Through the Open Gate

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Through The Open Gate

by

Phoenix Hocking

She was cold.

She was wet.

She was hungry, tired, and sore.

How she came to be here, wherever here was, was a mystery.

In fact, much of her circumstances seemed to be a mystery, including her own name.

She sat with her back against a tree, knowing full well that it was exactly the wrong place to wait out a thunder storm. If lightning struck the tree, she’d be fried like a piece of bacon on a Sunday morning.

Images, like photographs, came to her then: a kitchen, painted bright yellow. A chrome table. A curtain wriggled in the breeze that came in through an open window. A plate of bacon and eggs. A woman in a dress and apron.

And then the images were gone, flown away like so many of her memories.

The loud crack of nearby lightning made her jump, her hair standing up with the electricity of it. She covered her head and screamed, though the sound was swallowed up in rolling thunder, tossed about like clothes in a dryer.

Another image: standing in front of a bank of dryers. Where? Oh, of course, a laundromat. Where she would wash the baby’s diapers and clothes.

Baby? Did she have a baby then?

She wasn’t sure where the rain stopped and her tears began, but she became aware that she was crying. She just didn’t quite know why.

Where was everyone? Where was she? What was she doing here?

She closed her eyes and just listened to the rain as it pelted the ground beside her, felt the drops hit her face, became aware of the decreasing intensity of the storm.

And just like that, it was over. The sky attempted to clear, scrubbed clean by the tempest. A patch of blue played hide-and-seek with the clouds. A snippet of rainbow appeared for a brief while, then receded.

She got up and shook herself. Her clothes were wet and clung to her body, showing off curves that might have been voluptuous once. Now her breasts hung to just above her navel, and her thighs rubbed against each other when she walked. Her hair, once a subdued auburn was now a yellowish gray.

Another image flashed into her mind: A man this time. Handsome. Wearing a uniform. Military maybe. Or maybe not. It was hard to tell. There was something in his face that made her put her hand to throat and catch her breath.

And then he was gone, the image fading along with the others.

Where was she? She stood uncertainly, wondering where to go. For she knew she couldn’t stay where she was. Besides, she was hungry.

How long had it been since she had eaten? She couldn’t remember. An hour, a day? Longer?

Her stomach growled loudly, and she smiled a bit. A woman’s voice. “Your stomach must think your throat’s been cut,” the voice said. “Here, have an apple to tide you over ’til dinner.”

The voice faded, along with the context.

Peering through the trees, she saw something. A house? A cave? She started towards it, whatever it was, hoping to reach it before the rain began again. For the sky was once again darkening, and low rumbles could be heard in the distance, headed in her direction like horses gone wild.

She tripped over roots and downed branches. She brushed her thinning hair back away from her face, blinked the wetness from her eyes. She became disoriented and searched frantically for whatever it was she had seen before, but there was nothing.

Nothing and no one.

Lightning struck again, and again, and again. She curled herself into a ball, put her hands over her head, and scrunched her eyes closed until all she could see was the pattern the lightning made on her eyelids.

“God!” she cried. “God, make it stop! Please make it stop!”

But the only sound she heard was the storm as it raged on around her, an insignificant bit of life on the bosom of the earth.

She made herself go away. When she was young, she could make herself disappear when Uncle Charlie came to visit. It was an old escape mechanism. One she didn’t know she still possessed.

She withdrew into her imaginary refuge: a room. Floor to ceiling book-shelves. Mahogany paneling. A warm carpet on the floor. Oil paintings on the walls. A large round table in the middle of the room, with yellow roses in a vase. On the far wall a picture window, framing the sea. A wing back chair. A footstool. A blazing fire in the fireplace. A cup of tea.

She saw herself in the room, sitting in the chair, her feet on the footstool. She was warm and dry. She was reading Anne of Green Gables. A cat… no, a dog lay beside the chair, snoring softly. She nibbled some cookies she found on the side table. Drank some tea. Looked out the picture window at whales and dolphins playing in the ocean.

She slept, or thought she did.

When she awoke, the storm was over. The sky was completely clear, though beginning to darken into dusk. With dusk came more cold. Bitter, bitter cold. She wrapped her arms around herself, though it did little good.

She shivered and her stomach growled. But she felt better, as though the storm had washed away some of her own mental cobwebs.

She still didn’t know where she was, but she remembered her name: Martha. Martha Collins.

The voice again. “Very good Martha. Now what is your address? You must know your address in case you ever get lost.”

Her name was Martha Collins. She lived at …

She couldn’t remember where she lived, so she began to cry again. How was she going to get home if she couldn’t remember her address?

Another image. A house, set back a little ways from the street. A white house with green shutters. A white picket fence, with an open gate. Yellow roses around the base of the porch. A child playing in the rain in the front yard.

“Martha! Come in the house this second before you catch your death of cold!”

The image faded again, to be replaced by another. A building, but not a home. Like a hospital, but not a hospital. Gates. Someone had left a gate open. She remembered walking out of the gate, onto the street. She followed the sidewalk. “Don’t step on a crack; you’ll break your mother’s back!”

Then she saw roses in a yard. Pretty roses. Yellow ones.

She started to walk up to the roses to smell them, when someone yelled at her. “Get out of my yard, you old biddy! Get out!”

And she had run. Well, maybe not run exactly, but she moved as fast as she was able. But she got turned around and couldn’t find her way back. And then she forgot where back was, or why she wanted to go there.

She got off the sidewalk at some point, and strolled off into the trees. The trees were pretty and she wandered around among them until the storm came.

And now, here she was, with no more notion of where she had come from or where she was going than “the man in the moon,” as her mother used to say.

She came to a clearing. She stopped and listened. She was surrounded by stones, flat ones, and upright ones. Stones with writing on them. The rain had made the stones shiny. In the distance was a sound that might have been traffic, but she wasn’t sure. In any case, that sound was all around, so she didn’t know in which direction to go.

She started to walk, because she couldn’t think of anything else to do. At least it wasn’t raining any more. But now, it was starting to get dark, and she was still cold, and wet, and hungry.

She wandered around the place with the stones, feeling as though she had been here before. She just couldn’t remember when, or why. But the place had a familiar feel to it, a feeling both comforting and sad at the same time.

She saw a bench and sat on it. Her feet hurt, so she took off her shoes. She smoothed her hair with her cold, cold hands.

