Twenty-four children, between five and seven years old, and four adults. What could possibly go wrong?
“The wheels on the buss go round and round, round and round, round and round…” I never thought I could enjoy a song less than “Baby Shark”, but here it was, in surround sound, volume on stun, in six-part un-harmony. The drive from the school to the zoo was only eight miles, but I think I heard that chorus at least twelve-dozen times because repetition, evidently, is the foundation of entertainment. In fact, I didn’t realize it actually was a chorus until I found myself surrounded by tiny people who clearly understood the vast complexity of juvenile music more than I did. It turns out, there are about ten different stanzas in between each chorus. Who knew?
When thankfully, the wheels on the bus stopped, an entirely different experience awaited. With squeals of joy, best friends for life grabbed hands and escaped the confines of seats to the adventure of the parking lot. When asked to form two lines, one by one, they balanced precariously upon the thin yellow parking lines that led to the entrance gate. They jumped with kangaroo precision over the vast six-inch blacktop expanses between each line. The adults flanked the children, reinforcing the goal of avoiding the tar. Sometimes, you have to play the game that’s already started if you want to win without tears.
A sallow march of tiny feet proceeded through the gate, a gag order firmly in place, lest the offenders become invisibly shackled to the closest adult for the remainder of the trip. I was mesmerized by the instant compliance when threatening fun hung in the balance. In my extremely limited experience, bribery worked… but this… this was far more effective. I wondered if it would have the same impact in the boardroom. After a moment of reflection, I decided to abandon the idea. Punishing an unruly executive by velcroing them to me for the duration of an already interminable meeting felt a lot more like punishing me than them.
Once inside the gated community, we created break-out groups and headed in various directions with a promise to meet at the train station at the back of the park in two hours’ time. Two hours? I doubted I could last that long without my ever-present triple-shot espresso, but I’d give it the old college try. As the minions surrounded me, I distributed colorful, informative maps which instantly became origami projects for nimble fingers. What had I gotten myself into?
Over the course of the next two hours, tiny, yet remarkably loud voices giggled, screamed, howled, crowed, trumpeted, and quacked as we walked, waddled, slithered, trotted, and mimicked flight through the arctic tundra, the humid rainforest, the dry desert expanses, and deepest darkest jungles. A few paces ahead of our small group, I noticed a couple with the foresight of magicians. Their toddler walked happily in front, wearing a monkey backpack, which was surreptitiously, conveniently, at the end of a leash. The man held it deftly in his hand, not a bit of tension on the chord nor his face as his companion smiled broadly. I envied them. I envied them a lot.
My small band of… what were we now?... Flamingos… met up with another of our troop as together, they counted the total number of humps. They shrieked with delight when they realized, with their far more adept adult’s humor, that it was indeed Wednesday. The comedian shot a glance at me, giggling herself. I returned a weak smile, trying hard to feign amused composure. The rigors of a hostile takeover did not prepare me for this degree of overwhelm from a deluge of silliness in the sunshine. I was doomed.
When at last, we arrived at the train station and combined our tiny bands of adrenaline bunnies, a sigh of relief washed over me as I slumped into a nearby bench. The seasoned educator, the maestro of mayhem, took over once again. Appearing no worse for the wear, the power she wielded over the mob was beyond impressive. She commanded instant silence and total attention by simply raising one gentle hand into the air. The effect was hypnotic and a little scary. The children stood in a line, two by two and talked quietly. The adults, with the exception of the comedian from our camel encounter, stood near their groups, using the metal line stations as crutches to our aching bodies and muddled brains. We spoke not a word but shared our misery in silence. The comedian laughed affably with the scholar, both clearly veterans of the field trip circuit.
The trip back to the front of the park was a welcome respite for my body, if not my ears. Tiny voices are accelerated when traveling at speeds faster than they can walk. They echo through every tunnel with the resonance of dynamite in a coal mine. How I longed for the annoying bedlam of office cubicles and telephones that never stopped ringing. At least those sounds I could process into something that led to tangible reasons to endure them; namely, several zeros at the end of my bank balance. This? This was just pandemonium without reason. Why would anyone choose this?
Our final stop, before the bus ride back to normalcy, was the mercantile of memories, where itty-bitty hands moving faster than New York City bicycle messengers touched everything within reach, and miraculously, broke absolutely nothing. Each teensy-weensy negotiator worked hard to secure the deal from their teacher, who was endowed with a budget that allowed for equal distribution of funds among the throng. To my amazement, not one child was left disappointed. That was a trick I needed to learn. Holding the title, “World’s Favorite Uncle” may be distinguished, but it in no way prepares one for the unknown exploits of chaperoning a field trip.
