The Parade

Red, white, and blue streamers danced in the wind as the handlebars of a small Huffy bicycle with Spiderman designs obeyed the expert instruction of its rider, seven year old Benji Price, as he bobbed, listed, righted himself, and dove bravely through a treacherous landscape of overgrown yards, poorly-maintained patches of concrete sidewalks, and large, family vehicles which jutted meancincly across his path. He sped down the big hill on Cromwell Road, toward the traffic light which marked the intersection of Cromwell and Winton, cursing his parents the whole way. 

“They think I’m not going to the parade,” he muttered. “But I’m going. I didn’t get to go last year, we missed the Labor Day fireworks because Dad was sick again, Mom wouldn’t let us do Halloween or Easter because she’s still afraid of Covid, and Dad wouldn’t let me go see my friends at the Memorial Day party on Burley because he wanted me to clean my room.” 

He hit a spot in the sidewalk where the roots of an old oak tree jutted the concrete squares up at an odd angle, pulled back on his handlebars, and left the ground for a full second. In his mind, Benji leapt over giant canyons full of monsters, racing his bike through the jungle in search of treasure, like Indiana Jones. He landed quickly, his resolve undeterred. 

“I’m going this time. I don’t care what Dad says.” 

The light at Winton Road turned red. Benji pulled his bike to a stop, hit the crosswalk button, and waited. 

The Greenhills Fourth of July parade was the highlight of the summer for all the kids in the neighborhood, Benji Price included. It started next to the Community Building, or what used to be the Middle school as his father would sometimes reminisce on occasions when his moods were light, then made its way around the Commons, past the WWII memorial, and back to the Community Building where it all began. Each year, the mayor and several other village leaders would hand out awards for the kids, who paraded their decorated bikes around the commons along with the marching band, the truck from the local fire department, various community organizations, and the large, Red Cadillac with the sign for Humbert’s Meats.  

Benji coveted that award. He’d watched from the sidelines for as long as he could remember as older kids in the neighborhood rode their bikes full of streamers and noisemakers round and round the Commons. Two years ago, Brian Woods from up the street had won a huge trophy for decorating his bike to look like a speeder bike from Return of the Jedi. And so what if he blew up the trophy later that summer with a homemade incendiary device he’d made using a two liter, aluminum foil, and a particularly corrosive toilet bowl cleaner he’d had to order from Amazon. 

So what? He still won the thing. Just seeing Brian walking home from the parade, carrying that giant trophy, barely able to guide his bike back up Cromewell hill filled Beni’s heart with excitement, and maybe a bit of jealousy. 

Last year, Benji had covered his bike in cardboard to make it look like Enderman from MInecraft. He’d finished it a week after school let out, and missed riding bikes for what seemed like half the summer in anticipation. Then, his Dad saw the bike sitting in the garage and tore the cardboard off, yelling at him not to waste boxes. 

When Benji started crying, his Dad told him to “suck it up,” so Benji did, taking the broken Enderman pieces to the recycling bin outside. 

This year, Benji planned to cover his bike in so many streamers it would look like a Fourth of July Medusa, floating down the street as he sped his way around the commons. He’d saved up all his allowance for two months to buy the streamers (Brian Woods ordered it for him from Amazon. Brian’s parents let him do a lot of things Benji’s parents didn’t), and hid them in his Cub Scout camping backpack so his dad wouldn’t see them. 

Benji Price had it all planned out. 

But when Benji’s Mom came out of their bedroom, quietly shutting the door behind her, and told Benji that “Dad isn’t feeling well this morning. He had a late night last night. We’re going to have to miss the parade,” Benji was furious. Instead of whining, like he usually did, Benji forced a smile. 

“Okay, Mom,” he said, and read from his summer reading book until she went back into the bedroom. As soon as the door closed, he grabbed his backpack and sprinted outside to jump on his bike. 

The light at Winton Road changed green and Benji Price made his way across the busy, six-lane road. 

At first, he was afraid. He’d never before ventured this far from home by himself, and the huge, rumbling cars, waiting on Winton Road for their light to change green, seemed more daunting than the treacherous path down Cromwell hill that got him here. For a moment, Benji thought of turning back, but he closed his eyes and pushed forward. 

“I’m going,” he said, and that was that. 

Benji’s foot found the upramp on the sidewalk opposite Cromwell. He opened his eyes and watched as the cars behind him took their cue from the traffic light and made their way to and from on Winton. 

“That wasn’t so bad,” he said to himself. 

Benji rode his bike past Our Lady of the Rosary church, and stood at the crosswalk in front of the Greenhills Community Building. One more road and he was there. A few more steps and he’d be ready to start setting up his bike for the parade. 

A police cruiser stopped in front of him, and rolled down the window. 

“Hello, there son. How ya doin’?” 

“Fine.” 

“Whatch’ya up to?” 

“I’m taking my bike to the community center to get it ready for the Fourth of July Parade.” 

“Are you, now?” 

“Uh huh. My friend Brian Woods won the trophy two years ago, but he blew it up in his back yard with a bomb he made from the internet.” 

“Is that so?” 

Benji wondered if maybe he’d say something bad, but he continued.

“Yeah, and this year, I’m going to win. I’ve got a backpack full of streamers and my friend, Jason, says he has a wrestling outfit he’s going to let me use.” 

“Parade doesn’t start for another four hour, son. You know that?”