She was so tired. So very, very tired.

She lay down on the bench and went to sleep.

She dreamed of the white house with the green shutters and yellow roses. The gate was closed that led into the yard. On the porch was the handsome young man, shining bright in his uniform.

He held his arms out to her and in an instant she knew exactly who she was, and who he was. She knew exactly where she was going, and where she wanted to be.

“Thomas!” she cried, opening the gate and running to his waiting arms. He embraced her and kissed her, and suddenly she felt warm, and dry, and safe.

Martha Collins sat in the dining hall of Life Everlasting Community Home, tucking into a plate of meatloaf, mashed potatoes, and sweet corn.

“So, how was it this time?” her friend Walter asked.

“Not a good experience this time around,” she answered, reaching up to rub the red paddle marks on either side of her head. “I was cold and wet and hungry.” She took a bite of mashed potato. “Pretty uncomfortable, really.”

“But, did you get to die this time?”

Martha’s eyes grew moist. “Yes,” she said. “This time I died.”

Marvin leaned forward. “How long were ye dead fer?”

She smiled. “Seventeen minutes and thirty-seven seconds.”

“Then what?”

Martha laughed. “Then I sat up and said Where’s my dinner?

The other residents surrounding her all laughed as well.

“And was Thomas there?” Harriet asked, twisting her napkin around with her arthritic hands.

“Oh yes, Thomas is always there every time I die.” Martha put down her fork, a wistful look coming into her eyes. “Maybe one day,” she said, “I’ll get to stay dead.”

The End

In The Land of Odin

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In The Land Of Odin

by

Phoenix Hocking

I never wanted to live forever. Truly. “Living Forever,” was not on my bucket list.

Ha. Ha.

Let me explain.

My name is Walter Stone. I am eighty-five years old. I’ve been eighty-five years old for fifty years.

I live in a time when medical advancements are coming at so fast a pace, no one can keep up. There are cures for almost everything now. Almost.

I was actually kind of looking forward to dying. I wanted to see my beloved wife again, who had passed away when we were both in our seventies. I wanted to know what was on the “other side” of this earthly life. I wanted to be free of the aches and pains of old age.

When my memory started to go, I got scared. Alzheimer’s disease is a horrible thing. It robs you of your memory, of your children and grandchildren, of any joy in life, until you are nothing but a shell of your former self, sitting in some nursing home in a wheelchair because you’ve forgotten how to walk.

The very thought filled me with dread.

So when a clinical study began, asking for volunteers to test a new medication that was supposed to cure Alzheimer’s, I took the plunge.

And it worked! Lord in Heaven! It actually worked! After only three injections, my mind was as sharp and my memory as clear as when I was in my twenties or thirties. Better maybe.

No, better, definitely.

As time wore on the memories of those in the trial got better and better until we could remember every single moment of our lives, from the trauma of birth, to the pain of our first tooth, to the first day of kindergarten, to our first kiss, our first broken heart, our first paycheck, the first fight with our parents. Every single thing that had happened to us was available to us.

It was a miracle.

It was such a miracle that there was a rush to put this drug on the market. Such a rush, that long-term studies were deemed useless. It worked, so why withhold it to those who so desperately needed it?

They should have done the long term studies, for as it turns out, the drug had some unexpected side effects.

For example, it did nothing for other conditions a person might have. Diabetes, COPD, arthritis, macular degeneration, muscular sclerosis, post-polio syndrome – well, you get the picture. A person still had all the aches, pains, and conditions that he or she had before taking the drug. But, by golly, our memories were sharp!

It was only about five years into the study that researchers discovered yet another side effect to this wonder drug. The participants in the study didn’t seem to get any older. If your body was eighty-five, it stayed eighty-five. If your body was ninety, or a full hundred, your body simply stayed there.

Forever.

Or so it seems. It’s been fifty years since my eighty-fifth birthday, and I’m still eighty-five. I still have crippling rheumatoid arthritis. I’m still diabetic. I’m still in pain every day of my life. My bones ache when it rains, and my bum knee still gives out when I climb the stairs. My macular degeneration is such that I can’t read any better now than I could when the study began.

Even now that most conditions have largely been wiped out among the general population, they’re still alive and well among those of us who took the Alzheimer’s drug.

I don’t live at home any more. When the side effect of living came to the attention of the researchers, they rounded us up and put us in various nursing homes across the country.

I’m not sure how many of us there are, but quite a few.

I live in Shady Acres, just outside of Chicago. It’s a nice enough facility I suppose. My son and daughter used to come and visit, but they’ve both passed away now. It creeps out the grandkids to come see me, so they don’t bother to visit. It gets lonely talking to the same old people every day, especially after fifty years and we’ve all heard everybody’s stories a million times.

Rumors swirl around like we were in high school though.

One rumor is that some people in their thirties and forties have taken the drug, trying to stay young forever. Hmmmpf. What foolishness that is! Trust me, living forever ain’t what it’s cracked up to be.

Another rumor is that they’re trying to find a way to kill us without harming us. I mean, nothing violent, for that would be cruel. I’ve heard they managed to kill one old gentleman in San Francisco, but he only stayed dead for fifteen minutes. When he came back to life, he was the same age as when he had died, and still had all his attendant miseries. Only now, he was blind too.

There is talk that using the guillotine and immediate cremation might work, but so far they haven’t got a volunteer to try that. After all, what if your ashes came back together and you became alive again in your grave? I shudder to even contemplate that.

Luckily, they can’t force us. There are laws about things like that.

Of course, the use of the drug has been suspended indefinitely. I’ve heard the scientists are still working on a cure for Alzheimer’s that doesn’t have all the side effects, but so far, no luck.

Maybe that’s for the best, in the long run. At least at some point a person with Alzheimer’s will pass away and their misery will be over. For those of us who took the wonder drug, our misery lasts forever.

In Norse mythology there is a tale about a bird in the land of Odin. In Odin there is a mountain, one thousand miles square. Every million years this bird comes along and sharpens its beak on the mountain. When the mountain is finally worn away, that, to eternity, is only one single day.

From the looks of it, I may still be around when that happens.

Mercy? Or Murder?

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Mercy, or Murder?

by

Phoenix Hocking

Oh, aye, she were a drinker, that one.” The old man leaned back in his chair with a chuckle. He placed his hands on his corpulent belly and drummed a little tattoo, his eyes crinkling up a little in remembrance.