As I slouched in my seat, listening to the sixteenth chorus of “This is the song that never ends…” I looked to my nephew, a miniscule copy of my brother, and asked him, “Why did you get the river otter?”
He looked at me with gigantic blue eyes, completely relaxed after his day of pure elation, and gently placed the slender stuffy on my lap. “Everything that’s cute is better.”
I smiled at the wisdom of his words. He would get no argument from me.
This is the story of Emmett Elephant. One day, with the help of his friends, Patrick Egret, and Gregg Giraffe, he learns a very important thing. Smart elephants know that listening to their heart, even in sadness, is a strong thing to do. This is a gentle picture book that teaches children about the death of a grandparent, and the strength of family and friendship.
Treading softly upon the floor
But missing my mark
The boards creek and you awaken
Your long slender body
As your wondrous eyes
Pierce my soul
The walls around us echo
The silence of the many before us
Who have been as we are now
Helpless and lost
In a sea of expectation
Several minutes pass
As we stand together
Though we never touch
Locked in our gaze
Is what comes next
I move a moment closer
Yet once again
Caught in my tracks
A light shines
Deep inside you
It begs me to come closer
But warns of hidden dangers
Within your power
I turn to go
For I am uncertain
Of what you could unlock in me
You catch me again
Your eyes won’t release me
Your soul won’t release me
Your power holds me strong
Drawing me again to you
A breeze floats through the room
Yet all is still
The silence is so deafening
The light in you grows stronger
I am powerless against it
You bring me in closer
Deeper into that part of you
Where you hide your secrets
And your strengths
Our souls collide in a cascade of colors
Melting together in a timeless dance
Of eternal oneness
Together we create a single spark
The universe vibrates with exhilaration
As our flame ignites
We realize now
We are one
At least in this way
A fascination forged in steel
And hardened through
Encapsulated in us
At last you relinquish your hold
And I slip away into the darkness
Dew falls on my face
A warm wind blows through my heart
And I recall the words
Once released but never forgotten
The night wraps around me
Like too many old movies
I stroll the old places
And think of you
This Writing Workshop Workbook has been designed specifically for young writers, from second thru sixth grade. Children gain confidence with each new worksheet they complete, building the courage to write down their ideas, stretch their imagination, and share their stories with the world! This program teaches children the same comprehensive skills of creative writing, used by writers of every age, stage, and genre... More than just instruction... this workbook is filled with writing pages to brainstorm ideas, build stories, and storyboard ideas... encouraging each child to work in the modality that best suits their creativity. This workbook includes 175 full-color pages of fun worksheets and brainstorming pages!
CHAPTER ONE THE DISCLAIMER: THIS IS NOT A FISH STORY!
While it's true that authors don't write books unless we are hopeful that we will make money, and that lots of people will find our work compelling; you must understand that I would be lying if I said that success in print is my only reason for telling my story. Please understand, this is not a "quick fix" book. I didn't set out to write a "tell-all" book on the best possible technique for being a single parent by choice. I am not interested in being a featured speaker on Dr. Phil (although, if he called, who in their right mind would refuse?). And I'm not interested in being the next Dr. Spock of the baby-rearing world. This book was written mainly as a cathartic study in parenting. This was my way of remembering what I did that worked.
This book is also meant as a resource for my son; to pass these notes along to him so that when he decides to raise children one day… many years from now, please… he might have some hints about what worked for us.
If you are a person considering single parenthood, or know someone who is, approach what I offer here with a tremendous amount of skepticism and reserve. Although I share several interesting techniques for dealing with the more obvious speed bumps along the child rearing road, (or at least the ones that seemed obvious to me) please remember, this is by no means anyone's parenting "get out of jail free card". This is just another resource for a unique person, who may be faced with a unique life challenge. If you read any further, use what you can from these pages, and throw the rest out. If you gain a menial ten percent of positive information from this volume, I'd call it a successful and a worthwhile purchase for you and a worthwhile writing exercise for me. If there is absolutely nothing that you can find to agree with or use in these pages, burn this book and don't suggest it to your friends!
For those of you considering the life of becoming a single parent by choice, I highly recommend spending a year or two as the caregiver for someone else's children first. There are no moments so revealing when thinking about how you will parent than watching up close and personal how others do it. And while I do not advocate the idea that children should be test-driven… there is something monumentally important about test-driving yourself before you make the life-altering change of inviting a child into your universe. I know no better way to make sure you are ready… and even then, you may still not be completely ready. I encourage you to prepare with the first step of observation.
