Mea Culpa. I haven’t posted to this newsletter for a few months. It seems I had to have open-heart surgery (quadruple bypass and a valve replacement) and it has taken a while to recover. Interestingly, I healed pretty quickly physically. But it has only been in the last few weeks that I’ve been able to write anything other than snarky Facebook posts. Among OHS patients (we call ourselves the “zipper club”), there is a thing we call “pump head.” The theory is that when they stop your heart and transfer its activity to a heart-lung machine for a while, a lot of the subtler abilities of the brain start to erode. And after your newly stitched-up and sweat-soldered back together heart is once again thumping away, some of those eroded-away brain parts take a long time to restore themselves.

As for me, it seems like the ability to put a few words together in a meaningful way is returning. Let’s hope those creative impulses have moved back in and aren’t just stopping by for a visit.

In honor of the Halloween season, here is a grim little tale I put together last week.

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Drones

“This is Joe the Night Stalker on WXRB and we’ve been talking to George65. Thanks for giving us a call and sharing your theory that birds are not living creatures, but they are actually drones controlled by the government and sent to spy on us.”

“I didn’t say all of ‘em, just the bigger…”

“Well. It looks like we’re out of time for this segment; stay tuned because we’re going to get into the whole Sasquatch controversy.”

*****

George held the receiver out in front of his face and yelled at it. “And I didn’t say it was the government! It might be the damned CIA or even the Russkies, how the hell would I know?”

He slammed the receiver down into the phone cradle and growled at it. He went to the window, picked up the binoculars that hung around his neck, and put them up to his eyes. Although the sun had gone down, he could see the silhouette of a hawk circling slowly in the evening breeze.

“I see you, you son of a bitch,” George muttered. “Why are you casing the hospital? Is something going on over there I don’t know about?”

He studied the Tucker County Hospital just across the boulevard. Five years before, there had been a tobacco field over there, now it was all concrete and glass, high buildings, and paved parking lots. Unlike some of his neighbors, George hadn’t minded when construction on the hospital began. There were a few things that the government put its money into that didn’t get George hot under the collar, and hospitals were one of them.

Before he turned on his computer, he pulled down the shade on the window.

“No use in givin’ them damned drones a free look into my bidness, is there Rusty?” George said to his old Retriever.

He reached down and scratched the dog’s head and the back of his neck. Rusty didn’t get up; instead, he thumped his tail against the floor to show his pleasure. George slid into the chair in front of his laptop and within a few minutes was in a chat room on a shirttail website called Spybirds.com comparing notes with his friends Redram42 and Theydontfoolme.

*****

Two hours later, Rusty heaved himself up onto his feet, hobbled over to his food dish, and then looked up at George expectantly. The old man typed “gotta go,” signed out, and shut off his computer. After he had finished spooning out dog food into Rusty’s dish and had straightened up, he felt a slight sting on the back of his neck. He slapped himself in the back of the head and looked at his hand, but did not see the expected dead insect. Then he felt something whir past his ear.

Spinning around, George saw what appeared to be a giant mosquito up in the air near the ceiling. Rusty noticed it and began to bark. The old man picked up a newspaper from the coffee table and, without taking his eyes off the insect, rolled the paper into a tube.

“All right, you little bastard,” George said. “Get ready to die”

For the next five minutes, there was a chase around the room – George swinging his newspaper club and the bug just staying out of reach. Finally, the insect flew behind the curtain over the kitchen window. George, his newspaper ready for the death blow, jerked back the curtain, but nothing was there.

“Damn it, Rusty, he got away.”

He was reaching for the dog’s leash when his neck began to itch. He scratched at it idly.

“Hey, Rusty, want to go for a walk?”

The dog arfed happily as he came up and bumped the old man’s leg. When George reached out to pick up the leash from its hook, he saw that his fingertips were covered with blood.

“What the devil…” he muttered to himself as he ducked into the bathroom for a look in the mirror. The back of his neck was smeared with blood. As he watched, little blisters formed on the side of his neck, grew in size, and then split open causing trickles of blood to run down and stain the collar of his T-shirt.

“Poison,” George gasped. “I’ve been poisoned! That wasn’t no bug, it was a damned drone and it jabbed me with somethin’. What the hell can I do? Who can I call? I’ll be dead before they get here!”