He was in his early seventies, short and round. His hair, what there was left of it, was a mix of blond and gray. His eyes were red-rimmed with crying, and puffy with too little sleep. His nose bore the evidence of a lifetime of drinking alcohol, with spider veins that created a pattern that looked rather like the state of Texas, if you squinted your eyes.

The interview room was small and cold. Detective Samuel “Shady” Parker sat in a chair across from Charlie Fields, the accused. Shady was comfortable in his suit jacket and tie, though Mr. Fields seemed a little chilly, even though he was wearing a flannel shirt beneath his denim overalls.

The room was painted Dusky Gray, a fact Parker knew because his wife, Lottie, had helped pick out the color. It was a neutral shade, impersonal and unadorned, the walls broken only by one door, and the large two-way window.

Parker knew his trainee, Jimmy, was on the other side of the two-way, watching, learning, taking notes. He was a nice lad, Jimmy was. Maybe a little too nice for this line of work, Shady thought.

He returned his attention to Mr. Fields, who had fallen silent.

“And had she been drinking last night, Mr. Fields?” Shady Parker asked.

“Oh, aye. Couldn’t get the pills down her no other way.”

Mr. Fields seemed to turn his attention inward, silent again. He reached up to scratch his ear, then returned to drumming on his stomach.

Parker leaned forward across the table that separated them. “So, tell me about your wife, Mr. Fields.”

Charlie’s eyes lit up and mellowed. “Oh, me and Beulah knowed each other since grade school,” he answered. “She weren’t never perty, but then, neither was I. Mebee that’s what drew us to each other. We was both homely as a mud fence, and knowed it. Still, I usta tell her she was perty, even though we both knowed it was a lie. But she liked to hear it, so I liked to say it.”

“How long have you been married, Mr Fields?”

“Don’t call me that. I ain’t never been Mister Fields to nobody. Folks just call me Charlie.”

“Okay, Charlie,” Parker agreed. “How long have you been married?”

“Well, me and Beulah got married when she were but thirteen. That’s the way things were did back then. I were sixteen meself. I’m seventy-two now, so…” he stopped to count on his fingers. “Let me see, twenty-six, thirty-six, forty-six, fifty-six, sixty-six, that’s fifty years and add…” he counted again, “…so we was married fifty-six years. Ain’t that right? I ain’t never been too good at numbers.”

Shady smiled. “Yes, that sounds about right. That’s a long time to be married.”

“Well, back then, when we said Until death do us part, we meant it. Not like the younguns today, who may say it, but they don’t mean it. As soon as some little bump in the road comes along, they git divorced. Me and Beulah, we dint believe in divorce, even when times were hard.”

“And had the times gotten hard, Charlie?”

The old man didn’t answer for a minute, then said, “I ‘member the first time I saw her. She were sittin’ by herself in the corner of the classroom during recess. She din’t like to go out durin’ recess ’cause the other girls usta make fun of her. Her one leg was a little shorter than the other, so she warn’t no good at runnin’. And she were poor. Even more poorer than me, and that’s sayin’ somethin’.”

A large tear escaped from Charlie’s eye. It ran down his cheek and Shady watched in fascination as it reached the edge of Charlie’s face and dropped off onto his flannel shirt. Charlie reached into his pocket and drew out a red handkerchief. He blew his nose into it, then wiped his eyes with the edge.

“She had the bluest eyes,” Charlie said. “They was her best feature. Her eyes were like the blue you see in the sky, right after it rains. She loved the sky, loved watchin’ the clouds, and seein’ perty pitchers there, and seein’ the birds fly across it, all free. She did love the sky.”

“It sounds like you loved her very much,” the detective said softly.

“I did that,” the old man replied sadly. “I did that.”

“So, if you loved her so much, why did you kill her?”

Charlie sat up straight in his chair, eyes blazing. “Because she dint want to live no more, that’s why!”

“And why is that, Charlie? Why didn’t Beulah want to live?”

Mr. Fields leaned forward, as if being closer to the detective would make his words more truthful. “’cause she was sufferin! Ever day, she suffered. Ever day. Ever day.” More tears gathered in the old man’s eyes and fell, unchecked, some splashing onto the table.

“What did she have, Charlie?”

“I don’t know zactly. Somethin’ to do with her liver. At first she just lost weight and she were tired all the time. Her skin turned yellow and then her belly just swole up. And she hurt. She hurt ever minute of ever day. She got all confused, and sometimes she dint even seem to know who I was.”

“That must have been hard,” Shady said.

“You ever love anybody?” Charlie asked. “Somebody you’d give up yer life fer? Somebody you’d rather take their pain than let them suffer through it?”

Shady shivered as he thought of his wife and step-daughter. “Yes, Charlie,” he answered. “I have and I do.”

Charlie leaned back in his chair. “Then you’ll understand why I had to do it. She were sufferin’ and I couldn’t let her suffer no more.”

“What did you do, Charlie?”

“Well, the doctors couldn’t do nuthin’ fer her. They give her drugs that jest made her tired and loopy all the time, but she were still hurtin’. And finally, I couldn’t stand to see her like that no more.”

The old man paused, and Detective Parker waited a few moments before asking again, “What did you do?”

Charlie’s eyes were full of misery as he looked full into Shady’s face. “She dint want to live no more. She told me so. She’d cry and hang on to me and beg me to make it stop.” He covered his eyes with his work-callused hands. “So I did.”

“How did you do it?”

“I started keeping back some of her pills, just savin’ ’em, you know?”

“Which pills?”

“All of ’em!” Charlie said in a rush, eager now to get this over with. “Her pain pills and her heart pills and ever other pill the doctor gave her. I jest kept some by until I thought mebee I had enough.”

“And then?”

“Then last night, I went in and she were crying somethin’ awful. Clutching at her stomach, her face all scrunched up in pain. She begged me to make it stop, so brought out all the pills I’d saved and give ’em to her.”

“All at once?”

“No. I’d give her a few with the beer, and she’d take as many as she could, then fall asleep for a while. When she woke up, I’d give her more, with more beer. I don’t ‘member how many times. But after a while, she dint wake up no more.”

The interview room was quiet. Shady wrote something in his notepad.

