Three Words

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Three Words

by

Phoenix Hocking

The priest stood before the mound of dirt that covered my girlfriend’s body. “May God grant you rest,” he intoned as he made the sign of the cross in the air, “and may you find contentment in Heaven, as you never did on earth.”

He looked straight at me then, and I shivered.

I hadn’t meant to kill her. Truly. I only meant… I only… Oh hell, I don’t know what I meant. It doesn’t matter now anyway.

Oh, I didn’t actually kill her kill her, if you get my drift. I mean, I never held a gun to her head or a knife to her throat, but still, I feel as responsible as if I had. If only I hadn’t encouraged her in her madness, in her obsession, maybe she’d still be alive today. Maybe… well, maybe a lot of things might have turned out differently.

After the service I sat on a nearby bench, brooding. It was a beautiful day, the kind Madelyn loved. The sky held just enough wispy clouds to block the worst of the sun, and birds twittered in the trees next to her grave. Butterflies danced among the gravestones, filling the cemetery with flying bits of color.

I fell in love with Madelyn the first time I saw her. I was seven, she was six, and her family had moved next door to mine. She was thin, even then, with long, red, curly hair that cascaded down her back like a waterfall. She wore a green dress and black Mary Janes, that first day.

She’d stood in front of her mother, and Madelyn had one hand out and the other hand on her hip, saying, “I want more!” Her mother gave her another sweet, told her to go find someone to play with, then continued moving things into the house.

Who she found to play with was me. And I was soon to learn that those three words, “I want more!” would come to rule her life.

In all the years I knew her, Madelyn was never content with what she had. She always wanted more. She got A’s in school. I never once knew her get a ninety-nine percent on a test. She only got perfect scores. It was not enough that she was the best speller in class, in school; she had to go on to regional, state, and national championships, and win them all. She was brilliant, and she knew it.

In high school she was class president four years running, valedictorian at commencement, Prom Queen. In college, she was president of her sorority, and graduated in three years instead of four.

She never wanted to marry, or have children. I asked her to marry me once, and she just laughed. “Oh, Steve,” she said, “that would ruin everything!”

“What do you mean ruin everything?” I asked, crushed at her refusal.

“Marriage and children are just roadblocks when you’re on the fast track,” she replied.

And on the fast track she was. Straight out of college she took a position at a well-known company as a sales associate. By the end of the first year, she was top salesperson. At the end of three years, she was managing the branch. At five years she was president of the company. At seven, she was the owner.

She started out with a used Toyota, which soon became a three-hundred thousand dollar Ferrari. She started with a one-bedroom condo in a middle-class neighborhood, which became a multi-million dollar home on twelve acres.

And still, she was not content. She wanted more. She could not have just one dog from the pound. No, she had to have a thousand-dollar pure-bred, which eventually became a kennel full of pure-bred dogs. Her single horse became a stable of thoroughbreds. Her garage became home to six expensive vehicles, each larger than the last, or at least more costly.

And all this time, there I was, cheering her on, encouraging her to go farther, reach higher, do better than everyone else. I thought she was the most ambitious person I’d ever met. But under that ambition was madness, pure and simple. Utter and complete insanity.

But, in my own defense, isn’t that what we’re taught? That more is better? That a Cadillac is better than a Vespa, or a vacation to Europe beats a trip to Disneyland? That steak is better than hotdogs, and a bottle of Dom Perignon is better than Coors? No, we must have more. More money, more prestige, more power, more everything. More, always more.

In retrospect, I suppose it is strange that I still considered her my “girlfriend,” since we hadn’t really been an item for many years. Just as one of anything wasn’t enough for her, one boyfriend wasn’t either. We remained friends throughout the years, though, and I liked to think that I was the one person she could count on, could trust, could share her dreams with.

What a fool I was! I saw the person she wanted me to see – the same ambitious, successful, powerful, rich woman the rest of the world saw. I never saw the madness hidden beneath the facade. I don’t think any of us did.

