Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Darnell Demon

Start Chase Collingsworth as fullback”, the mural on the wall growled.

“Chase Collingsworth?” questioned Coach Roberts, with more than a little angst in his voice, and keeping constant vigil lest someone catch him talking to a wall. “But Collingsworth’s got no drive. He’s a lazy do-nothing!”

“Start Chase Collingsworth as fullback!” the mural repeated sternly.

“As you say!” said Coach Roberts. And he scratched the change into his list of starters.

Coach Justin Roberts was the head coach of the Darnell High School football team, otherwise known as the Darnell Demons. The mural on the wall was the Darnell Demon.

Coach Roberts had been the head coach at Darnell High for seven years, and for seven years he experienced frustration trumped by consternation as he watched the Demons win just enough games to keep him employed, but always – ALWAYS losing the big one; the game that would clinch a spot in the State playoffs. Coach Roberts was born in Darnell, as was his father and his father’s father. In fact he was the fifth generation of Roberts to live in Darnell, the fourth to be born there, and the third to head-coach the town’s high school football team.

His grandfather, Langston Roberts truly laid the foundation for football in Darnell. He was, and still is the holder of the state record for most consecutive wins in the history of 2-A football. Langston Roberts coached his boys to 44 straight victories, and in the process took the 2-A state championship four years running, before his retirement for ‘medical’ reasons.

There are two items of particular interest about Langston Roberts; first that he won those four titles with basically the same players, whose performance had been consistently mediocre. Of course every year freshmen came out for the team and seniors graduated. But year after year the Darnell Demons always seemed to play football about the same, finishing the season somewhere in the middle of the brackets – a team by all accounts average. Average that is, except for those four unexplainable, undefinable, perfect seasons.

The other item of note regarding Justin’s grandfather was that after winning those four state championships he went stark, raving, insane, crazy mad. The medical term is paranoia; a malady not to be scoffed at. But the good people of Darnell are fickle fans, and frustrated by the end of the winning streak, scoff they did, tagging him Looney Langston.

With Langston’s retirement his son Langston Roberts, Jr. took over the head coaching job. Langston, Jr. went by the nickname Handy, partly because he was tired of being mistaken for his father and partly because he was indeed a handy guy to have around. That is, unless you wanted a winning season on the football field. Oh, Handy could fire up a broken down school bus or fix a busted pipe. He just couldn’t seem to fire up his offense or fix his broken down defense. Though he searched high and low, Handy never discovered the magic his father had.

Handy Roberts coached for five years - five very long and depressing years - before he was taken by a tragic car accident, although the rumor was it was no accident at all. And while the town feigned sadness, inside they rejoiced in the hope that the Darnell drought would end and they could get back to winning again. That job befell his son, Justin.

The Darnell Demon is a gigantic picture of a demon painted on the wall of the school gymnasium; and a damned scary demon at that, with a red body, a red face and red horns. The only parts of the Darnell Demon that aren’t red are the pupils of his eyes. Legend has it that if you stare into the deep black eyes of the Darnell Demon for more than 7 seconds he will come visit you in the night - more than 12 seconds and he will control your thoughts - more than 45 seconds and you belong to him for life!

Of course, such legends are pure nonsense; fodder for campfire ghost stories used to scare little children into submission, lest they chatter all night in their tents. Just legends - at least that’s what Coach Roberts used to think, but that was before his eyes were opened to a realm of which few are aware; an unseen dominion of power and insight this mere football coach had never imagined.

Twelve years in an asylum must be a terrible existence, especially for someone once so vibrant, so vivacious - indeed so victorious. Langston Roberts had wasted away wearing blue pajamas and talking to walls that did not talk back. And then he found his eternal peace. God rest his soul. “It was a fitting end for him to die the week before the season’s first game,” Justin thought. “He can watch this one from Heaven.”

The whole town turned out for Langston Roberts’ funeral. Apparently the scoffing was forgotten. Looney Langston was no more. After all, Langston Roberts gave this dry, dusty little nothing of a town in the middle of nowhere a source of pride. In his funeral message Reverend Canfield of St. Ignatius Methodist Church even reminded them that it was Langston Roberts who put the town of Darnell on the map; a reference to the fact that the official maps of the State Highway Department always referred to the town as Darnel, with only one L. It was only after four consecutive state championships the map was corrected to the two-L spelling. And if a citizen of Darnell was heard saying this was just a coincidence, a Roberts was always close by to defend their claim to fame.