“Thank you, Charlie,” he said. “The officer will take you to your cell now.”

Charlie smiled a little. “She looked right peaceful. Afterwards, you know? Right peaceful. I’ll be glad when I can go be with her.”

A uniformed officer came to escort Charlie Fields to his cell. Shady left the interview room and met with Jimmy in the observation room.

“So,” Detective Parker said, “What did you think?”

Jimmy looked shaken. “That was so sad,” he said.

“Yeah, I suppose it was,” Shady said. “It’s still murder.”

Parker picked up the phone and arranged for a suicide watch to be put on Charlie Fields.

“I guess so,” Jimmy answered. “But maybe it was mercy too, you think?”

Shady shrugged. “Maybe. That’s not up to me. Or to you,” he said pointedly. “That’s up to the courts.”

“What will happen to him?”

“Hard to say. He’s old, and not in very good health himself. If he does go to jail, he probably won’t last long.”

“Do you think he’d actually kill himself?”

Shady shrugged again. “No clue,” he answered. “You can never tell about these things.”

Later that evening, Shady was home with his wife, Lottie, and his step-daughter, Keno. It was an ordinary night. Dinner, dishes, a little television. Keno put a card table up in the den.

“Hey, Dad,” she said. “How about a puzzle?”

“Sure,” Shady said.

The phone rang. Lottie picked it up, then held the receiver out. “It’s Jimmy,” she said.

Shady took the phone. “Yes?”

“He’s dead.”

“Who’s dead?”

“The old man, Charlie Fields.”

“What? I thought I put him on suicide watch.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Jimmy explained. “He didn’t kill himself. He just … died.”

“What do you mean, he just died?

“I had brought him his dinner and we were talking a little bit, and then he just put his hand on his chest and keeled over.”

“Christ.” Shady closed his eyes. “Did he say anything?”

“That’s the weird part,” Jimmy said. “He kind of looked toward the corner of the cell and said, ‘Oh, there you are,’ and then he fell over.”

Shady Parker shivered. “Well, call the coroner and make your report. I’ll talk to you in the morning.”

“Sir?”

“Yes?”

“Do you think … I mean, do you think maybe he just didn’t want to be separated from his wife?”

“Jimmy, just make your report and leave the philosophical stuff to the experts, okay? I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Shady hung up the phone. When he turned around, Keno was standing in front of the puzzle closet. “What kind of puzzle do you want, Dad?” she asked.

“Something with sky,” he answered. “Lots and lots of sky.”

Home for Christmas

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Home for Christmas

by

Phoenix Hocking

It is Christmas in Camden, Maine. Well, almost. Christmas is still a few days away, so the streets will be heavy with locals doing holiday shopping, and tourists come for the skiing.

The roads will have been salted, so they’ll be clear. The snow hasn’t been bad yet this year, Mom says.

“Just enough to look like a postcard,” says Dad.

I can picture it in my mind. Snow just deep enough to be pretty, but not yet treacherous. The hills will be white, and the ocean a deep, rich blue. The boats will have long since been in drydock, but the harbor will still be beautiful. The statue of Edna St. Vincent Millay will look slightly forlorn, standing all alone in the park.

Whitehall Inn will be decorated to the nines, as usual. Festive wreaths will adorn each door, and the parlor will have a gigantic Christmas tree. The puzzle table will still draw visitors, and many a happy hour will be spent near the fire, chatting with new friends, and drinking a cup of tea.

The Owl and Turtle Bookstore will be doing a brisk business. Some shoppers will come in to browse and buy and leave. Others will come and stay for a cup of hot chocolate and settle in to read by the fire. Neighbors will pop in to say hello, then dash out again, intent on finding the perfect gift for whatever family member has shown up at the last minute.

At home, the kitchen will be warm and toasty, filled with the scents of Mom’s baking. Gingerbread and Snickerdoodles, Appleanna bread and Mom’s famous Country Corn Chowder, the recipe snitched from the Golden Ox in Brewster, Massachusetts.

The grandkids will hover around the kitchen, begging for a taste. “Get away with ya!” Mom will say, but she’ll be smiling when she says it. And if a small hand reaches up to snatch a cookie, she’ll pretend not to see.

“Can we go outside? Can we go sledding? Can we? Can we?” The grandkids will pipe up. The hill outside the house is perfect for sledding, and the day is long with waiting.

“Okay,” Mom will say, “but bundle up warm, you hear? Bundle up warm. I don’t need you getting sick over the holiday.”

And the kids will scurry off to bundle into sweatshirts and jackets, warm socks and boots and mittens.

“Go to the bathroom before you put all that stuff on,” Dad will admonish from his throne in the living room. He’ll be in the recliner, of course, his stockinged feet close to the fire, watching It’s A Wonderful Life on television.

Or maybe not. He might be reading. He’s a big reader, my dad is.

Every year at Hallowe’en he reads The War of the Worlds to us aloud, and we shiver and shriek every time. On Thanksgiving he’ll read the praise selections from the Psalms. On Christmas, he’ll read the nativity story from the Bible.

Somehow, even after all these years, the story never gets old. He’ll have us close our eyes and imagine the young couple, Mary and Joseph, travel weary, just looking for a place to rest. He’ll describe the clear night sky, pinpointed with a million stars, and we’ll swear we can hear the angels singing. He’ll bring the Wise Men that we’ve placed in different parts of the house just a little bit closer to the manger in the nativity set Mom has placed under the tree. The manger will be empty, waiting until Christmas Day to receive the Christ child.

Oh, and presents! With all the grandchildren, the tree will just about be hidden with all the presents! Brightly wrapped toys and games, socks and pajamas. Dad will get new slippers, a new wallet, and a new bathrobe. Mom will get perfume, and something that she unwraps, blushes, and quickly puts away. After all these years, Mom never does say what that present is.

So, it is Christmas in Camden, Maine. And this year, I’ll not be home.

Moved away, didn’t I? Moved away to be out on my own, to make my way in the world, to be independent.

It didn’t quite work out how I planned it. I was on my way to California, where it doesn’t snow, and I wouldn’t have to scrape the ice off my windshield every morning. Golden California, where jobs are hanging off the trees, ripe for the plucking. Movie stars hang out at ritzy places, and I dreamed that maybe I’d get discovered like Lana Turner did, at the soda fountain at Schwab’s drugstore.