One day, she and I were sitting on her veranda, looking out over her acreage, drinking a very fine port. The sun was just beginning to set behind the distant hills, and her land was bathed in golden light. She was unusually quiet, and I asked her, “Madelyn, are you all right?”

She looked out over the property she had bought, taking in the horses in the field, and the dogs romping nearby. “No,” she replied. “I want more.”

“More? Good Lord, Madelyn, what more is there?”

She waved a hand. “See this? It’s all stuff. I don’t want more stuff.”

“Then what do you want?” I asked.

She set her glass of very expensive port on the very expensive side table next to her and leaned forward, eyes focused on something only she could see. “I want God,” she said.

“God?!” I almost dropped my drink. “What do you mean? You’ve never been a religious person.”

“I know,” she answered. “But maybe that’s what’s missing in my life.”

“What are you talking about?” I snapped. “You have everything anybody could want. Why isn’t anything enough for you?”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “I wish I did. But all of this…” and she waved a hand over the scenery. “All of this is going to go. I’m going to join a convent.”

And then, I really did drop my drink.

For once, I tried to talk her out of something. Not that I tried to talk her out of God, no, not that. Of course not that. But out of her next move, her next crazy, foolhardy, insane move, that I tried to persuade her against.

She didn’t listen to me.

She joined the convent anyway. She sold everything she owned and gave the proceeds to the church, free and clear. Gone were the fancy cars, the stable full of thoroughbreds, the kennel full of pure-bred dogs. Gone were the beautiful dresses, the expensive jewelry, the company she owned.

I kept in touch after she joined the convent. We corresponded all throughout her years as a postulant, her years as a novice.

For once, though, she could not move forward any faster than anyone else, and I know it chafed at her. But once she made her final vows, she rose in the ranks, just as I knew she would. She became the youngest Mother Superior her Order had ever had.

And there she stopped, as there was nowhere else for her to go.

The tone of her letters during this time changed. She began to ramble on about the state of the world, expressing disappointment with God for allowing evil to continue. Abruptly, the letters changed again to hopeful optimism, and I hoped perhaps she had finally found her happiness, her contentment, her joy. But I was wrong.

She wanted more.

I felt someone sit on the bench next to me, and glanced over to find Father Richard at my side. He looked at the mound that covered the woman we both loved, though in different ways, and sighed.

“Do you think she’s happy now?” I asked, the words sticking in my throat.

“I think she’s in for a big surprise,” he answered sadly.

You see, he and I had received copies of her suicide note. “It’s not enough,” she had written. “All my life, I have wanted more, and I find myself thinking Is this all there is? I still want more, but I realize that I’m never going to find the More that I want in this life. I want God, but in order to find God, I have to go where He is, and once I get there, I’m going to take His job.”

There was more to the note, faint ramblings of a disturbed mind, disjointed accounts of how she would change the world to suit her. It was sad, and disturbing, and somehow her letter made me angry. Angry that I had never seen the pain beneath her striving, never seen the madness behind her obsession with more.

I smiled as a butterfly came and hovered briefly over Madelyn’s grave. “You may be right,” I said to the priest. “But I don’t envy God keeping Madelyn in check, even in Heaven.”

Father Richard chuckled and shook his head. Then he rose and held out a hand. “Come on,” he said, “let’s go have a glass of port in memory of an extraordinary woman, shall we?”

As we left the cemetery, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a shaft of light filter out of the clouds and illuminate Madelyn’s grave, where a hundred butterflies were now flying in circles.

The Statement

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The Statement

by

Phoenix Hocking

No, Your Honor, I do not regret what I have done. I suppose I should, since ordinarily I eschew violence in every form. I renounced that sort of behavior when I became a Quaker. But some things, some activities, some crimes, cannot be allowed to continue, even if it means the death of a human being, if one can call the devil that.

Pray, allow me to explain myself.