As soon as the graveside services ended the family filed somberly back to the homestead, a three story frame on the edge of town that was the childhood home of Grandpa Langston, and which Justin had inherited. After the food was served and eaten and the guests said their goodbyes, Justin’s Grandma Pearl leaned down and whispered in his ear, “Come back into the den with me. I have something for you.”

So stealthy was her invitation that Justin’s curiosity was piqued. What did Grandma Pearl have to share with him? Was it a deep dark secret from his grandfather? Or perhaps some valuable heirloom reserved for him? He quietly slipped out of the room and joined her in the den, where he soon learned it was both.

As he walked through the door she took him by the hand and slid a ring onto his finger. He recognized the ring as the signet ring his Grandpa Langston used to wear everywhere he went. In fact, Justin tried to remember a single time or place when Grandpa Langston didn’t have that ring on. He even bore that ring on his finger for the 12 long years he was in the institution.

The ring was formed of yellow gold with a figure of the Darnell Demon in pyrope garnet, a blood red, semi-precious stone; and with two incredibly rare black diopsides, giving off the signature star effect for which blue sapphires are better known. But a mere star sapphire could never match the mesmerizing effect of the black diopside. These stones made this ring a one of a kind – one of a kind indeed! Justin determined right there and then he would wear Grandpa Langston’s signet ring with pride, perhaps never take it off.

The ring was the valuable heirloom, but what was the deep dark secret?

The week that began with the funeral would end with the first game of the season, and so Coach Roberts was in a lather as he darted about tending to all the ducks that must be in a row before an opening game. But passing under the mural of the Darnell Demon he suddenly froze in his tracks, terror stricken, when he heard a voice growl out, “Toby Stevens to run the end around”.

“What? Who’s there? Who said that?” Coach Roberts choked out, on the verge of fainting.

“Toby Stevens to run the end-around!” the guttural voice repeated.

Then Coach Roberts realized that the eyes of the demon on his signet ring were glowing, and so were the eyes on the Darnell Demon; the mural on the wall. And that’s when Coach Justin Roberts learned the secret of Coach Langston Roberts; the secret that mercifully skipped a generation before growling back to life. And that Friday night Sophomore Toby Stephens won the game for Darnell with a brilliantly called end-around run.

Being about half the man his grandfather was, Justin Roberts coached 2 perfect seasons - a 22 win streak, before retiring for ‘medical’ reasons. He lived another 6 years in blue pajamas, and talked to walls that did not talk back.

And after the funeral Justin’s widow slipped a signet ring onto her son’s hand, for the good people of Darnell would demand another championship.

A Law Badly Named

Please be advised - this is a work of fiction.
Any similarity to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

I just killed two men. And now I sit locked in the back seat of this police cruiser, fighting the urge to vomit and wondering what comes next.

Actually that’s not entirely true. I didn’t really kill two men; I killed two boys! Anthony Brown, age 17 and Charles Washington, age 18 died just fifteen seconds after entering my home.

The chaos was overwhelming as these two invaders charged through the door from the garage, and into our front hall - a hall that leads straight to my bedroom. Spartan and Trojan, the killer Chihuahuas that sleep at the foot of our bed sensed the danger a few seconds before I was aware of anything unusual. And it was their reaction to the sound of the overhead garage door that alerted me, starting the whole sequence of events.

Eleven seconds - that’s how long it took me to spring to life, grab my handgun from the nightstand and lunge to the floor of my bedroom doorway. But I said fifteen. That leaves four seconds, and that’s exactly how long I pondered the “shoot-don’t shoot” question every gun owner prays he will never have to ask himself; a prayer that went unanswered on this darkest of nights.

It’s funny how things sometimes seem to happen in slow motion. A car changes lanes too close and you have to hit the shoulder to avoid a violent crash, and then you realize you had more than enough time to think it through and react. See, the human brain has the capacity to function at a much higher level than we realize. When the circumstances force it - when it becomes a life or death proposition - the brain is at the ready. And it’s a good thing too, because we would all be dead many times over if not for that mental reflex.