That having been said, I'm not a wonder-woman-single parent with the magic secret decoder ring which will give you all the step-by-step instructions to raising the perfect child. This is not your child's "Owner's Manual". I'm just a single parent, like many others, trying to fill a gap I found in the resource department of my local library.
Nor is this is not a fish story. What I share in these pages are what I discovered to be tested and proven options for assisting to nurture a child who will grow to become a happy, healthy and semi-well-adjusted person in their own right, despite the fact that they only had one "full-time" parent. I know this approach works because my son is living proof. Further proof is this statement from my then-high-school-aged son; "Mom, you're a cool parent. My friends think you're cool, too".
In my world, that's pretty high praise.
A little while ago, I saw a post in an online networking group defining the term Brand. The writer supplied a bullet list of things that are not a business' Brand. Included were such things as a logo, business cards, YouTube videos, and blog posts. The writer explained that these things are ancillary and not at the heart of branding. They continued to explain that instead, a business’ Brand was defined as the connection between themselves and the customer or client. They refuted the expense of time and money on the other items, declaring them insignificant, and wasted effort.
I noodled this around in my head for about a week and considered the question from several angles. I've been active in various networking groups (in-person and online) for over ten years. As a result, I've been attentive to how branding is used across many different industries. So, after considering this writer's point of view and my own experience, I came to this understanding:
Perhaps the writer mentioned above overlooks the impact of having both a Brand and a Reputation. The first is meant as a marketing tool to provide comfort and accessibility for prospects. The second instills confidence and security inside an interaction that fosters loyalty and endorsements across years, and we would hope, decades.
As with speaking and listening, I believe that we should never focus on one without the other. This is especially true for Independent Authors as they grow their writing careers.
Speaking to readers with business cards, websites, YouTube videos, Amazon advertising, podcasts, and other marketing outreach is vital toward expanding the opportunity for discovery. Using these tools requires a fundamental understanding of message presentation and emotional aesthetics. A solid branding practice shares an author's "novel" approach to their iteration of a genre. Physical takeaways or digital evergreen content allows readers to see that our books are interesting, enduring, disarming, and desirable. Branding acts as a gateway for the reader to access the author, coming closer with a warm invitation. Branding is the coy smile shared between an author and a reader across a crowded room. Branding teases a love affair that will evolve in intensity over time.
Listening to readers is an entirely different set of practiced skills. The author's Reputation creates a safe space where the reader feels comfortable in the author's vulnerability as they share their imagination. It is the connectivity an author initiates with genuine interest as they engage in conversation at a festival or signing event. Always attentive, interested, and accessible to the reader; eager to hear their impressions of the work and how a reader was touched. Reputation is about building relationships, risking rejection, and delivering on promises made on the page and in person. Listening to readers and learning what they desire most through authentic connection is how authors pave the way for readers to develop a deep devotion to their books and encourage referrals to other readers.
Branding is the overture to the symphony of your writing career. Reputation is the intellectual and emotional connections authors establish in a safe space, directly with a reader's heart and soul. Branding and Reputation are intrinsically intertwined. An author cannot expect to reach readers without first extending an invitation, nor can they expect to maintain their Reputation without the emotional attention all relationships expect and require.
So, build book trailers, pass out rack cards, and design enticing table displays. But don't neglect the personal interaction between you and your reader. Respond to their conversations at festivals, interact with them on social media, and thank them for their honest reviews, regardless of whether that review was good, bad, or indifferent. Each relationship you invite and maintain will help encourage a footbridge of referrals to your future work.
Building relationships with readers is paramount to building a solid, long-lasting career. But remember, that first introduction, more times than not, will be based on a tangible or visual exposure, rather than your witty repartee.
Use this space to brainstorm first on the visuals that you can use to invite your readers to discover your work, and then expand each idea to include how you might be able to build that initial connection into a lasting relationship with your reader.
Metal exploded all around them. Glass shattered. The shards impaled the unaware, smearing the afternoon sun with the devastating splotches of torrential loss. The screams of an implausible collection of souls erupted from those sitting in front and behind… not one sounded the same. Not one cried out the same words or prayed the same scripture. It was the most fear she had ever experienced. It was the most painful moment she had ever endured… and it became clear to her in that instant... she would not survive.
She held her daughter as closely as possible, cushioning her head from the oncoming blow, trying to remain calm. She added soft tones to her voice so as not to scare the small child. "Please God, just make it end quickly," was all she could manage her voice to whisper.