I thought I’d make a mark on the world, do something grand, be somebody important maybe.

But that’s not what happened.

My car broke down in New Mexico, and somehow I just stayed. I met a guy. Ron is a nice man, a sweet guy. We’re getting married in the Spring, before the baby comes. I hope my family can be here.

But it’s a long way from Camden, Maine. A long way. And the only thing my parents are rich in is love. Still, I know they’ll be thinking of me.

“Miss? Miss?” A voice shakes me out of my reverie. “Can I get a refill please?”

A customer holds out his cup, and I turn around to get the coffee pot.

“Sorry,” I say, pouring. “I was a million miles away.”

“Yeah, this time of year will do that to ya.”

I catch the boss’s eye. “Say, Charlie, it’s not too busy. Can I take a quick break?”

“Sure.”

I go through the kitchen and out the back door. It’s times like this when I almost wished I smoked, but since I don’t I just wrap my sweater around me and look out onto the Sandia Mountains, its snowy nose kissing the sky. It’s a beautiful place, here. But I’m not sure it will ever feel like home.

The boss sticks his nose out the door. “Caroline, we’re getting busy. Can you come back in?”

I wipe away the tears that have escaped from my eyes and go back inside. I look around, but I don’t see anybody that wasn’t there before.

“Where?”

“Big party in the dining room. Can you take it?”

I shrug. Sure, it will keep me busy, and not thinking about home.

I stop at the doorway. Ron is standing there, talking with my dad. A woman turns around, and my eyes widen.

I shake my head because I can’t believe what I’m seeing.

“What the heck?”

It only takes me a minute to cross the room and become enfolded in the arms of my family. Mom and Dad, my sisters, my brother, nieces and nephews. They’re all there. My family. All of them!

“What are you doing here?” I stammer through my tears.

Dad tilts his head toward my husband-to-be, who is standing there grinning, eyes shining. “Merry Christmas, honey,” he says.

I look towards the door and see Charlie leaning against the opening, wiping his eyes with his apron. “Merry Christmas, Caroline,” he says huskily, then turns aside as the rest of the crew begin bringing in a Christmas feast.

Christmas in Camden, Maine has become Christmas in New Mexico. And I am reminded once more that Christmas is not about a place, or presents, or about memories of Christmases past, but about family, and about love.

This Christmas, I am home.

The End

The Spider and The Cookie

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The Spider and The Cookie

by

Phoenix Hocking

Dear Joan,

I know this letter may sound a little odd, but here goes anyway.

I have a spider that lives in my bathroom. He’s not very big; I mean, he’s not a tarantula or a black widow or anything like that. He’s just a normal-looking spider.

He’s quite an industrious fellow and has provided me with much entertainment watching him weave his webs while I am … ahem … otherwise engaged.

I just moved into this apartment a few months ago, after Charlie died. I can sometimes go for days without speaking to another living soul, so I’ve kind of gotten used to talking to Harold, that’s the spider. He was here when I got here, hidden away in the corner near the bathtub.

Anyway, one day I was sitting on the porcelain throne, doing my business while Harold was doing his. (Oh dear, I’ve never thought about just where Harold does his “business.” Maybe I don’t want to know.)

My Bridge club’s annual Baking Contest was coming up, and I was talking to Harold about it.

“What am I going to do, Harold?” I said. “I’m a terrible baker.”

Well, you can imagine my surprise when I heard a voice. “Why don’t you bake cookies?” the voice said.

I looked around the bathroom, but the only two living creatures in there were Harold and me.

“Did you talk to me?” I leaned forward and directed my question toward the small spider who was energetically working on his elaborate web.

“Of course I did,” the voice said. The voice was high and squeaky, and kind of rusty sounding, as if it hadn’t been used in a while.

I leaned against the back of the toilet. The lid scraped against the tank, so I straightened up right away.

“Well,” I said to myself. “I’ve finally gone ’round the bend. No hope for me now. Call the little men in the white coats.”

“Oh shush,” the voice said. “You’ve been talking to me for weeks now. Isn’t it time I talked back?”

I sighed. If this was some sort of hallucination, I guess I could think of others that could be worse.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll bite. Why cookies? And what kind of cookies? Nobody brings cookies. I mean, Maureen is a champion baker. She wins almost every year.”

“Exactly. Bake something unexpected,” Harold answered.

I wiped myself and got up. “You just don’t understand,” I said as I pulled up my pants. “These people expect fancy. Why, last year Ellen won with a Croquenbouche! How can I possibly compete with that?”

Harold waited until I washed my hands, then repeated, “Exactly. You can’t compete with that, so why don’t you just bake something you’ll enjoy eating by yourself when you have to bring it home?”

That stopped me in my tracks. Hmmm, there was that. Every year I was stuck bringing home some fancy dessert I’d tried that ended up being a disaster. I was always so disappointed, I ended up just throwing the stuff away. At least this way, I could drown my sorrows in cookies and milk.

I turned around. Harold was still working on his web. “Okay, why not?” I said. “What kind of cookies shall I make?”

He stopped his weaving for a second, then answered, “Toll House. Everybody loves a nice Toll House chocolate chip cookie.”

I wrinkled my forehead. “What would you know about Toll House cookies?”

The squeaky voice sounded sad. “The lady who used to live here made them often. Sometimes she’d share a crumb or two with me.”

“Uh-huh,” I said. “I didn’t know spiders liked cookies.”

“This one does.”

I went into the kitchen and got out my recipe book. I had almost everything, but I was out of vanilla.

“I’m going to the store, Harold,” I called. “You need anything?”

I grinned to myself. If I was going nuts, at least I could have fun doing it.

I heard a high squeaky voice coming from the bathroom. “If you see a sale on some nice juicy flies, bring me home a dozen!”

The following day, I arranged my Toll House cookies on a pretty plate and covered them with Saran Wrap. They looked good. I’d tasted one, and they tasted good. I’d given a crumb to Harold, and he pronounced them just as good as his previous roommate’s.

But my heart sank when I arrived at Ellen’s house. All the fancy desserts were laid out on her dining room table.

Ellen made Petit Fours, all exactly the same size, but each decorated with a different fancy design.

Maureen made a Bouche de Noel, a rolled cake made to look like a log, complete with something that looked like pastry mushrooms on the side.

Harriet brought Hamentashen.