“SHOOT”, my brain told me. Actually the thought process went like this: “Oh my God - they’re in our house - aim the gun - stay down low - who are those guys - they don’t belong here - are they here to kill us - do I shoot them - would that be murder - no - protect self and family - SHOOT!”… And all that happened in just four seconds.

I would imagine Brown and Washington had similar high-level brain events as they charged through the door of what they had convinced themselves was an empty house only to find two little dogs charging toward them, yapping out in anger. Theirs probably went something like this, “Dogs – we didn’t think about that – how big are these dogs – can they hurt us – should we run – no – they don’t look so…”

Then loud noises and spinning projectiles from the other end of the hall brought it all to an abrupt end. And now two separate pools commingle into a sea of blood on my parquet floor.

Breaking into my house, although surely their last, was not the first crime Brown and Washington ever committed. In fact, it wasn’t even the first crime they committed today. Just a few hours ago, having been ejected from the basketball arena for trying to steal t-shirts from the gift shop, they picked out a car in the parking lot and bashed a rock through the window. Brown remembered a tip he’d picked up from a hoodlum friend about how people will set their GPS device with their home address, and how thieves will steal a car with a GPS and a garage door opener.

They knew they’d found the perfect crime. See, they knew the house would be easy to hit because the owners are at the game. And they knew the house would be easy to find by the GPS with its ‘home’ setting. And finally, they knew the house would be easy to get into with the garage door opener. They never considered that any one of these factors might not play out in their favor.

For all they did know, what Brown and Washington did not know was that I had loaned my garage door opener to my neighbor, Tommy Johnstone. See in two weeks Tommy’s daughter, Summer was graduating from law school; a monumental accomplishment for her, not being the brightest bulb on the block. And so, to fulfill a promise he made two years ago, Tommy went out and bought her the slickest 2009 Camaro you ever laid eyes on.

I agreed to let Tommy hide that Camaro in my garage for a few days. And that’s how my spare garage door opener came to be found clipped to the visor of Tommy’s car; the same car that was stolen by Brown and Washington. And that’s why, when the GPS directed them to Tommy’s house, whose driveway is only 10 feet from mine, it was my garage door that opened instead of Tommy’s.

You know, upon raising the door and finding the garage full of vehicles, smarter men would have reasoned that somebody must be home. But then smarter men would not be breaking into houses in the first place, would they! Funny thing is - all I know about Brown and Washington are their ages and that they aren’t very smart… oh yeah, and that their bullet riddled bodies now lie dead in my house. I can only guess whether they have prison records, or mothers somewhere praying for them, or gang brothers who will be out to avenge their deaths.

And now the time has come for me to get the answer to that question fueling my fears, “What happens next?” See, a while ago a sleek little black sports car drove up and out stepped Clayton Carter Hallstead, District Attorney for this fair city. The state legislature saw fit to afford great latitude to local DAs when it comes to the prosecution of a crime, and so it will be District Attorney Hallstead’s call whether I spend the rest of this night in a jail cell pending charges or down on my knees, cleaning our floor. Jail or home - either way I expect I will spend it on my knees!

Of course, the aforementioned reference to ‘prosecution of a crime’ implies that a crime has actually taken place. And while I know the laws well enough to know I was within my legal rights to shoot the intruders, my heart of hearts is telling me I was in the wrong. Surely I should have first tried reasoning with them. Is that really my heart, or is it just my doubts taking advantage of my weakened constitution? Having never killed two men before, I don’t feel qualified to say.

Hallstead talked with the police officers for what seemed like hours. First he was briefed by the detectives that had so forcefully taken control of the crime scene when they arrived. Then he asked some questions of the first officer who responded to the 911 call. Oh my God! The 911 call will be played over and over on the local news - maybe even go national. I wonder what I said… how I sounded?

With the window left down only a few inches, for ventilation I suppose, I was barely able to hear anything being said. But I did hear one thing. Definitely and distinctly I heard Hallstead declare, “Clear cut case of ‘Make My Day’- A clean shoot!” I was free to go.