As she kissed her limp daughter for the last time, she watched the jagged cavern wall outside the window collide with the two cars in front of her, then fly past her tear-filled eyes with storm-fury. Water began to flood the compartment. And then... searing pain and perfect dark.
“Man does not control his own fate. The women in his life do that for him.” ~Groucho Marx
Nathan got a text to meet Paige at the marina at three o'clock, Wednesday afternoon. He was a little apprehensive. When summoned to the boat, there was never a hint of what would come of it. Sometimes, it was just a sail around the harbor. Sometimes, it was a job–sometimes sinister, sometimes not. But you never knew… and you never refused. The intimidation of not knowing was like walking a tightrope... forever a little off balance with some influence but no control. That was precisely the point. It was important for Paige to remain in control... always in control… despite everything else.
Nathan accepted the invitation to the meeting with a simple “yes” reply and inhaled tentatively. He looked at his watch. She wanted to see him at five o'clock; that would give him time to finish his current project, catch the blue line to Lewis Warf, and still have time to grab a quick bite. What could she want now?
During their association, which started long before her parents’ death, Paige asked much of Nathan. Much of it could have been morally disputed, though guided by the perfect dash of incentivizing guilt and a lot of pacifying cash. The rest were primarily menial tasks far below his pay grade. He sensed it was an excuse to keep him close. Her paranoia ran deep and spoke softly. He was sensitive to its whispers.
Nathan was one of the few people who recognized Paige from both sides of the mask. He saw the controlled, sophisticated woman the rest of the world encountered, forever maintaining and building her father’s legacy in ways that would make him proud. He also saw the inverse echo… the tumultuous teenager who hid from the mistakes of a past she could not control, at times lashing out with emotions she did not understand. Nathan knew the confusion and frustration of her life but had no explanation for it. Her habitually complex behavior didn’t track, considering her comfortable childhood. But, he accepted it and became the curator of her safety, as her father requested. Acceptance didn’t make meeting with her at the marina–or anywhere, for that matter, stress-free, though.
Nathan’s watch read 4:58pm as he reached the finger dock aside Wing om Wing. Punctuality was definitely a thing with Paige, and he knew better than to be insolent with tardiness. Paige was already there... sipping something defiant from a glass held high to refract the early evening sunlight. She watched him walk down the dock but said nothing. It was not her habit to bring attention to herself here. She preferred to be disguised... just another average, although financially comfortable, sailor in the fleet. Marinas were a nice blend of the sophisticated and sublime. Being ignored here was simple. No one took offense to those who were indifferent to their dock mates. Seclusion with all the amenities. She thought it merely nice, and she liked nice.
As he came within three feet of the boat, Nathan waved a hand and called out, "Ahoy! Permission to come aboard?" Nathan wasn’t much into the pretension of the lifestyle she chose to inherit, but here, she demanded it, and since she also signed his paycheck, he indulged her.
"Permission Granted!" Paige called back with an air of playfulness and a genuine smile that she only indulged in this place.
As he grabbed the stanchion and swung his leg on the deck, he thought about how many times he'd been here. There are only three that I can remember... and each time, my life changed. The first time was just after her father and the Board voted to promote her to CEO. Paige invited Nathan out for a day sail, along with a few of the other minions. He discovered on this trip that she selected him as one of her "chosen few." He was equally pleased and petrified. He recalled that it felt much like becoming a "made man" in the Patriarca crime family. An honor and a curse simultaneously.
The second opportunity came four years ago when she celebrated his promotion to resources manager with dinner and a night sail with a few of the Board members. Now a sergeant in the "family," he was tasked with protecting innovative revenue-generating projects and her personal secrets. It was a weighty assignment, keeping the Figureheads and the Potentate at equilateral distances yet proportionately well-informed. It took all the shrewd negotiations he could devise to avoid creating cracks in the gentle façade of either the company or the woman. It cost me more than a little sleep to get it right.
Nathan’s third visit to the harbor brought the devastating news of her parents’ passing, three years ago. He'd taken over the funeral arrangements and ensured that her image was not compromised during the grieving. Her father’s dying wish was that she be well protected, and Nathan planned to do his best to fulfill that wish. He’d been Mr. Lambert’s part-time, evening valet for several years and was very fond of the man. He was strong, clever, and compassionate. Those traits, plus the astounding skills he possessed in the business world, made him a difficult man to deny.
