Death, part 2

Read Death, part 1 here.

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Death was changing into her swim suit in the locker room. She used to swim a lot when she was Alive, but it had been many years since her job had taken her to a pool and she thought she’d get in a few laps while she was there. Not that she needed the exercise — she was a Skeleton, after all. She wouldn’t be able to feel the cool water on her skin or even smell the chlorine. But Death could remember those sensations and the physical act of jumping into a swimming pool was enough to conjure up the memories. 

Her next Name was scheduled to be at the lap swim in half an hour. Death took a final glance at the spreadsheet on her iPad before closing it into the locker with her Cloak and Scythe. Allison Marie Stevens. 72 years. 5’5” tall. Curly, medium-length blonde hair. Blue eyes. Retired. Widowed, 3 adult children. High School Pool. 

Death activated her Powers of Similarity and assumed a similar look to what she imagined Allison Marie Stevens looked like. She glanced in the mirror on her way to the pool and stopped to stare at her new, freshly-wrinkled skin. Vanity still had a strong pull in the Afterlife, and she had half an hour before her appointment, so she reverted to her Image of Self and became the leggy 24-year-old athlete she had been in her former Life. 

Death had lived through the phases of aging like a person of typical lifespan. She had been an athlete most of her life, slowing down as the decades added up until the day came when she could only take gentle walks with her cane. She counted herself lucky that her End arrived before she was totally bedridden, and because of that, didn’t feel guilt for her assignment at the pool.

But still, why not look like a 24 year old in a bathing suit when you have the chance?

Death did a half-turn to check out her butt in the mirror. Looking good, she thought, and gave herself a flirty little wink as she exited the locker room and walked onto the pool deck. She tucked her hair into her cap, adjusted her goggles over her eyes, and dove into an empty middle lane. 

Even though Death technically didn’t have skin and couldn’t feel the temperature of the water, one of her strongest memories was the shock of the cold when she first dove into a pool. She added some goose bumps to her Appearance for a more realistic experience. 

Swimming is a lonely activity for the most part. With her head underwater and staring down at the tiled black line of her lane, Death could only contemplate her Existence. She remembered when she was in high school, conjugating French verbs as she swam to stave off boredom; she didn’t need to do that anymore, having Infinite Knowledge as one of the job perks. Her work took her around the world occasionally and she needed to speak every language, but only when a war or natural disaster overwhelmed the local offices. 

Her mind turned to her next job as she counted off lengths of the pool with her steady freestyle stroke. Allison Marie Stevens was 72 years old. Had she accepted the idea she might die soon? Death recalled a businessman, 96 years old, who fought his End thinking he still had to control his children’s lives and his material empire; he couldn’t imagine how the world could still spin without him. But an End is an End, and everyone’s got one. Since he refused to Pass quietly and take the Leisurely Option of Afterlife, he was assigned to the Bureau of Timetables and Scheduling and now was one of Death’s most reliable subordinates. He never called in sick, and often opted for overtime when asked.

But Allison Marie Stevens? It was time to find out how she would accept her Fate. Death pulled off her goggles and cap and hopped out of the pool. Better for the lifeguard if she took care of work in the locker room. 

As she walked through the door, Death saw only one woman sitting on the bench in front of the lockers, and since it was Time, it had to be her. Normally, Death wouldn’t chat up her assignments but it was a slow day. She retrieved her towel and Scythe and sat down beside Allison Marie Stevens.

“Did you have a nice swim?” the older woman asked Death, who had so enjoyed being in her 24-year-old body that she forgot to resume Similarity. 

No matter. Most older women didn’t have a problem chatting with a younger woman. At a certain age, or with a certain satisfaction of life, jealousies become irrelevant. Allison Marie Stevens gave Death a quick once-over glance, taking in her long legs and youthful shape and perhaps thought momentarily about her own youth, and smiled into her eyes. 