Elena brought a Plum Clafouti.

Janet brought a Tiramisu.

And Sue brought an apple tart, beautifully arranged.

And there, down at the very end of the table, sat my sad and lonely plate of Toll House chocolate chip cookies.

Ellen put her arm around me, giving me a one-armed shoulder hug. “Don’t worry, my dear,” she said condescendingly. “I’m sure they’ll be lovely.”

Just then, Ellen’s four teenage boys came rushing into the room. “Hey, Mom,” one of them said, “we’re all going over to Fred’s to play football, okay?”

“Sure, honey,” she answered.

“Oh look!” he cried. “Real cookies!”

And before a person could say, “What the heck just happened?” the plate, with the cookies on it, disappeared out the door.

“Wow!” I heard one boy say. “These are really good!”

“Yeah, better than all that fancy stuff,” I heard as their voices trailed away.

Later that afternoon, after Bridge was over and the contest had been decided, I went home. The first thing I did was head for the bathroom.

“So, how did it go?” asked Harold.

I dropped my drawers and positioned myself on the throne. “Janet won for her Tiramisu,” I said.

“And the cookies?”

I grinned. “They were the biggest hit of all,” I answered. “They won the only award that really counted.”

“So,” said Harold, “I don’t suppose you found a sale on flies while you were out.”

“No, but I saved you a crumb of Toll House cookie.”

“Thanks,” he said, “just put it on the floor, I’ll have it for dessert.”

So, Joan, there you have it. I suppose you’ll be ready to call the nut squad after you get this letter, but I’m really fine. Harold has encouraged me to try to make peanut butter cookies next time. If they turn out well, I’ll send you a dozen.

Love, your sister, Betty Ann

The Survivor

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The Survivor

by

Phoenix Hocking

I’m just not in the mood for you today,” Margaret said aloud as she closed the book she was reading. “Maybe tomorrow, but not today.”

She put both hands on the arms of her chair and hoisted herself up, grunting as she did so. “Whew,” she said, “that just gets harder and harder all the time.”

Margaret was sixty-eight years old. She was still in good shape, for the shape she was in. She could still care for herself, and if there was anyone else around for her to care for, she could watch over them as well.

But there wasn’t.

She made her way into the kitchen where she put the kettle on the stove. She turned on the gas and lit the burner with a match. The electronic starter went out some time ago, and of course, there was no way to get it fixed. Still, it lit with a match, and for that she was grateful.

In fact, she was grateful that she still had some gas. Once this was gone, though, that would be it. She would be reduced to building a fire in the driveway of her mobile home.

“At least I remember how to do that,” she said to the stove. She got a bag of Lipton tea from the cupboard and put it in a cup. She waited for the kettle to boil as she thought over the last few months.

If she looked out of her living room window, everything pretty much looked the same as it always did. She could see Twila’s mobile home across the street, sandwiched between Harriet’s on the left and George’s on the right. They’d been nice people, and Margaret missed them.

But they were gone now, along with everyone else.

“Everyone except me,” Margaret said aloud. “I wonder why I was spared.”

It hadn’t taken long. A disease, the likes of which had never been seen before, had ravaged the nation, and almost everyone was dead within a week or two. Some sort of plague, the television news commentator said, before there was no more television. Something had escaped from some government lab; some chemical weapon they’d been working on to keep their enemies in check. It got loose, and now look what happened.

“I wonder if I’m really the only person left alive,” Margaret said to the kettle. It whistled in response, and Margaret poured the hot water over her tea bag.

In the beginning, she’d looked around her neighborhood, but everyone was dead, or had run away hoping to outrun the Death that stalked the world. Only she was left.

She took a sniff of the tea, but wrinkled her nose in disgust. Nothing. She had no sense of smell whatsoever.

The funny thing was that although all the people were dead, everything else was alive and vibrant. The trees and grass were still green, the flowers continued to grow, the birds still sang in the trees. And God knew the cockroaches were just as plentiful as ever.

“I’d like to smell those flowers again,” she said sadly.

When the Death came, most people succumbed within a few days of contracting the disease, whatever it was. Margaret fell sick herself, but for some reason known only to God, she recovered. The only thing that seemed to be affected was her sense of smell. She had none.

She was grateful for that, too, considering.

“So, I’d sure like to know what you were thinking, God,” Margaret said as she slowly sipped her tea. “I mean, why me? Why let me live when all the young people might have actually done something to heal this old world of ours. Why pick me to live? I’ll be dead soon enough in any case.”

There was no answer.

Margaret shuffled into her bedroom. The water had long since stopped running, but she kept a basin full to wash with. She gave herself what her mother used to call a “PTA bath,” which Margaret had always found to be rather vulgar. She preferred to call her morning ablutions a “bird bath” instead, rather than “piss, tits, and armpits.”

She washed and dried herself, then hung the towel over the bar. Why she bothered to bathe, she did not know. There was nobody around to notice if she stank or not, and she herself couldn’t tell either. But she’d had a bath every morning of her life for sixty-eight years, and saw no reason to end the practice now. Besides, what if she really did meet someone else still alive? She wouldn’t want to offend them, whomever it was.

She dressed for duty. Jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, heavy socks, boots.

She heard the scratching on the front door and smiled.

“Coming!” she called. “I’m coming!”

For some reason, again known only to God, just as Margaret was the only human left alive (that she could tell, anyway), Scruffy was the only dog. He was a mutt of indeterminate breed, part Lab maybe, part German Shepherd, part St. Bernard. It was hard to tell. But Scruffy was a big dog, and Margaret found that comforting for some reason.

Scruffy came to her house every morning, and they went about Margaret’s business together, a working team in their unpleasant task. But when work was over, he accepted whatever Margaret gave him to eat, and then went home to his empty house.

“Hey, Scruffy,” Margaret said as she opened the door. “How are you this morning?”

Scruffy just smiled his big-dog smile, baring all his teeth and letting his tongue hang out of his mouth.

“You hungry?”

The dog headed for the kitchen.

Margaret got a manual can opener from the drawer, reached into the cupboard and pulled out a can of dog food. She’d found the food in Scruffy’s house and brought it to her own. Scruffy’s owners were the first she’d had to take care of.

Scruffy ate quickly, then sat on his haunches, as if he were waiting for instructions.