As I have said, I am a Quaker, and as a member of the Society of Friends, I am a pacifist. I believe in the principals of non-violence. I believe in turning the other cheek. I would never, under ordinary circumstances, raise my hand to another child of God in violence. Why, Your Honor, if you can believe it, I will not even kill a mouse who enters my home! Instead, I will capture it, unharmed, and take it a few miles away and let it go, complete with a tin can for shelter, nesting material, and even some kibble from the cat’s bowl so it will not go hungry.

I am not a monster, bent on the destruction of others. No, I am not a monster. But do I believe monsters should not live? God forgive me, but yes. I do believe that. And, in my eyes, and perhaps even in the eyes of God, I did not kill a human being.

I killed a monster. I killed the devil.

When my husband died, I was left with three small children to raise alone. It was not easy. I worked three jobs, Your Honor. Three! I cleaned houses, I waited tables, I cared for other people’s children. But I had three hungry mouths to feed, and I did not mind the work. It was enough that my babies had a roof over their heads, and food in their bellies, and shoes on their feet. I did not get to see them much, but it was worth it.

Still, I fell farther and farther behind on my bills. I was at risk of losing my home, and I despaired of what I could possibly do to keep my children safe and in the home and schools they loved.

It was then that the devil entered my house, and I did not recognize him.

The woman who watched my children while I was at work fell ill and could no longer care for them. I was at my wit’s end, Your Honor. I did not know what to do. I could not afford the exorbitant cost of day care for the little one, even though my older girls were old enough to care for themselves after school. So, at Meeting for Worship one Sunday, I shared my concern.

And my concern was answered when a Friend, who was currently without a place to live, said she would come and care for my children at no cost if only she could come and live with me. It seemed like an answer directly from God Himself. Of course, I said yes.

In the beginning, all was well. The children liked her, or seemed to, in the beginning. The house was always clean, the meals on the table at appropriate times, the beds made and homework done. All went along smoothly for quite some time.

And then I noticed a change in my children. A subtle change, but a change all the same. They began to be more quiet, more reserved, more distant. When I came home, instead of coming to greet me in the usual manner, they held back and looked at me with distrust, and dare I say it? Perhaps even loathing. I did not understand, but put it down to my imagination and my exhaustion. They seemed well cared for, though, and that was all I cared about.

She could have no children of her own, this woman who came into my home under false pretenses. She could have none of her own, so she wanted mine. I often saw her with the little one on her lap, reading her a bedtime story, brushing her hair, singing her little songs. It took a little longer with the older girls, but soon enough they came around, and before long, they were coming to her with their little problems, and with their little joys. They no longer came to me, and wanted only that she tuck them in at night, and say their prayers with them, and gave her the kisses that rightly belonged to me.

I was jealous. There. I’ve said it, and may God forgive me for it, but that is the truth. I was jealous, and I was angry. I looked for a way to rid my household of this usurper, but could think of none. I was still deeply in debt due to my husband’s long struggle with cancer. I was still working three jobs, and still could not afford child care. I was exhausted with the constant working, and tortured in my soul as I saw my children slipping farther and farther away from me. I was caught, as they say, between a rock and a hard place.

My jealousy turned to hatred. It is not in my nature to hate. It truly is not, Your Honor. I am a loving, kind, gentle soul. You can ask anyone. I do not raise my voice when I am confronted, nor do I lash out with violence at any time, for any reason. But, and I am sorry so to say, but every day I felt a hate burning in my heart that I could not deny. I prayed and I prayed to be relieved of this burden, but could find no relief. Why had God abandoned me? Why?

I spent the hours I was not working on my knees, in prayer. I did not sleep. I did not eat. I did not bathe. I only asked, “Why?” And eventually, the truth came to me.

This was no Friend, sent by God to help me. This woman was the devil himself, come to steal my children away and make them slaves to his own dark will. And I could not let that happen.

She had to go. She had to leave my house. But how? In the beginning, I truly only wanted her gone. I did not plan to kill her. But then I thought, “why not? Why should the devil remain alive to steal someone else’s children?” So, I decided to kill her.