“The water was cold,” Death replied, knowing no such thing. “Are you prepared?” she asked, although she wasn’t sure if she was talking about the swim or the Afterlife.

“I’m always prepared,” Allison Marie Stevens said, holding up a long-sleeved swim shirt. “At my age, dear, I’m ready for anything.”

That was all the answer Death needed, and touched the woman with her Scythe. 

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Again, just a draft, maybe it’ll be a real project soon. I hope you enjoyed reading.

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One Lonely Wren

The following short story was written for Literary Cleveland; the idea was to gather stories from many different writers about some aspect of a particular day in Cleveland: May 12, 2020. The editors are stitching them all together for one story taking place all around the city. I’ll post the link to the final story when it is available; here is my contribution:

One Lonely Wren

May 12th, 2020 dawned bright and clear in Beachwood, Ohio. A late cold front brought snow and below-average temperatures to all of Northeast Ohio earlier in the month, but the 12th showed promise of being the real first day of spring. The last of the daffodils scattered throughout the yard turned their yellow faces to the sun while an array of bright red, pink, and yellow tulips bloomed, and the old Maples and Oaks began to unfurl their new leaves.

The first bird to greet the day with song was a solitary House Wren, warbling his cheerful tune atop a birdhouse in the garden behind the house. As the day grew brighter and the sun rose, hundreds of avian voices joined him while birds searched for food, mates, or just celebrated a new day. Between the earliness of the hour and the reduced traffic owing to a good proportion of folks still working from home, the varied songs of the birds rose clearly above any ambient city noise and the day promised a certain cheerfulness as the temperature crept up into the 50’s.

Bird migration was in full swing and pairs flew together in and out of the woods to find places to lay their eggs. Most of the birdhouses were occupied by various brown Sparrows and mesmerizingly blue Eastern Bluebirds, who were busily searching the ground for twigs and dead grass to line their nests. The lone Wren sang his long, happy song from several perches in the yard near his chosen house: he sat on the fence and called; he flew to the roof and called; he landed on the back of a pickup truck and called. In between songs, he picked up small twigs and disappeared into his house to build, sometimes carrying a stick so big he spent minutes finding the perfect angle to fit it into the hole. His mate had not arrived yet, but he didn’t give up, he kept up his bubbly song.

Red Northern Cardinals chased each other from feeder to feeder, the males and females easy to distinguish. Red House Finches and startlingly bright Yellow Finches flew in groups, as well as speckled black European Starlings and shimmery Common Grackles. Several orange Baltimore Orioles took turns at their feeder sucking the juice out of orange halves, and Gray Catbirds and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks took their place when the Orioles flew off to the trees. Call and response was heard from dozens of bird species as they prepared their nests in the woods around the house. The House Wren continued to sing alone.

This particular Wren, the only one of his kind in the yard, had been singing non-stop from his birdhouse for a couple of weeks. Would he ever find his mate to share the home he was so busy furnishing? He likely migrated from far south, as Wrens are known to winter as far away as South America and hatch their young anywhere from there to northern Canada. Was he such an efficient flyer that he arrived in the north far ahead of any others, or would he be the only House Wren to pick this part of Cleveland for his home? These worrisome questions didn’t seem to bother him as he went about his routine of building and calling.

As the day turned from a cool morning to a warm afternoon to a chilly evening, the frantic activity of the birds lessened as they flew off to their nesting sites for the night. In the twilight after sunset, one lonely wren still called, never losing hope for his future.

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I hope you enjoyed my story. Maybe it took your mind off the craziness of the world for just a couple moments; if so, that is success. I had a page-long list of things that happened on May 12 that I could have written about, but most were kinda depressing. Focusing on nature (and staying off social media) helps keep me sane.

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Although I still haven’t been recalled to work, I have not been writing much. In fact, almost not at all. My days have been spent working in the gardens (pulling weeds, mostly) and hiking in various parks with Lucy while taking pictures of anything interesting. You can see some of my wildlife photos on the Wildlife and Flower Photography FB page and my Etsy shop.

