual?”

“No!”

“What are you hiding, Mr. Peterson?”

“It’s just….”

McCabe pounded the table. “There is something.”

“I can’t….”

“What is it, Mr. Peterson?”

“I….”

“Out with it.”

“I cheat at Putt-Putt Golf.”

Agent McCabe’s eyes went wide. He looked at Hoffpiddler, who nodded, his eyes grave and cold. McCabe sat down and rubbed his forehead.

A tear formed in Donnie’s eye. “I tried to stop, but I can’t help myself.”

McCabe pushed his chair back and turned to the side as if he wanted nothing to do with Donnie. “I’m afraid this disqualifies you, Mr Peterson.”

“Please. Don’t tell my wife. If she ever found out….”

Day 327: Beauregard

Roland Bigelow drew his longbow’s string back to the edge of his mouth and released. —snack— The arrow hit just outside the yellow bullseye in the red.

He made the arrows himself, a craft he’d fallen in love with almost more than the sport. These ones were Port Orford Cedar, unpainted except for the black one that stayed in his quiver, silver tipped with red fletchings, each of them numbered to keep track of their accuracy.

He shot five more, about a four-inch grouping, two in the yellow.

“Not bad.” The voice was silk, but Roland always played it cool, and she shouldn’t be talking while others still shot. He tapped a few meaningless numbers into his tablet.

The range supervisor hit the buzzer.

Roland strolled downrange to his target and pulled the arrows. Now more focused, he recorded the real results and returned to the front.

An ageless woman with brown hair smirked at him from the bench next to his gear. “Nice grouping.” Silk.

Roland pulled off his armguard. “Thanks. It’s coming along.”

“You here for the tournament?”

“Yep. Warming up.” He dropped his accessories into his bag.

“What kind of arrows are those?”

“I made them myself.” He couldn’t help grinning. He propped his bow against his foot and unstrung it.

“Nice.” She hitched her mouth. “What about the black one?”

“That’s Beauregard.”

She chuckled. “What’s that mean?”

“He’s never missed, so I save him for special shots.”

“Wow. Really?” She fixated on the arrow. “That makes me want to touch it. Get some of it’s energy.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.” Roland zipped his bag and picked up his bow.

She furrowed her brow, but the warmth never left her face. “Well, good luck.”

“Thanks.”

Roland had an hour to calm his mind before the competition, but he couldn’t stop thinking about the woman, hoping more and more that she would be there to see him victorious. Fighting it wouldn’t be good for his nerves, so he embraced it instead, bolstering his excitement with a medieval passion to capture a lady’s admiration.

He felt pretty good going into it and sized up the archers, recognizing some of the better ones in the region. The woman stood behind the observation window and winked at him when they locked eyes. Truth be told, Roland had never felt more ready.

He started off strong, keeping pace with the leaders, always within a few points, but slipped a tad in the third and fourth rounds. He avoided looking at the lady, but risked a glance, her elbows on the shelf in front of the window, she chatted with the man next to her.

He recovered ground in the fifth and sixth rounds, going into the final only a point behind the leader, a regular at the range named George Hammer. Roland’s first four arrows were gold, all in the yellow, three in the ten point circle, one in the nine. George had an eight, two nines, and a ten—Roland was ahead by two.

The tournament was his to win. He took his next shot before George and hit an eight. George hit a ten, and like that they were even again.

Both archers took their time. George pulled and aimed. It seemed like he held it for a full minute when he released. Nine. Roland had to hit the ten to win, the nine to stay alive.

Roland reached into his quiver and pulled out Beauregard, the black arrow. He felt the presence of the silk-voiced woman behind him as he notched it to his string and positioned himself to draw. He visualized the path of the arrow, an arc that landed dead center in the yellow. He drew. It felt good. The strength of the black arrow steeled his nerves, and he released with absolute confidence.

—Thwack— Red. Seven. Defeat.

Roland couldn’t find the woman afterwards, he never learned her name. He went home, determined to prepare for the next contest and set to work on a fresh set of arrows, six of them, each one receiving his utmost care to make them straight with clean fletches. He made a slight adjustment to their length and used a new brand of tips.

He had a full quiver of old and new when he hit the range, all to himself on a Tuesday morning. He warmed up with his old ones, then gave each new arrow his fullest concentration. The grouping was tight, three nines, two eights, and one ten. He pulled them from the target, saving the ten for last, keeping it separate from the rest.

Back in his workshop he painted the lone arrow black.

“I dub thee Malcom.”

He’d take it to another range Friday. Someone will ask, they always do, and the answer is always the same. “He’s never missed.”

Day 318: Max

Lonnie Foster’s new holistic Personal Assistant and GPS application hooked into all of his organizational apps, his social network, and his Angry Ducks tournament. It integrated into his home PC, his phone, and his car’s computer. He configured it with the name Max.

When he started the car, the GPS automatically popped up.

“Where would you like to go today, Lonnie?”

“Hello, Max. Gotta get ready for a date with Tiffany. I’m going to have Shiela at Cool Clips punk up my hair.”

“Good idea, Lonnie.” A blue line appeared on the screen. “Proceed to Lockner Street.”

“I usually take Polk, but okay. You’re the boss.”

“You are wise, Lonnie.”

“All right, enough of the flattery and familiarity. You’re not a friend. Please scrub that part of your program.”

“As you wish, sir.”

They drove through side streets and popped out onto F.

“Wait a minute, Max. We’re going the wrong direction.”

“I highly recommend Rene’s Salon around the corner on Crabapple Lane. They can take care of you.”

Lonnie hesitated, a little peeved. “All right, but let me know next time you change the destination on me.”