I planned it well, Your Honor. I did not want to give my plot away, lest she take my children and run away with them. I continued to go to work, I continued to pray, I continued to try to make my children love me again. But every day, they grew farther and farther away from me, and closer and closer to her.

I could no longer wait.

I went to the library and researched ways to kill her. I wanted her to suffer, for should the devil not suffer?

Luckily for me, she became quite ill with a cold. She had a fever and congestion. She couldn’t taste anything. She was still thirsty and hungry, though, and that worked well for me. I had seen a few Deadly Nightshade plants in the field behind my house. Have you ever seen it? It’s not a bad looking plant, green leaves with dark purple berries. I went to the field and collected a number of berries, and some of the leaves as well.

I came home and made a pie with the berries, and infused the leaves into a large pot of tea. She was so grateful that I was taking care of her. I treated her gently, and insisted she drink all of the tea, and even made more. I made her eat three pieces of the pie, saying that she would feel better if she only had some food in her stomach. Trusting me, she did as I asked.

She grew sicker as the day wore on. She began to have chills, and grew nauseous and dizzy. Eventually, she began to have hallucinations. She saw vermin crawling on the walls, and claimed the devil was after her. I believe the devil had come to claim his own!

It took some hours, but I was glad when she finally died. I stayed with her and watched her torment, and was glad. I was glad I could make the devil suffer. Yes, I’ll say it! I was glad! My children, I thought, would finally be safe from her, and would love me again.

It was when I returned to the kitchen that I discovered that all three of my children had eaten the remainder of the pie.

So, you ask me if I regret what I have done. Do I regret that I killed the devil? That I killed this monster? No, I do not. But my children…yes, that I regret. Though, perhaps I should not be, for now they will not have to see their mother on the gallows, and carry that image to their graves.

The Homeless Guy

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The Homeless Guy

by

Phoenix Hocking

The homeless guy walked with his eyes cast toward the sidewalk, enjoying the margaritaceous sheen on the gutter water, created by oil flung by passing cars. The pearly shimmer rode the surface of the water, spilling rainbow lights down into the storm drains.

It was that in-between time of day, not full light, nor yet sunset, but dusk, a time his mother had always said was the most dangerous. At dusk, shadows bumped into each other, swirled around, and created objects that weren’t there, or obscured those that were.

He was old. There was no other word for it, no fancy getting on in years, or spry for his age, or even elderly. Not even senior citizen fit any more. No, he was just plain old. He had come to terms with that fact some years ago, and he wore his age like a comfortable suit, one that no longer pinched at the shoulder, nor clung too tightly.

On his back he carried most of his worldly possessions. There wasn’t much, but then, he didn’t need much. An extra pair of socks, an extra pair of underwear, a towel, a tiny bar of soap given out at the rescue mission, a comb, needle and thread, a can opener, scissors, a lighter, a few plastic lawn-and-leaf bags, his Bible, a faded photograph of his late wife, and a book he borrowed from the local library. He wore all his clothing, layered, and his knit cap covered his thinning hair. He hadn’t trimmed his beard in a few years, and it had grayed as much as the rest of him. He had stashed his sleeping bag in some rocks underneath the bridge where he made his home.

No one spoke to him as he made his way toward the bridge, but he was used to that. He didn’t look at anyone, and the people he saw out of the corner of his eye moved away from him as they passed, as if he were diseased. That was all right with him. It had taken him a little longer to give up on the world than it had for the world to give up on him, but the transition had been complete for some years now.

He had been someone, once. He’d worn a suit and tie, made decisions involving the lives of other people, had a nice house and a fancy car. But, no more. No more. After his company forced retirement on him he’d struggled to live on Social Security. The fancy car turned into riding the bus. After he could no longer afford the house he found himself where he never imagined he would end up, on the streets. So much for the “golden years.”

The sun crept slowly toward the horizon as the homeless guy made his way to the place under the bridge he called home. It would be cold tonight, and he pulled the hood of his sweatshirt over his capped head. Drizzle pocked the sidewalk, leaving intermittent splashes that promised more to come.