Stay safe and sane, and thanks for reading.

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Eeyore under Cloud - wander with melissa

My personal cloud

Eeyore under Cloud - wander with melissa

This is basically what I’m down to, now: a giant cloud following me across the mainland. No matter where I go, up pops an “unprecedented spring snow storm.”

I was stuck in Minnesota for three days (see blog post here) although being at Colleen’s house made it quite pleasant. I checked the weather, saw that it was all clear until I reached Cleveland, and off I went. Somehow I woke up to another blizzard this morning. And just to make certain I wasn’t again being too dramatic with my accounts of how bad the weather is, I looked up the definition of blizzard: “A blizzard is a storm with “considerable falling or blowing snow” and winds in excess of 35 mph and visibilities of less than 1/4 mile for at least 3 hours.”

Blizzard. Check.

I believe it is now safe to say that I have my very own cloud (and if you’re a fan of Whinnie the Pooh, please hum “I’m just a little black rain cloud” as you read this).

I didn’t leave Colleen’s house for any significant amount of time during the storm, and finally we decided I should see some little bit of Minnesota before I left. What’s indoors and fun to do? Mall of America! Mini Golf. Aquarium. Roller coaster. Movies. Video games. Shopping. The largest mall in the United States, with over 96 acres of things to do. And some crazy man chose that day to pick up a child he didn’t know and throw him over the third-floor balcony. We followed the news from home instead of going; they had apprehended the man and reopened most of the areas that were closed, but as the mother of a same-age child, 5 years, Colleen was pretty rattled and didn’t want to bring her children there. I can’t blame her, I would be freaked out as well, wondering if it could happen again. The news doesn’t have much on the condition of the boy except to say that he is alive with life-threatening injuries. I sincerely hope he recovers and can somehow get back to a normal life.

goose in snow - wander with melissa

So what else is there to do in the evening after a blizzard that doesn’t require me to freeze to death? How about a meat raffle? The corner bar has a weekly event where for $1 you have a chance to win a chunk of uncooked meat – deer, cow, it doesn’t really matter. This is a big deal in winter in Minnesota, where nearly every bar has at least one raffle each week; in 2014, it is estimated that Minnesotans spent nearly $32 million vying for their chance to win meat, with part of the proceeds going to charity. Hopefully, some of it went to the American Heart Association.

We missed that evening’s meat raffle, so headed to Punch Pizza (amazing), and the grocery store for more eggs to color for Easter, then a rousing game of Disney Codenames before bed. This may sound fairly dull to the average person, but not having my own children, I was quite happy to chase Colleen’s through a store, half-heartedly telling them they didn’t need all the sugary, wonderful items they wanted her to buy (because I wanted them, too). It was almost like my evening of alternate reality – if I were a mother I think I’d be very much like Colleen, except only half as fun. We settled on cheese curds and donuts, two very Minnesota things. Both worth it, although I left my souvenir cheese curds in her refrigerator and am missing them very much right now.

Punch Pizza - wander with melissa

With another weather check, I decided that Lucy and I were clear to get traveling again; even though snow was still piled up the roads were dry. Two legs of the trip remained – Minneapolis to Peoria, Peoria to Cleveland, with the only storms in sight over Cleveland, but I could deal with that upon arrival. As I stated before, I had a beautiful start through the mainland – Washington, Oregon and Idaho were scenic and the weather was mostly lovely. Montana gave me nice weather until it was time to leave, then cold rain. And ever since then it has been junk. With all the places I really wanted to drive snowed under, I am ready to just get to my new home. I passed up the chance to see ‘Iowa’s largest frying pan’ (9 feet wide by 14 feet long and can fry 88 pounds of bacon at once) and the world’s largest truck stop (although I couldn’t help but see that one from the road with parking for 900 trucks) trying to hurry to the final stop.