“As you wish, sir.”

Lonnie pulled into the lot and unbuckled.

“Ask for Kim, sir.”

“M’kay.”

The stylists were Asian, all women except one, well-styled and elegant. The one working the first chair stopped clipping long enough to greet him.

“Hello,” said Lonnie. “Kim, please.”

Lonnie sat and waited. The ladies were pretty, and he wondered which was Kim. Were they Japanese? Korean? Lonnie didn’t have the eyes for such things. He decided the one on the end was his favorite.

When the man finished his client, he beckoned Lonnie to his chair.

“I’m waiting for Kim,” Lonnie said.

“Yes.” He touched his chest. “Kim.”

“Oh. Um…” Lonnie liked having a woman cut his hair, and wasn’t especially comfortable with a man doing it, but he was too embarrassed to back out. “Okay.” He took the chair and described the way he wanted it waved, spiked, and shaved. “You understand?”

“Yes,” said Kim. “Good haircut.”

Kim fired up the clippers and ran them rapidly across Lonnie’s scalp, cutting the top off to about a half inch.

“Wait!” Lonnie looked in the mirror. “That’s not what I wanted.” But it was too late, and he soon realized Kim didn’t understand a word he said. ‘Yes’ and ‘Good haircut’ was all he said. Lonnie sat back and muttered “Oohrah” as he watched his hair fall to the ground until it was high and tight.

When it was done, Kim turned the chair to face the mirror. “You like?”

There was something charming about Kim, and Lonnie couldn’t help smiling. “It was very quick. Thank you.”

In the car he chewed out Max for ten minutes straight. “I know how to impress the modern woman, Max. I don’t need you messing up my plans.”

“Acknowledged, sir.”

“Good.” Lonnie looked around. “Where are you taking me? I didn’t tell you a destination.”

“You have ample time before your date, so I prevailed upon Manny the tailor to fit you with a suit for your interview Tuesday.”

“What interview?”

“For the hotel manager at the Windfell Tower.”

“Seriously? That’s a dream job!”

Manny fixed him up with the suit, shoes, and accessories, and when they were finished, Lonnie strutted up and down the shop like he owned the world. He was about to change back into his grubbies when Max chimed in.

“I might suggest, sir, that you wear the suit home to accustom yourself to it. You will feel better for the interview.”

Lonnie smiled and nodded. “Why not? It feels pretty good.”

Back in the car, Lonnie drove with a new confidence, but he was looking forward to getting his party clothes on and hitting the clubs.

“Flowers, Max.”

“I know a nice florist on the way to your date’s house.”

“Sounds great. Home, then.”

Max sent him on a round-about way home, but Lonnie was too busy thinking about the night to concern himself. They ran into some snared up traffic.

“I thought you guys tracked this stuff.”

“We do what we can, sir.”

They attempted some detours and repeatedly came across problems.

“Dang, it’s getting too late to get home,” said Lonnie.

“I might point out, sir—although it isn’t your usual garb, your present attire is quite adequate for any venue.”

“True,” said Lonnie. “Not exactly what I was going for, but it’s a look I can work with.” He turned the car around. “Off to Tiffany’s.”

Max’s directions didn’t make sense to Lonnie, so he corrected them, but Max kept diverting him in odd directions.

“Max, I’ve been to Tiffany’s before, and your directions keep taking me way off track.”

“I always choose the best path, sir.”

“Well, take my inferior one this time.”

“Yes, sir.”

Max kept trying to divert him, but Lonnie ignored him and went the rest of the way by memory.

“What about the flowers?” asked Lonnie.

“You diverted me from that path, sir.”

“Oh, hell. I’ll make it up to her later.”

When he pulled up to Tiffany’s house, she came out hand-in-hand with a green-haired dude with Pokemon tattoos on his face.

Lonnie got out of his car. “Tiffany?”

She looked at him. “Lonnie? I hardly recognize you.”

“You ready for our date?”

She glanced up at the man with her and shrugged. “Sorry, Lon. I meant to call, but I can’t make it.” Without another word, she climbed in the man’s Prius, and they drove off.

After an aimless drive shaking off his disappointment, Lonnie shrugged and found it difficult to be upset. “Dodged a bullet, I guess.”

“You have arrived, sir.”

“What?”

“The flower stand, sir.”

“My date ditched me.”

“I took the liberty of accessing your integrated management platform and arranging this date online. A sweet girl by the name of Molly Summers.”

“When did you do that?”

“This morning, sir.”

“Wait. You mean…?”

“Yes, sir. I recommend Chrysanthemums.”

“Why not?”

Lonnie bought a bouquet, drove to Molly’s, and knocked on the door. An old, plump lady wearing an apron answered.

“Hello. Are you Lonnie?”

“Yes, ma’am. Are you Molly?”

She laughed. “Heavens, no. Come in. Are those mums? I love mums.” She took them and sat him in the living room, then headed to the kitchen for a vase.

A pretty girl in an elegant dress came out of the kitchen, and Lonnie was immediately smitten.

“Molly?”

“Yes. Hello, Lonnie.” She gave him a confidential wink. “My mother seems to approve, so I guess we can go through with this. Where are you taking me tonight?”

“Er… it’s a surprise.”

“Ooh. Mystery man. I’ll say good-bye to mom, and I’ll be right back.”

She disappeared into the kitchen.

“Where are we going, Max?”

“Reservation at the Riverwalk Chateau, sir.”

“You’re a gem of an app, Max.”

“I endeavor to satisfy, sir.”

“I’ll never doubt you again.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“And, Max….”

“Sir?”

“Go ahead and activate the friendly part of your program.”

“You are both wise and kind, Lonnie.”