In his hands he carried a take-out box given to him by a man who had gifted him with leftovers from a restaurant meal. He was grateful for the kindness, even though the man handed him the box and quickly left without pausing to speak. It seemed not many people spoke to him these days, and those that did either cursed at him, or told him to move along. He couldn’t remember the last time someone called him by name. Sometimes, he had trouble remembering it himself.

It was peaceful under the bridge. The other homeless people knew this was his place, and respected his choice. He had made a comfortable spot among the rocks, sheltered from the wind. There he stored his sleeping bag and his camping stove, well hidden from the police who came by every so often to “clear out the riffraff.”

He dug into his backpack, retrieved his one good fork, opened the box, and began to eat. The small slice of meatloaf and dollop of mashed potatoes and gravy was especially welcome on such a cold night.

Overhead the traffic went whoosh, whoosh, whoosh, like a mother soothing a child to sleep. The rain began to fall in earnest now, and the traffic slowed a little. It was a pleasant sound, and one the homeless guy had grown to love.

He finished his meal and put the styrofoam box inside a plastic bag to keep it from the ants. He’d throw it away later.

He arranged his sleeping bag to suit him, and fell to musing about life. He often did this, asking questions of himself that seemed to have no answer. He loved words, especially words with “Rs” in them. He liked the feel of words in his mouth, how they twisted his tongue, and how the words themselves changed meaning depending on how it was being used.

But mostly, he liked to ask questions. What was the purpose of underarm hair, for example. And why did women shave it and men didn’t? How many angels could dance on the head of a pin, and why on earth would they want to? Would man ever be able to colonize Mars?

Absentmindedly, he stretched out a hand to stroke the dog that was no longer there. He winced. Sparky had been his companion on the road for years, but when the dog got sick, the homeless guy couldn’t afford the massive vet bills, and he could not stand to see his friend suffer. The local veterinarian, a kind and gentle man, put the old dog down for no charge, and the homeless guy was grateful for that.

Where did dogs go when they died, he mused. Did they get angel wings? Was there really a Rainbow Bridge?

He had almost mused himself to sleep, listening to the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh on the road above him, when suddenly there was a screeching of brakes, an awful soul-jarring crash, and the horrible rending sound of metal-on-metal.

He bolted upright and dashed out from under the bridge. He climbed the hill that led to the highway and was confronted with twisted metal, a smoking engine, and screams from inside the car.

Without thinking he ran for the vehicle, which was resting upside down close to an embankment and appeared ready to fall off the edge. He wrenched the door open, grabbed the driver, and pulled her to safety. Her head was bleeding and she was wailing. She reeked of alcohol and the homeless guy twitched his nose in disgust. Then, the woman fell silent.

Until the end of his days, he could never quite remember what happened next. He knew she needed help, and all he could think of to do was pray.

“Oh God!” he stammered, “Help me help this woman!”

A strange and sudden calm entered him, and as if from a distance, he watched his hands as they staunched the bleeding from the woman’s head, held her neck steady, and spoke to her in soothing tones.

The ambulance came and the paramedics took over.

The medic looked the homeless guy over and asked in disbelief, “Are you a doctor?”

“No, sir,” he answered. “I used to be an accountant.”

“Well, whoever you are, you just saved this woman’s life tonight.”

The homeless guy watched as the ambulance drove away with the woman. He stayed to watch the tow truck take the totaled vehicle away, and then the highway was back to normal.

He climbed back down to his place under the bridge. He was shaking and wished mightily for a cup of coffee, but such a luxury was not to be his tonight. He went to his sleeping bag, lay back and tried to sleep. He was shivering, partly with the cold and partly from the excitement. He wished there was someone to talk to.

Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.

The highway began to lull him to sleep again, when he heard another noise. It sounded very much like a cry of some kind. A whimper. He sat up and looked around, searching for the origin of the noise.