It was a tenuous line for Nathan to walk. He had to maintain professional decorum while simultaneously not painting Paige as an unemotional bilge rat. She didn't make it easy. After her parents’ death, she spent the next five months impersonating a bipolar diagnosis. In the beginning, she lost herself to misery living with the shades drawn tight, eating nearly nothing, and screaming at every opportunity. However, her jubilant responses to minuscule triumphs far exceeded the inappropriate once that storm passed. The household staff was replaced three times. Her paranoia of secrets becoming public manifested in outrageous anger, while a quarter-point jump in her stock portfolio brought on a champagne and caviar celebration. Paige’s phases between mania and depression kept Nathan continuously guessing and re-tooling. There had been no tell-tale signs of shifting winds, yet he managed to keep her reputation on an even keel.
These last few months were a bit more tranquil. He was comfortable with her displacement of confidence and defiance, in equal measure. The tide receded, and calm returned. Now, on this fourth harbor call without a horizon in sight, he wondered, what sweet chaos will try to capsize me this time?
"Welcome aboard," she said, offering her hand, which he took in his uneasily. "Have a seat, help yourself to a drink. We have much to discuss. Isn't the view beautiful here?"
"Indeed." Nathan learned early on that fewer words kept him without regret.
"Well, let's get right to it." Her eyes held a sparkle that set Nathan into worry mode. Her plans and schemes, which usually profited her happily, rarely worked out well for those on the periphery. He was wary of what was to come.
"As you know, I’ve been searching for some time for a more effective approach for our marketing program. Three months ago, I sent Aaren on a quest for a new social shaman to shepherd a resurrection of the company’s public persona. After quite a diligent search, she connected me, through several SKYPE sessions, with a brilliant gentleman named Thomas Laird," she said, picking up a page from an open file on the table next to her. "He comes highly recommended, a veteran writer with the Detroit Free Press. I'm told he was a wizard at reporting disasters. Even in the worst of times, he spins stories in ways that increase his audience rather than alienating them. That's exactly what we need here, don't you think? Our marketing program has grown stale... we need someone to jazz things up just a bit. We had a final Skype call two weeks ago, and everything seems in order. Legal checked his background. He starts on Friday. I want you to keep an eye on him. Make sure he understands the company... but also, make sure he understands the town. You know just as well as I do that in order to bring all our plans to fruition over the long haul, he will need to understand our business and our culture."
"I'm not quite sure what you're asking of me, ma'am. I mean, I get that he'll need a mentor to get through MouseTrax and its infrastructure... but I'm not sure what else I can do..." Nathan detected an eerily strong undertow in her request. He wanted to be certain of her intentions and her expectations. Getting it wrong could not only put his job–but his reputation–in jeopardy. "What exactly do you want me to do?"
"All right, Nathan, let me put it to you plainly. I need you to watch him. Make sure he is the man we want and need in this capacity. If he produces the kind of effects that have been insinuated to me, our profit margin could triple next year. Give him as much rope as he needs to string up others, but not enough to hang himself. Understand? I want to make sure he gets everything he needs to make waves and propel us into the next decade with our competitors cheering. Spare no expense... Spare no networking opportunities. Make what he wants to happen... happen. Oh, and keep this away from the Board. I don't need their infantile meddling complicating things. Am I clear?" Nathan silently nodded his comprehension.
Paige set down her drink, stood, and descended the galley ladder. When she returned, Nathan stood, and she handed him a noticeably padded, plain, white envelope. "This should make up for any inconvenience you may encounter."
"Of course, I'll take care of it," Nathan said reluctantly. He liked succinct directions; and this was far too vague for him. Thomas, this new guy, had just become Paige's latest pet project, and Nathan was now his keeper. This had every mark of not ending well... and yet, it would. Paige demanded it, and there was little she was ever denied.
"Are you hungry? We could go to the clubhouse and get a bite." Just that fast, Paige shifted gears again.
"No, thank you; I grabbed something before I came over, and I’m meeting up with friends in a little while for St. Paddy’s Day stuff." Although he had no choice in accepting her assignments, that didn't mean he had to spend his personal time with her. He knew there was more to this woman. He often felt she kept secrets, even from him. He suspected there was more to this particular assignment than she told him. He also knew that asking for more than she was willing to volunteer was dangerous water to navigate, fraught with unknown rapids and invisible reefs. He rationalized it was best to leave it alone for now, but it gnawed at his gut. It was too much uncertainty. He preferred gentle stability over impromptu risk indulgence.
"Suit yourself," she said, sitting back in her deck chair. She took up her drink once again. "I'll see you at the office on Monday. I'm out tomorrow and Friday. Call Aaren or my cell if there are any developments." It was over. He was dismissed.
"Very good. Thank you." Nathan said, quickly disembarking, heading back down the dock toward the security of the city streets.