About two hours south of Minneapolis the sun came out, and by the time I reached Peoria eight hours later the temperature was nearing 60 degrees. I stopped at the first exit to get a hotel room, ready to stretch out and perhaps read a book. No rooms available. I had been nearly the only person in Idaho and Montana at the hotels I was in, so this was unexpected. I asked the woman at the desk to call a few other places, no rooms. A big conference was in town, I was told, and the entire city was sold out. Lucy and I got back in the truck and stopped at the next town. No rooms anywhere. Exhausted and dismayed, I stopped at a gas station thinking I might have to bust out the remaining 8 hours of my trip that night, and asked about the next town east. Bloomington, the man said, and they have plenty hotels. I pulled in half an hour later, went to the first one I saw – Days Inn – and got a room for the night.

I have vague memories of Days Inn from long ago, maybe childhood trips, and remember it being a fairly nice motel. Perhaps they haven’t done any repairs to the rooms since then. On the positive side, it performed very well on the sniff test, so rundown or not, it’s pretty clean. Lucy and I took our evening walk and passed another hotel, and from our vantage point, that one is where the local farmers bring their prostitutes on Saturday night. I’m quite happy at the Days Inn.

Still thinking the weather was good for the remainder of our trip, Lucy and I settled in and started to pick our route. I’ve gotten into the habit of cross-checking radar with each town we will be passing through, and around 10:30 last night I found a major storm coming up, passing over Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, and Ohio – all my possible routes, unless I want to drive an additional 5 days instead of one. The phrase ‘out of the frying pan (Minnesota) and into the fire’ (Ohio) came to mind, but that would imply it was warm. Nothing to do but see what happens overnight.

storm - wander with melissa

Lucy and I got up at 5 a.m. to go outside for an update and were greeted with hail and high winds. Lucy is smart and refused to leave the doorway. I am not, and was rewarded with hail hitting my eyeball for the second time this trip. I don’t know why I need to look up to confirm it is hailing. We went back to bed and at 8:30 a.m. two inches of snow had accumulated on the ground, with continued high winds. I booked a second night. Lucy and I each have our own bed (although I woke up smooshed into the tiniest corner possible without falling off as usual), and the weather looks good for tomorrow – over 50 degrees again all the way to Cleveland, where it will be snowing.

Lucy in her bed - wander with melissa

I looked up some things to do in Bloomington and decided to dig the souvenir bottle of booze from Montana out of my truck. Perhaps later I’ll wander across the parking lot to The Cracker Barrel for dinner.

I’m trying to decide what life is telling me with these storms. They’ve blocked my route, ruined all my sightseeing, and are preventing me from getting to my destination. They’ve cancelled my plans to visit friends in snow-covered mountain states, but unexpectedly allowed me to spend time with Colleen. Over the past few years I’ve paid attention to the universe, at first crying and begging and throwing tantrums like a child to get what I want (and still not getting it), then later giving up and just going with what comes. I left Kauai when I truly didn’t want to, and Big Island welcomed me with a job and a house within days of my arrival. A year later, Big Island let me know it was time to go and a house and job appeared in Cleveland. But being stuck in limbo (an appropriate metaphor for Bloomington) is not something I understand. Perhaps it’ll make sense next week.

Here’s a little humor to end this post – my first horrible review for a book. He could have titled it “Alcoholic Slut,” and said I’ve ruined women’s travel books for him. I should be upset but I think it’s kind of funny. Having sex once in the book (or twice?) over nine months is fairly low on the slut scale, in my opinion, although I did drink a decent amount to cope with being lost and lonely in strange countries. Either way, a review is a review and they all help in their own way. Funny thing, the day after that posted I had a little boost in online sales. Go figure. I hope no one was disappointed at the lack of porn.

Aloha from Illinois,

M

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Lucy in Idaho - wander with melissa

Whitefish, I’m in love.