She sighed. “Well, I guess there isn’t much choice in the matter, is there, old boy?” she asked.

Scruffy wagged his tail in reply.

Margaret went through the laundry room and opened the back door. She collected her heavy gloves from the top of the washing machine. The shovel remained where she had placed it the day before. She hoisted it to her shoulder, groaning a little as she did so.

“Lord, you really could have picked somebody a little younger for this job, You think? I really am too old for this nonsense.”

There was no answer.

Margaret had buried almost all of who had been the residents of her mobile home park. Scruffy had led her to the homes where bodies lay, stinking and bloated, though Margaret couldn’t smell them. Some homes were empty, the residents having left in hopes of outrunning the Death, but there was still one left with bodies that needed to be laid to rest.

It was not pleasant work.

At first, she didn’t know where to bury her neighbors. The cemetery was quite a distance away, and loading the bodies in her car was exhausting. In the end, she finally decided that she would simply bury them in their own small yards. She could still dig a hole that might not have been the requisite six feet deep, but was still deep enough to drag a body to, wrestle it in, and cover it.

After she had buried Scruffy’s owners, the dog seemed to know what she was doing, and helped her by digging alongside her. It was hard work for both of them, but there was no rush. She couldn’t smell the bodies, and Scruffy didn’t seem to care.

She was working on space D3. The Cartwrights had lived there, and Margaret was happy that neither of them were large people. They were both in bed, which made it easier for Margaret to simply wrap the sheets around them and drag them outside. She tried to be gentle with the bodies. After all, they were people she had known and liked. They’d played Bingo together on Wednesday nights, attended the same Bridge games on Tuesdays, and lounged around the pool together on warm summer evenings.

They’d been friends. And now they were gone.

Margaret dug their graves, pausing now and again to wipe her face, and to gaze into the distance.

“So, what do you think, Scruffy?” she asked the dog. “Are we the only ones left?”

Scruffy had no answer, just a wag of the tail.

That evening, after her work was done, she fed Scruffy and herself, then sat on the front porch of her mobile home. All the bodies in her small park had now been laid to rest. She had long since equipped her trailer with everything she needed.

Eternity stretched before her in a long, unending, lonely road.

“What are we going to do now, Scruffy?” she asked. “There’s nothing left to do.”

The evening began to close in around her. An soft breeze stirred the leaves of the Elm in her front yard. The flowers began to close against the dusk. A meadowlark sang briefly, then went silent.

Scruffy rose and stretched. He started down the steps, then turned when Margaret got up from her chair.

“Scruffy, stay with me tonight, would you?” Margaret hated the pleading in her voice, but suddenly the thought of being alone was frightening. “I … I don’t want to be by myself.”

She sat down again.  A tear gathered at the corner of her eye, and she wiped it away with one hand. “Please?”

Scruffy stood at the bottom step. He faced his old home and stared for a while. Then he turned and trotted back up the stairs. He placed his head on Margaret’s knee, looked up at her, and wagged his tail gently.

“Thank you, my friend,” Margaret said softly. “I don’t know what I’m going to do now, but whatever it is, I’m glad you’re with me.”

And so, the two survivors sat on the porch long into the night, staring up at the stars, sharing the end of the world together.

The End

The Contract

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The Contract

by

Phoenix Hocking

Susan watched the sunshine creep across the face on the canvas, gradually illuminating cheek and hair, jaw and lips. The oil painting stood on an easel in the corner, awaiting only the finishing touches on the complicated background design. The face had been finished some time ago, but the background was more challenging. She had decisions to make.

She had picked up her brush, ready to begin, when she felt strong arms around her waist and a hot breath next to her ear. “Hard at work, I see,” said the familiar voice.

“What do you think?” she asked. “Do you like it?”

“It’s … “ the voice hesitated. “It’s different.”

“You don’t like it,” she said flatly. “I hate painting children.”

“I know,” the voice soothed. “I know. But this is what you signed up for.”

Susan sighed. “Yes, but if I had known … “

He laughed lightly. “That’s what they all say.” And then he was gone.

She sat heavily on the rolling stool near the painting and covered her face with her hands. Yes, God help her, she had signed up for this, and now she regretted every second it.

Susan Davis had been an accomplished artist; good, but not great. Competent, but not inspired. And she wanted more than anything to make a name for herself in the art world. She’d had a few gallery shows, a few exhibits in the park, but still, she remained only a minor player in her chosen profession.

And then, he had arrived. He’d walked into the gallery where her pictures were being shown and made her an offer she couldn’t refuse. He’d offered her wealth, and travel, and most of all, recognition. All she had to do was paint portraits for him whenever he asked. Very specific portraits. It seemed a small price to pay.

There was a contract. One she dared not break.

Good Lord, she often thought, how did I get into this mess? And how do I get out of it?

To be fair, he had kept his part of the bargain. Almost immediately after signing the contract, someone had bought one of her painting for an exorbitant, positively outrageous sum. And then more, and more, and more. She made more money than she literally knew what to do with. Her name became known throughout the art world. Articles were written about her, documentaries made for television detailing her meteoric rise.

And travel? She went everywhere. London, Rome, Istanbul, Moscow, even Timbuktu. She stayed in the finest hotels, drank the most expensive wines, ate caviar and lobster and filet mignon.

He was beside her every day, reminding her that none of this would be possible without him. Her entire life was his to command, and she was grateful, for she had grown to love her lifestyle. The wealth, the travel, the fame, the opulence of her life was like a drug, and she could not imagine living without it.

And then ….

Yes, and then. He came to her one day. Where was it, that first portrait? She thought about that. There had been so many now. Of course. She had been in Milan, relaxing in the private Jacuzzi attached to her suite, when he came in.

“Hello, my darling,” he’d said. “You remember our contract, yes?”

“Of course!” Susan had exclaimed. “I thought perhaps you’d forgotten, since you hadn’t asked me to paint any portraits for you.”

He sat on the side of the tub, idly popping the bubbles that swirled around Susan’s naked body.

“Oh, I haven’t forgotten,” he said, his voice as smooth and seductive as Ghirardelli chocolate. “Tomorrow morning, meet me in the lobby. I have your first commission, and I’ll tell you what to do.”

The following morning, she met him, as arranged, in the lobby of her hotel. He was alone, and she looked around for someone who might be the subject of the portrait he wanted done.