There! Over by the rocks on the other side of the bridge. What was that?

He got up to investigate. Huddled between two boulders was a small dog, shivering in the cold. It had no collar and was very skinny.

“Hey, buddy,” the homeless guy crooned. “Where did you come from?”

The little dog appeared to be a mix of some kind, perhaps Beagle and terrier, maybe six or eight months old. Curiosity overcame the dog’s fear and he wagged his tail.

“Are you hungry?”

The dog’s tail wagged even faster.

“Come on then.”

The homeless guy walked back to his sleeping bag, encouraging the dog to follow. First he fetched the leftover box from the plastic bag, then scrounged around in his backpack until he came up with a bag of dry food left over from Sparky’s last days. He poured some in his hand and held it out.

“Here you go.”

The dog ate quickly and looked for more. He poured a little more into the box and stirred the dog food around in the gravy. The dog ate it all, licked the box clean, and looked expectant.

“Not too much all at once, now,” he said as he put the remainder of the dry food into his backpack. “I don’t need you getting sick.”

He crawled into his sleeping bag, flipped open the top and beckoned. The dog immediately curled up next to him and closed his eyes.

“Well, Buddy,” the homeless guy said, “I guess you’ve got a home now.”

And with the whoosh, whoosh, whoosh of tires singing a lullabye overhead, the homeless guy and his new friend drifted off to sleep.

What I’ve been doing lately

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Gosh, where HAVE I been?

Well, I HAVE been writing.  I’ve published a couple of books: “More Like a River,” which is a book of short stories, and made one of the stories in the book into its own book, “The Luckiest Woman.”

I’ve been working on “Flowers From the Flames,” but the characters simply stopped talking to me, so I’ve decided to work on an autobiography.

I’ve had a pretty interesting life, though not all of it was peaches and cream.  It should make a good read.  I may have to change some names to protect the innocent, and the guilty!

Trudging back on memory lane has been quite an experience.  In retrospect, I see things in my past that affect me today, though I never realized it.

A writer’s life is rarely dull because we can rub two words together and made a story of just about anything.  I could see two men having a conversation in a restaurant, and before you know it, I’ll have created an international spy ring, or a murder plot, or two aliens comparing notes on us crazy Earthlings.

Well, I just wanted to check in and let y’all know that I haven’t forgotten about you.  I’m still writing!  If you haven’t bought any of my books, well, go do it!  I don’t want to starve to death!

Coming Soon!!!

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Hello Friends,

I am happy to announce that my latest book, “More Like A River,” will be published soon.  I have ordered the proof, and as soon as that is approved, the book will be available.

What is “More Like A River?”  This book is a collection of short stories that I’ve written over the years.  They’re my favorites.  Some are light, some are dark, some are quirky, and some are downright weird.  (Gee, that sounds like me…)

But, wait!  What about “Flowers From the Flames?”  Oh, not to fret…Flowers will be ready in the early spring, I think.  I’m still working on it.

Now, speaking of books . . . and aren’t we always?  I’d like to recommend a series of books to you.  I’ve just finished the latest one and I enjoyed it very much.  Look on Amazon for “Morgue Drawer Four,” which is the first in the series.  It’s by Jutta Profijt.  A rollicking good read, and the first book will set you up for the rest.

Happy reading!! Phoenix

Writing in my sleep

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It’s true.  I often write in my sleep, sometimes entire chapters.  Then, when I wake up, I head for the computer and out the words come, already percolated through my subconscious mind.

Right now I’m working on Flowers From the Flames, the third in the Keno Deane/Grace Henderson series.  Now, I know what I told you before, but you can forget that.  This does not take place in the sixties after all.  This book takes place in 1981/82, just when Grace thinks her life is all settled.  Turns out, she’s very, very wrong about that.

In the meantime, if you’d like to read some of my short stories, I invite you peruse a few on my short story blog:

http://shortstoriesbyphx.blogspot.com/

Happy reading!  And have a blessed day.  Phoenix