Paige noticed the crimson and amber hue beginning to streak against the western sky. She recalled the old mariner's adage; "red sky at night, sailor's delight." She took it as a good omen. She let a wry smile sneak past her lips. My plan is beginning to take shape. Even Blackbeard would be proud.
At five seconds, things were a little foggy. I'm not sure how much time passed by or exactly how I got there... I wouldn't figure out the details until much later... but I can say that the first fifteen seconds of my life after death were exactly as I imagined they would be.
The corridor where I stood was foggy from my feet to my knees. I couldn't actually see or feel solid ground beneath me, or my feet, for that matter... but somehow, I knew it was there. The sky directly above me held an odd, ethereal light, and the air was dry and soft. There was no sun, no wind, and the space around me was eerily silent. There were two gates: one black and foreboding, one bronze and inviting, just like the storybooks and religious school teachers had foretold. There was a strong comfort surrounding me.
At thirty seconds, logic and comfort took a nosedive.
From out of nowhere, about twenty feet in front of me appeared a fifty-four-inch flat-screen plasma HDTV. As it drifted in place, the light around me dimmed, the soft aroma of jasmine lilted somewhere just on the edge of perception, and the screen flickered to life.
The Choice Has Always Been Yours
The opening title appeared in the center of the screen in scarlet biblical calligraphy with an elegant satin silver background.
"An orientation video?" All my presumptions about death had been turned inside out.
"Welcome to Purgatory." said the host.
He looked like a pudgy, balding, bowtie-clad, nearsighted professor. In fact, he looked just like the man who taught my freshman trigonometry course in college, Professor Tribell. But it couldn't be. "Isn't he still teaching at Wayne State this term?" My thoughts were running amok, and they were doing it out loud. The strange little man droned on.
"We trust your travel from the Earthly realm was uneventful." Before I could catch myself, I nearly screamed an exasperated retort.
"Uneventful? I'd say the demise of my physical body was quite the event. Who is this guy?" I looked around for someone to commiserate with, but there was no one. It was beginning to look like reincarnation was not an option.
"Now that you've shoved off that mortal toil," the host snickered, "You have quite the little adventure before you. But as with everything, you must choose." He seemed to be having much more fun than should be allowed.
The screen then presented two purple check boxes; above the first, in cobalt script, Heaven. Under the second, in gothic silver block lettering, Hell. As the Dr. Tribell doppelganger continued to speak, the images of the two gates superimposed under each checkbox and settled gently on his left and right shoulders. A brief flashback of an old cartoon jogged in my memory.
"Before you stand two gates; one offers entrance to Heaven, the other to Hell. You must choose which side deserves you more." I'm sure my face screwed up in a contortion that could only be described as gargoyle-like.
"Which side deserves me? Just how am I supposed to figure that out?" I said with whining frustration. I was a bit wobbly and would have liked a chair or stool, or something to settle my body, or my essence, or whatever they call this thing you get after death. This was not an easy thing for me to process. After all, I'd only been dead for... what was it, maybe a day?
As if in answer to my dizzying brain, the host started talking again. He was sitting behind a desk now, looking even more like my plump trig professor than before. The simultaneous familiarity and oddity of the scene made my stomach do little flip-flops. "You will spend a little time in both Heaven and Hell on a visitor's pass. You will be given ample time, a full seven days, in each place, to decide where you think you belong. When you finally make a decision, just let us know; and you'll be permanently assigned."
"But what if I know where I belong now?" I said aloud, fully expecting to get an answer.
"No one really knows where they belong, not so close after death anyway, and that is why you must spend this mandatory time as a visitor in each realm before making a final choice. After all, you wouldn't buy a car without a test drive, now would you? Once your choice is made, there is no turning back, no retractions, no do-overs".
For a moment, it felt like the video host had been speaking directly to me… and then I realized that it must have been one of death's FAQs; I couldn't possibly have been the only one to ask that particular out loud. They must have just built it into the program, like that silly little scene at the beginning of Jurassic Park. Of course, it was ridiculous, me talking to the TV. I felt like that first day of boot camp in the Navy all over again… foolish and ignorant. The host went on.
"Although we can't tell you what to expect during your visits, what we can say is that there will be no apocalyptic fight for your Soul, regardless of what you may have read. However, we can't promise you that the residents of either Heaven or Hell won't try to sway your decision by their own means; after all, we can't control everything. We can promise, however, that you won't be harmed in the process."
"Good thing! It'd be pretty difficult to hurt a dead person, don't you think?" I hollered at the screen, and then I screamed one of those primal screams my therapist once told me were... what did he call it? Oh yes, healing. This whole death thing was getting tremendously weirder with each passing nanosecond.