The ‘Make My Day’ comment was a reference to a law on the books that gives a person the right to defend his home against intruders. The term comes from an old Clint Eastwood movie where Eastwood asks a criminal to try to attack him.

“Make my day!” he says, to express the pleasure he would get from shooting the guy right between the eyes.

The irony of it is that Dirty Harry Callahan, the cop Eastwood was playing, wasn’t defending his home when he made that iconic statement, but was actually in an inner city alley. How that term came to represent a guy defending his home is beyond my comprehension. But the bigger irony, as I just learned tonight, is that shooting a guy dead brings no pleasure at all, just gut wrenching pain; a pain I fear will never go away.

Hearing there won’t be any charges against me for the shooting brought a rush of relief, but with it a shift in my emotions - from fear to dread - as the events of the evening replayed in my mind. Finally an officer opened the car door and I emerged, but immediately fell to my knees. And doubled over in the grass of my own front yard, in front of cops and coroners, in front of neighbors and news crews, I lost my fight against the urge to vomit.

‘Make My Day’ - It’s not a bad law, just a law badly named. It should have been called ‘Change My Life’.

Photo Pistol by Jean Sander - used by permission

Private Barefoot

Kidneys, intestines, lungs, stomach, but oddly, not the heart... And nothing else, except what must be buckets of blood and a set of dog tags on a broken chain, wrapped around what appears to be the liver.

“This is obviously the remains of a human being and not the gut pile of a muntjac deer left behind by a local hunter,” Warrant Officer Kenton thought to himself, as he picked up the dog tags and read aloud, confirming what he had been told, “Private First Class Gerome Maxwell Barefoot, Protestant”.

It was November 1967 in South Vietnam and Warrant Officer John Marshall Kenton was deployed to CID, the US Army’s criminal investigative unit responsible for enforcement of military law involving US personnel. Illegal drug activity among the troops was the business of the CID, and business was brisk!

Warrant Officer Kenton had seen stranger sights in these war torn jungles of Southeast Asia; various body parts, bodies with missing parts, soldiers tortured by the enemy, and even sometimes by their own brothers-in-arms. But in his 14 months with CID he had never seen or heard of a case where there was just a pile of human guts and nothing else.

Private First Class Barefoot was a known drug dealer; one of the area’s biggest suppliers of heroin to Uncle Sam's chosen sons. And as such he has been under Kenton’s scrutiny for several weeks. Barefoot had been completely off the radar for several days, and it was naturally assumed his disappearance was due to some criminal activity and not an act of war. So when this grizzly scene was found by a squad of soldiers on night patrol, Kenton was immediately called.

In what appeared to be mere coincidence, Kenton’s investigation of Private Barefoot’s activities had recently taken him to a small village not two klicks from this very spot. He had received reports that Barefoot was seen traveling to and from this small village on several occasions, and it was his job to learn why. And so, with his interpreter, Cao An Dung in tow, Kenton mounted his jeep and headed for the village.

Cao tried to warn Kenton of the dangers of charging in, unannounced and uninvited; especially in these smaller, jungle villages. Remote villager dwellers, in their seclusion already did things their own way, and with the burdens brought on by the war, there was really no way of knowing what to expect when you just drive right into their midst. Like as not you will be turned away post haste - maybe with your life and possessions intact, maybe not.

But Kenton had a way with the locals. He spoke just enough of their language to catch the gist of what was happening, and when he did find himself in the dark, either of what was being said or what custom was being practiced, he had a self abasing way that was usually accepted as endearing. And that, coupled with his downright brash self confidence gave him the gall to forge ahead, in spite of better judgment or Cao’s reservations.

After a three hour ride on what would not qualify as a road anywhere outside a hot war zone, Kenton and Cao were relieved to reach the village; but it was a relief tempered with apprehension, as their visit was not scheduled, invited or even expected. But fortune smiled on them that day, as the local chieftain actually acted pleased at their arrival. Kenton wasn’t sure how to take that. Perhaps the chieftain was expecting someone else, and in a case of mistaken identity they were welcomed with open arms. But if that was the case, what on Earth would that someone else’s business be? Kenton recognized that an extra degree of caution was in order.