“Oh, you won’t have a live person sitting for the portrait,” he said. He pulled a photograph from his pocket and handed it to her.

The photograph was of an old man, his face deeply lined, wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. He sat in a wheelchair, his oxygen tank in the chair’s holder and the canula in his nose.

Susan’s brow furrowed. “Him? Who is he?”

“That’s none of your concern,” he answered. “Paint him as you see him, but in the background, I want you to paint a hospital room.”

“A hospital room?”

“You’re not to ask questions,” he said sternly. “Just do it.”

So, she did. She painted what she saw, and what she imagined the old man’s hospital room to look like.

The instant she put the final dab of color on the portrait, her benefactor arrived. He seemed pleased.

Then he handed her the photograph of a young soldier. “Paint the soldier,” he said, “and in the background I want a battle scene. Afghanistan, or Iran, or some desert place like that,” he instructed.

So, she did.

After that, the portraits kept coming, young and old, men and women, all shapes, sizes and colors of people. A few dogs, but not many. He wanted their portraits, with varying backgrounds, none of which made any sense to her. But, she had signed a contract, and she kept her word, as he had kept his.

Then. Dear God in Heaven. Then …

He brought her a photograph of a famous world leader. She recognized him immediately. “Him?” she’d exclaimed. “You want me to paint him?”

“Yes,” he’d answered. “Him.”

“What background do you want?”

He studied her face, lined with concern. “I want you to paint the aftermath of a bomb.”

“Dear God, why?”

“Don’t ask questions. Just do it.” And he was gone.

She painted the portrait of the world leader. She painted the background, an ugly, complicated, mishmash of what she imagined a scene would look like if a bomb went off behind him.

It was distressing work, so she turned on the television to keep her company. By coincidence, the world leader was giving a speech. The room in which he spoke looked eerily like the bomb-destroyed space she had just painted in the background of his portrait. And as soon as she placed the last dab of color on the painting, the picture on the television went blank.

She changed the channel. All over the stations came the report that the world leader had been killed in an explosion. And when the cameras panned in on the destruction, Susan’s painting showed the exact same scene.

She was stunned. Surely this had to be a coincidence. She hadn’t caused the bomb to go off, had she? Of course not. That would be ridiculous. It HAD to be a coincidence.

Didn’t it?

After that, she paid closer attention to her subjects, and to the backgrounds he wanted her to paint. She searched the newspapers and watched the news in the days following the completion of every portrait. And without fail, the person who was the subject died in the same manner as the backgrounds.

Dear God, who was this man? Surprisingly, Susan had never questioned who her benefactor was. Not really. He had said his name was Nick, and given her some papers to sign, but she had been totally besotted by his promises and not read the contract at all. The words were tiny, and filled with legalese, and there were pages and pages and pages of them. Who had time for that?

She made time. She read every word, and buried deep on page 17, she found it. According to the contract, she was required to paint the portraits of whomever Nick deemed necessary, with the backgrounds he demanded. Failure to do so would result in the forfeiture of her immortal soul.

She confronted him. She attempted to rip up the contract, but the paper would not tear. She tried to burn it, but it would not catch fire.

He laughed at her.

And then he gave her another photograph, this one of a little boy, perhaps eight or nine years old. He was a sweet-faced child, haunted around the eyes by a long illness, thin. Too young to die.

Her heart sank.

She painted the child with care, with love, with an ache in her heart that she, she was to be the cause of this child’s demise. But, what else could she do? Where was there an out?

In desperation, Susan buried her face in her hands and sobbed, “Please, God, help me get out of this mess.”

Tears streaming down her face, she attacked the contract again, peering at the tiny print until her head ached and her eyes burned. There had to be a way out of this.

And then, on page 23, there it was.

According to the contract, if any subject of any portrait failed to expire immediately upon the portrait’s completion, then the terms of the contract would be null and void.

Perfect. All she had to do was figure out how to make sure this little boy lived. But how?

She just sat for a while, not thinking, not praying, not doing anything. Just closed her eyes and sat. She became conscious of her breath, her body, the figures that played in the darkness behind her eyes. And in the stillness, came an idea, and with the idea came peace.

Susan knew he was watching her closely. He inspected the portrait every chance he got. He peered over her shoulder while she worked, made suggestions, urged her to hurry and complete it.

She claimed artist’s privilege and said good art could not be rushed. Especially with a child as beautiful as this one. But she painted. She painted as if her life depended on it, as if the boy’s life depended on it. She painted far into the night, long after the sun had set.

The background of the painting was complicated. It showed the hospital room of the child, complete with heart monitor, intravenous bags full of fluid, medicine bottles, and his grieving parents, their faces contorted with pain.

Just before midnight, Nick arrived at Susan’s little studio.

“Is it finished?” he asked.

“Almost,” she replied, as she leaned forward to put one more addition on the portrait. She straightened up and said quietly, “It is finished.”

He examined the painting, studied the boy’s sickly face, his parent’s sad countenances, and nodded. He left, but returned in ten minutes, furious. “I thought you said it was finished,” he growled.

“It is finished,” Susan replied. “And so is your hold over me.”

She stood in front of the painting, holding the contract in her hand. Easily, she tore it into two pieces and tossed it into the fire where the flames caught it and burned it to ash.

Then she moved away from the painting, and he gasped.

The painting had been utterly transformed. Where before the boy’s face had been sickly, now it shone with health, his cheeks rosy and his eyes bright. His parent’s faces, once contorted with grief were now shining with joy. And around the boy’s neck, almost invisible to the naked eye, Susan had painted a golden chain, and a tiny gold cross.

“What have you done?” the devil cried.

“I came to understand that there is a Power on this earth far greater than you,” Susan said.

“What?” he cried, his face suffused with anger. “What is greater than I?”

Susan paused a moment before she answered. “Love,” she said as she walked out the door.

In an obscure little art gallery, somewhere off the beaten path, you will find the last known painting by the world-renowned artist, Susan Davis. It is of a little boy, looking healthy and happy, playing in a meadow filled with flowers and surrounded by trees. The sunshine surrounds him, and the light illuminates the necklace he wears, a small golden chain with a tiny cross glowing upon the skin of his chest.

Susan Davis dropped mysteriously out of sight soon after this portrait was completed, but there is some speculation that she is currently working as a waitress somewhere in New Mexico.