"So, we suggest that you just go with the flow and enjoy your time touring each realm, consider it a vacation... and don't worry about your decision until judgment day, almost a full month away. Just take it slow. Really consider your options. We'll make sure you'll get some regroup time in between each visit and at the end to process your thoughts. Good Luck!"
The screen grew dark, and the credits rolled in true Hollywood fashion. I remember thinking that it was amazing how many people it took to put this production together... lots of dead videographers and grips. As the final copyright line rolled past, the host chortled somewhere off-camera. He was probably laughing at the same thing I was... Copyright in the afterlife? Who could possibly steal it?" The light around me returned to normal. That is, if ethereal can be considered normal.
As I looked about, I noticed that a woman had appeared at my side. She stood only about four feet tall but was perfectly proportioned in every way. There was no pitchfork, no pointy ears, and no spiked tail; none that I could see, anyway. I took this as a good sign. "I'm Liza. I'll take you back to your room now," she said. "You'll need proper rest if you're to go on a visit to Heaven in the morning."
I was overcome by a drunken giggle as the little woman took my hand. Absolutely nothing about my dying process was happening according to Hoyle... Not one of the rules I'd been taught had been followed. It was just all so... not normal. I had to ask... "Why do I get to visit Heaven first? Does everyone visit Heaven first?" I was tired and rambling.
Liza smiled and looked up at me with a strange glint in her eye. "Oh no, my dear. You are visiting Heaven first because it is your right. A priest gave you that last right before you arrived."
Last Rites meant a first stop in Heaven? Do all priests know that? Did they teach that in seminary school? Is that why my Rabbi didn't talk about the possibility of going to hell... maybe he was never taught the bypass code and didn't want to tell his congregation that he was out of the loop. My brain was awash with too many images, too many sounds, too many thoughts. What time was it, anyway? I needed sleep.
It was the usual crowd you’d see at these sorts of events; rack selections from Old Navy, Macey’s, L.L. Bean, and a few custom jobs from Rodeo Drive. Stereotypes were frequently assumed; few lived outside of what their costumes described. Occasionally, you’d find one or two who managed a bit of authentic sheen, but it was rare. As they milled about, over-imbibing and over-exaggerating, popular lyrics could be recognized by anyone who’d attended in years past.
“When the wife and me were on vacation in the desert of Peru,” one man began, as he dropped his very drunken arm around a nearby companion, “we visited the Nazca Lines, you know, those famous crop circle things, and everything looked like it did in that Discovery Channel documentary, except one thing. There was a porcupine carved in the ground. Can you believe it! A blasted porcupine right there in the dirt!” He slapped his companion on the back, nearly toppling himself to the ground, yet salvaging each and every one of his Scotch-drenched ice cubes. “We saw it from the helicopter. Now, I ask you, how is that possible? I don’t even think they have porcupines in Peru. It’s got to be aliens, right?! What else could do that? Eons of fast-moving water during the time of the dinosaurs, or even all the years after, couldn’t possibly be that precise or that creative. We’re being lied to; make no mistake. There’s something much bigger going on here!”
“The same thing happened at Roswell, am I right?” chimed in another zealot. “I know there has to be a bigger story there. Weather balloons and fake alien autopsies, come on! How does anyone believe that nonsense? I’m ex-military,” he said with a left-handed salute that nearly cold-cocked a passerby, “and I tell you, there’s simply no reason to have a military base in the middle of the dessert and claim it doesn’t exist. The point of having a base is to intimidate the other guys. And once they’re discovered, why would they claim that it’s for ‘secret’ testing of aircraft and other military stuff? I’m telling you straight,” he said with an air of superiority, “if you wanted a base to be secret, you’d put it inside of a mountain or twenty thousand leagues under the sea, not right out in the open where people driving by and satellites can find it. I was a pilot,” he said, pulling at the left lapel of his sport coat where a small gold airplane pin sat perched, “it must be a tarmac for incoming aliens. Why else would they deny its existence?”
“You’re right,” said a woman who had been eavesdropping from inside her less-than-interesting hen clutch. “No one would believe that… but the bigger question is, why do they keep propagating these lies? What are they trying to distract us from… what heinous, horrific thing is happening right under our noses that they don’t want us to discover? It’s like a worldwide magician’s sleight-of-hand.” The men nodded in agreement. “It’s like they’re trying to confuse us with the strange, flashy thing right in front of us to avoid drawing attention to the fact that they’re pulling the wires off stage.” The men raised their glasses in a toast, and the group clinked in unison, adding their stamp of approval to her proclamation.