Today I find myself in Whitefish, Montana. I could live here.

I did some hiking and sightseeing in Coeur d’Alene (which I haven’t yet successfully spelled correctly without Googling), and it is a beautiful town. I was going to dedicate this post to CDA (easier to spell), but then I got to Whitefish and now think it’s a dump in comparison. Whitefish is easier to type, too.

Lucy and I drove around Lake CDA, which is quite a distance, and really is breathtaking. Long, long lake surrounded by evergreen forest and snowcapped mountains, with a windy road along one side. That about sums it up. I was looking for a picturesque spot for sunset photos and severely underestimated how long it would take to drive around so most of it was seen in partial darkness. We had our first wildlife scare on the way – deer running across the one-lane road. Fortunately, I was driving at annoying-tourist speed.

Lucy in Coeur d'Alene - wander with melissa

 

We packed up the next morning and drove the steep mountain roads into Montana, and I have to admit I was somewhat terrified at times. Signs posted every few miles told me to watch for ice, or that the bridges are icy, or the shady spots are icy, and since I haven’t driven in snow in years I immediately assumed the entire roadway was a giant sheet of ice. I spent hours barely going the speed limit, sometimes under and hoping my Hawaii license plates would allow people to forgive me, while imagining my truck sliding off the mountain, tumbling several times, and ending in a fiery crash at the bottom in a fluffy pile of snow. Realistically, though, it was only drizzling, most of the snow was melted and not a drop on the road, and I am accustomed to my imagination running off in random, horrible directions. The temperature was in the low-40s and I didn’t see any evidence of other people hurtling to their deaths. The scariest part was at one of the peaks before the curving 6% downgrade, raining and foggy with snow cover all around in the forest, and I was at least happy I couldn’t see enough through the fog to the bottom of the valley. Needless to say, we lived, although I really could have used those CBD gummies I bought in Portland – just for this occasion – which were buried somewhere in the back of my truck.

After surviving the first few miles of Montana, we turned up toward Whitefish on mostly one-lane roads; these were pretty clear and the driving was much less stressful. All in all, though, my journey thus far from Portland has had me poking Lucy to wake her up every few minutes to tell her how beautiful it is. Or that she’s missing a herd of cows.

I had randomly selected The Pine Lodge in Whitefish and made a reservation that morning (since it is now even colder and rainier and I will not be camping), and it was a good choice. This is a great place to stay, right along the Whitefish river but just outside town. Lucy sniffed the carpet, but only a fraction as long as in CDA, so it is definitely a clean place. I thought that might be a niche job for my dog – hotel cleanliness inspector. You would be rated according to how many seconds it takes Lucy to cover the room.

Lucy and I were both super stressed from the drive so the first thing we did was find a dog park for her to run. Whitefish seems to be a very dog-friendly town, as evidenced by the 200 dog grooming, boarding, and pet stores we passed. We found a 5-acre dog park, mostly mud at this time of year, and she ran her brains out with another dog she met. And since she was already long-overdue for a bath, we went to a do-it-yourself dog wash store (omg who knew these existed??) and now she smells like strawberries. She hated every moment of it, and I ended up spending 10 minutes wiping down the walls and floors of the room since she somehow sprayed water several feet into the pet food area.

Lucy Whitefish dogpark - wander with melissa

 

Many of the roads in Glacier National Park are still closed so Lucy and I found a trail to hike that didn’t require driving through the snow up to the mountains this morning. I do want to hike Glacier sometime, but I’ll have to plan that better. We went to Swift Creek trailhead (I had chosen a different one but somehow couldn’t find it). Grizzly bear season is starting and warning signs were posted everywhere. I’ve wanted to see a bear for as long as I can remember, so we started down the trail with high hopes.

I imagined that my first bear sighting would be something like the first time I went scuba diving to look for Laverne, the famous Kona tiger shark. Totally excited at first, ready to observe and photograph one of nature’s most fearsome creatures; but when I finally saw her I hid behind a lump of coral, hyperventilating and peeing my wetsuit. And forgot to take a picture. (For the record, I was much braver each successive time I saw her).