Kenton clasped his hands together above the waist and bowed. The Chieftain, impressed with his humorous attempt to honor their custom, reached out his hand to pay honor in kind to this American with his custom, the handshake. And a bond of friendship was immediately formed. Chalk up another one for the Kenton charm.

The Chieftain then introduced Kenton and Cao to his family which consisted of a very obese and unattractive woman who appeared to be about the same age as he; 150 give or take, Kenton surmised; and a whole bevy of children. The eldest child was a girl Kenton guessed to be about 18 or 19, quite fetching, and obviously at least 3 or 4 months with child. Her name, Tuyen, was the only one he remembered, since he had known another Tuyen… briefly.

Kenton had questions for the chieftain and he was anxious for answers. “I want to ask you about a soldier named Barefoot,” he said. But the chieftain was having none of it. With Cao’s assistance the chieftain informed Kenton that mature men do not conduct business before dining, and the dinner hour was at hand. And so an invitation was offered.

“If it means swallowing hard and eating what’s put in front of me to get my answers...” Kenton thought to himself. And so he joined the chieftain and several others sitting on a straw mat around a crudely constructed table adorned with… well, Kenton was not sure what the fare-de-jour was.

But while the chieftain was not yet in a talking mood, Kenton already had his answers - at least some of them. Even a novice investigator could not have missed Tuyen’s reaction when she heard the name ‘Barefoot’ spoken. Her immediate gasp combined with the look on her face and her hands moving to embrace her tummy told Kenton that Barefoot’s business at this village was less about dope than the activities that led to the little baby Barefoot growing inside Tuyen.

“What am I eating here? What type meat is this?” he asked. Cao asked the chieftain, and then smiled and said, “The closest translation would be, ‘favor yourself - pretend it’s wild boar’”.

Kenton assumed it was one of those gigantic jungle rats the soldiers dread. “Wait 'till the folks back home hear I sat in the jungle and ate rat with half naked people”, he chuckled to Cao.

With dinner behind them, the two new friends sat and drank a concoction brewed by the chieftain, and talked of war and family. “Not bad hooch”, Kenton said and Cao translated. The chieftain grinned widely and promised a jug as a parting gift.

But when the conversation turned back to Gerome Barefoot the chieftain clammed up. Now frowning, he just mumbled the same phrase over and over, which Cao translated to mean, “…never heard of him.” But pregnant Tuyen’s earlier reaction told a different story.

That was Kenton doing his job two evenings ago. His job now is to make sense of this pile of guts either left by Private Gerome Barefoot or left of Private Gerome Barefoot. There was an obvious path leading from the slaughter, into the jungle. And so he followed the trail, and within 50 feet he found another gruesome site. There lying in the middle of the makeshift trail lay a severed head. It was swollen, discolored and mangled, but Kenton still recognized it as formerly belonging to Private Barefoot. He had seen that distinctively deformed left ear on more than one occasion.

Two hours later Kenton found himself hiding behind a bush looking out over a small jungle village.

“This village looks eerily familiar”, Kenton whispered to himself. “Is this… yes, it is.” It was the same village he was in two nights ago. And so his suspicions were confirmed – it was not a coincidence that the Barefoot investigation lead him to a crime scene so close to the chieftain’s village.

From his vantage point he can see a large fire in the middle of the village square, with a black pot on the fire, and cuts of meat hanging from hooks nearby. He hadn’t seen that two nights ago, but two nights ago he had approached by way of the road; not the jungle.

But wait – what kind of meat is that hanging there, waiting to be cooked and eaten? And then Kenton realized it. He was standing there looking at a human leg on a hook. And as if a light was turned on, Kenton saw the irony that attached to that leg is an American soldier's foot missing its sock and boot - Private Barefoot's bare foot!

“OH MY GOD”, he grimaced, clutching his stomach in a way not unlike the chieftain’s daughter Tuyen had 48 hours before. “I ate there just two nights ago.” And he realized that, in a way, he and Tuyen shared the same malady. They both had a little Barefoot inside them.

And sitting there in the jungle facing the putrid reality of it, all Warrant Officer John Marshall Kenton could think was, "I wonder what rat really tastes like!”

Photo Hut by Piotr Wojtkowski