As the assembly gradually moved from standing to taking chairs at banquet tables scattered about the hall, their attention was quickly drawn to the small stage at the front of the room. One of the event organizers tapped the microphone at the podium and began his speech, continuing the shared conversations from the collection of believers without segue or introduction. “It’s our fundamental right as human beings to know the truth about our own origins.”
Applause swelled. Some members tapped knives to glasses in support of the speaker’s remarks.
“Government agencies, in partnership with religious organizations, have been keeping us deluded for far too long. They tell us that the designs we see in crop circles and the indentations at Nazca are simply geological malformations. They insist that we are manipulating our own vision to feed some psychological desire to describe something we can’t or don’t want to understand.”
Boos and hisses radiated from the floor with a rhythmic chanting of “Lies, it’s all lies!” Once the commotion began to subside, the speaker continued.
“They tell us there’s a logical reason. They filibuster our intellect from the time we’re in grade school until we are middle-aged adults when finally, we believe their storylines without question. ‘It’s a hoax,’ they claim.”
More hisses, jeers, and sneers came from the crowd.
“‘It’s a naturally occurring phenomenon,’ they say.”
“No way!” yelled a group of twenty-somethings to the right.
“Yet we understand the truth. We have been visited, and we will be visited again… and the time is growing very near!”
Applause bounced off the ceiling tiles and spilled out into the foyer from the hotel’s grand ballroom.
“Scour away all the nonsense and allow the truth to be seen in its full glory; this should be our rallying cry,” the speaker hollered as he pounded his fist on the podium. “The government can’t keep us from knowing, especially if what they withhold could affect our safety.”
“We want the Truth!” screamed a pack of millennials to the right.
“We are entitled to protect ourselves and our families. If we have been visited by aliens, and those of us here tonight are certain that we have, how do we know that these aliens haven’t made a deal with Washington to annihilate us all when the time is right? Make no mistake, such a treaty would be easily cast if it meant bank accounts would be swollen and interstellar cushions would soften their descent when there are no other options left. Let’s face it, our government is not now and never has been, operating in our best interests. The alien coverup is just a small piece of that pie.”
More applause and cheers erupted from the audience as waiters and waitresses worked hard to refill water glasses without becoming drenched by overturned tableware.
“In spite of this, now is the time that we must play possum, draw back, and allow the insolent to falter with their counterfeit compass. They will stumble as they saunter toward the door of what they believe to be an easy exit. Only then will they fall victim to the same sleight-of-hand that they have been perpetrating against us all these decades.”
The woman at table eight nodded and offered her new friends a smug grin.
“Once we pull back, relent, stop pressing for answers; only then will they make the mistake that will divulge their true intentions, and they will be betrayed. That’s when we’ll catch them in their deception and set in motion our mutiny, thrashing hard at their political solar plexus and forcing out the flatulence of their duplicity.”
The crowd exploded with cheers of “mutiny” and “hit ‘em where it hurts,” accompanied by clinking stemware, high-fives, and gregarious pats on the back. This amalgamation of different thinkers trusted strongly in their own rhetoric and we are not going to be persuaded otherwise.
As the rabble continued congratulating themselves and began comparing notes about their most excellent plan, a stout little man with rounded posture approached the dais. He wore tan khakis and the brown cardigan of honorable respect, as would a veteran of the Normandy invasion. Still, his head held no hair nor hat, his dark eyes were shaped like almonds, his tiny nose appeared to be lacking cartilage, and his ears were flat to the side of his head. His skin held a grey pallor that gave the impression of a foreboding illness. The crowd was drawn to their feet as they felt the energy of his approach. None could explain their silence nor their fragility in his presence. There was an electric charge to the air.
He stepped up to the podium and adjusted the microphone. “I’ve been sent to give you a message,” he intoned with the gentle expression of somebody’s great-grandfather. He reached for a bottle of water from the nearby table, and as he took a long draw, a voice could be heard from the back of the crowd. A middle-aged woman stepped from the camouflage of the throng and shouted the words many were thinking.
“I know the truth… you can’t hide from me,” she said, thrusting her arm forward and pointing directly at the little man. “You’re a GREY! Don’t deny it… you’re an alien sent to give us the final ultimatum!”
“No,” he said calmly, putting the water bottle aside, unbuttoning his sweater, and allowing it to fall to the floor. “My name is Michael,” he roared as bright white wings unfolded from the hunch on his back, “and God is very displeased!”
You'll find some interesting stuff here... some Op Eds, some Information, Book Reviews, and More. Poke around the categories and see what ruffles your feathers... in a good way!