Lucy and I started down the trail, camera in hand (new, crappy camera – my good Nikon died in Portland and the camera shop couldn’t fix it. I had to mail it to Nikon and I’m hoping to catch up with it further into Montana. I had to buy the best Nikon that Best Buy had to offer, which after my D750 is almost archaic. Still, better than my iPhone). The forest was completely silent, and the smell was something I had completely forgotten – glorious wet evergreen forest smell. The trail was icy in places and the going was slow. Lucy learned that if she dug a little hole in the snow she could stick her nose in and smell wonderful decaying things. She also learned that she loves deer poop.

Whitefish forest - wander with melissa

 

And while I’m thinking of poop – the trail was wonderfully clean, in terms of trash, except for… yes, dog poop bags! Really. It’s nice that owners are conscientious enough to pick up after their pets, but you have to take the plastic bag with you and put it in the trash! Poop bags of all the colors of the rainbow were along the trail. Idiots.

It took some time to walk the Swift Creek loop due to the ice, and we stopped off at the Creek overlook hoping to see one of the bears hunting fish (although I have no idea if bears do that everywhere, or if the bears here are like Yogi and just look for unprotected picnic baskets). I wanted to go to the lake to look for bears but it was two more miles of icy trail along a steep ridge and I had no desire to slide off the edge, so Lucy and I started back. I was trying to imagine what it would be like to run into a bear; I had no bear spray, and my hunting knife was last used to cut lemons and was currently residing in a bag with my kitchen supplies (but really I’d get mauled before I got close enough to use my knife – it’s more a morale knife than a hunting knife). I wondered what Lucy would do. As a Plott hound, her breed was originally bred to hunt bear – but my dog, who is frightened of bridges and rustling plastic bags and the squeak that doors make – who knows. In my head she is ferociously protecting me, barking and driving the hungry bear away, but in reality I could see her trying to hide behind my legs, tangling me in her leash and causing me to fall on the ice, then we’d both get eaten. 

Swift creek - wander with melissa

 

Enjoying the quiet and the relaxing smells of forest as we neared the end of the trail, dreaming of what to have for lunch, we were completely startled by a massive, shaggy brown thing running across our trail. A grizzly bear! Oh My God A Grizzly Bear! 

Much like in the ocean, I hid behind the nearest tree and peeked out, but thankfully I did not pee myself (much more obvious on land). Lucy was absolutely silent, standing rigid, staring ahead. I didn’t know what to do. I looked around and saw I was near the entrance to the loop so going back wasn’t an option; in fact looking a bit closer I could see my truck in the parking lot. I wondered what they would say if I called 911 and told them a bear was in the forest. So we waited, all the while peering out from behind a tree. It was totally quiet. Not even a chirping bird. 

And then I looked down at my feet. I thought I was standing on a stick, but it was a severed deer leg. The hoof, plus about 10 inches of bone with some fur. Lucy didn’t even notice it, she was still in guard mode. Time to move.

I hadn’t seen the bear for a few minutes, so we left the trail and crept quietly to the far side of the parking lot and reached my truck. After my heart started beating again I was upset I didn’t have a picture, so I left my driver’s side door open and Lucy and I cautiously headed back toward where we saw the bear. If we only went a little way in we could run and jump into the truck if we had a little head start. Supposing, of course, I didn’t panic and slip on the ice and become this bear’s first spring meal.

Whitefish deer - wander with melissa

 

We stayed out another half hour but never saw her again. More deer, squirrels and birds, but nothing else. It was a great day. And like with Laverne, I will be a little braver next time I see a bear. But I probably won’t be any braver driving. Wish me clear roads and blue skies for my next big drive tomorrow.

Aloha from Montana!

M

 

 

 

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