He pulled up the window shade and looked across the street. The main entrance to the hospital was directly across the street, but to the South was another entrance that had big, bright red capital letters over the door – EMERGENCY.

“I’ll just run across the street. I can be there in five minutes. They’ll know what to do.”

George was halfway out the front door when he stepped back into the house and jerked open the drawer in the end table. He pulled out a Smith and Wesson 442 revolver and gripped it tight. He felt better with the cold weight of it in his hand. Safer somehow.

Jerking open the door, he stepped out into the darkness. Before the screen door could slam, Rusty was out and running down the drive. The old man tried to run too, but arthritis in his knees and hips kept him to a hobbling walk.

The itching that had started on the back of his neck had spread down to his shoulder and up the side of his head and was beginning to burn.

When George got to the end of the drive, he had to wait for a few agonizing minutes for a break in the traffic. A searing stab of pain lanced down his back and forced him into motion. With the dog beside him, he scurried across the street ignoring the sounds of honking horns, squealing brakes, and angry curses. George reached the far curb and fell to his hands and knees on the grassy verge. Rusty kept running.

The old man looked up and saw the brightly lit Emergency Room door up ahead and staggered to his feet. There was a drainage ditch that he’d have to cross before he got to the hospital lawn itself. Further down the street was the driveway, which would be an easier walk, but would take more time. Then he heard Rusty bark down in the gulley, then howl with pain.

“Rusty!” the old man yelled as he hobbled down the hill.

In the darkness, he could see something moving. When he got closer, what he saw made him want to retch. His dog was sprawled on the grass, dead, with his head split open. A large, black bird with glowing red eyes was perched on Rusty’s neck, plucking gobbets of meat out of the wound and eating them.

“You sonofabitch!” George screamed as he leveled the gun at the bird and pulled the trigger. He missed and with a rattle of feathers, the creature flapped its way up into the dark. George jerked the trigger twice more, but the burning pain in his arm made his hand shake and the shots went wide.

The old man ran to the body of his dog and reached down to stroke his fur one last time. Suddenly the dog’s eyelids popped open. Glowing, red pupils focused on George. In an instant the hound had the old man’s hand clamped in its jaws. The teeth broke quickly through the skin and the dog started ripping the flesh off the bones.

George screamed and tried to pull his hand away, but the pain only increased. In desperation, he pressed the pistol against the dog’s chest and pulled the trigger. His hand came free.

Weeping now, he cradled his mangled hand in the crook of his elbow and staggered up the hill. At the top, he paused long enough to see the emergency room entrance, and then shambled toward it as quickly as he could.

By now he was only twenty feet away. There was an ambulance in front of the doors. A wailing siren came up the drive and a patrol car, blue and red lights flashing, skidded to a halt. Two cops jumped out.

“Help!” George shouted. “Help me! They’re trying to kill me!”

Instead of running to his assistance, the cops scrambled behind their car and shined a spotlight into his eyes.

“Drop your weapon!” said an amplified voice.

“All right, but if I do they’ll attack me!” George yelled, “You have to shoot them before they get me!”

“Just drop the gun! Then we’ll take care of you!”

George opened his hand and the pistol fell to the ground. There was a screech and he looked up to see the big black bird diving straight at his chest. The impact knocked him backward and he fell. Just as he hit the ground, he felt the dog’s jaws clamp down on his throat. He struggled but it was only a few moments before sight and sound melted away like film in a broken projector, leaving only black silence.

*****

Mick and Larry, the two EMTs that were staffing the ambulance that night, had been hiding behind their vehicle. As soon as the old man dropped the gun, they picked up their equipment cases and ran toward him. By the time the cops caught up with them, Mick was on his knees pumping the old man’s chest in a CPR cadence while Larry pressed an oxygen mask over the mouth. After a few minutes of this, they looked at each other and shook their heads.

“I gotta tell ya,” Mick said as he re-packed his case, “I’ve never seen such a look of sheer terror on a man’s face before, living or dead.”

“We heard all that screaming about ‘They’re trying to kill me,” said Larry, “but look, there’s not a mark on him.”

Suddenly there was a loud rattle and flap of feathers as a large bird took off from the roof over the portico and flew up into the night sky.