“It doesn’t?” 

“No. Where are your parents?” 

Benji lowered his head. He’d seen enough t.v. shows to know where this was heeded. 

“Back at home,” he said. 

“Why don’t you hop in the car and I’ll take you there? I’m sure they’d want to see their big boy win his first trophy.” 

“Okay,” Benji sighed. His shoulders slumped. One more year. One more missed opportunity. And, now, because the cops were bringing him home, his parents would be mad. Dad would wait for the cops to leave, and then the yelling would begin. 

“What’s your name, son?” the officer asked. 

“Benji.” 

“Good name. My name’s Officer Riley. But you can call me Ken.” 

Benji ws silent. He looked out the window as the trees and houses he’d just passed on his bike, reversed themselves toward his house. After a moment of silence, Officer Riley glanced in his rearview mirror. 

“You got a scratch on your forehead, I see.”

“Yep,” Benji said.  

“How’d that happen?” 

“Fell off my bike.” 

“Did you, now?” 

“Yep,” Benji lied. He didn’t like to talk about the scratches. Or any other injuries for that matter. 

“Well, that’s a surprise,” Officer Riley said. “I’ve seen you. You seem to have a good handle on things, riding that thing up and down Cromwell hill.” 

“I fell.” 

Officer Riley made it to the top of Cromwell turning left onto Andover Street. 

“Your parents home?” 

“Yeah, but Dad’s still asleep.” 

“He sleep a lot?” 

“Sometimes.” 

“He ever get mad at you?” 

Benji Price trie to change the subject. 

“That’s my house right there, Office Riley.” 

“Ken.” 

“Mr. Ken.” Benji tried to open the door, but the handle wouldn’t budge. Once you’re in the back seat of a police cruiser, you’re in. At least until they let you out.

“That’s my house right there. I can ride home from here.” 

Officer Riley did not respond. He drove up to Benji Price’s house, parked in the driveway, got out, and let Benji climb out as well. He opened the trunk to get Beni’s bike. Benji grabbed the bike and ran to the side of the house to hide it. By the time he got back, Officer Riley had already rung the doorbell. 

“Officer Riley … Ken … please don’t tell my dad I rode my bike across Winton Road. He’ll be mad, and when Dad gets mad, he…” 

The door opened. Benjamin Price Sr. stood in the doorway, his grey hair a mop of unkept thistles, hanging down over his eyebrows. He wore plaid pajama pants, a faded Dave Matthews Band t-shirt, and a pair of pink bunny slippers. Officer Riley took a step back and covered his nose. Benjamin Riley smelled as if he’d been rolled in wet mulch and left baking ni the hot sun for days. 

“What?” said Benjamin Price Sr. 

“Found your son down the road a piece. Seems he’s a bit excited for the parade today. Will you folks be joining him?” 

Benjamin Price saw Ben Jr (aka “Benji”) cowering behind Offcer Riley. HIs eyes grew wide and he stepped forward. 

“There you are! I told you we wasn’t going this year, you little son of a …” Benjamin Price looked at the stern expression on Officer Riley’s face and corrected himself. “.. young man. I told you I wasn’t feeling well. And neither is your mother.” 

Angela Price stood behind Benjamin Price Sr with her eyes lowered. When she glanced up, both Benji and Officer Riley could see the discoloration on her cheek hidden by hastily applied makeup. 

Benjamin Price Sr stepped out onto the porch, grabbing Benji firmly on his left arm. Benji winced. 

“Thank you for bringing him home, officer. I’ll make sure to teach him a lesson. Have a nice day.” 

Benjamin Price Sr moved Benji toward the door. Officer Riley placed a hand on Mr Price’s shoulder. 

“Hold on a minute. Let’s chat for a moment.” 

“About what?” 

“Mrs. Price. I can see the marks on your face. How did that happen?” 


“Ran into a door,” she said, never lifting her head. 

“Is that so?” 

“Yes.” 

“See!” said Benjamin Price Sr. “Everything is fine. Now, if you’ll excuse me, officer.” Mr Price tried to pull Benji inside, but Officer Ken Riley held firm. 

“Mrs. Price. You know what’s going to happen to your son if I leave here, right?” 

Mrs. Price did not speak. 

“I’m sure you’ve seen the scratch on his head, the mark on the back of his neck, and the way he favors his left ankle.” 

“That was a bike accident!” Mr Price said. Benji screamed as his fathers fingers dug further into his arm. 

“Mrs. Price, this isn’t the first time I’ve come here to visit you. And you know it won’t be the last. What do you say this time you speak up. It can all stop right now if you just say the word.” 

“I’ve heard enough!” Benjamin Price threw his son into the house through the doorway and stuck a finger in Officer Riley’s face. “How DARE you accuse of …” 

“Accuse you of what?” Officer Riley was calm in his questioning. 

“You know what you’re accusing me of. Get off my porch, Officer, or I’ll have your badge.” 

“Mrs Price?” 

“She has nothing to say.” 

“He hits her,” Benji Price said. All three adults looked at Benji in surprise. “When he gets drunk or when he’s mad or sometimes just because. He hits her. And he hits me, too. These scratches aren’t from a bike accident. He shoved me into a doorframe yesterday when I asked if we could go to the fourth of July Parade. It isn’t as swollen as it was yesterday, but it’s still there.” 

“What?” said Benjamin Price Sr. “He’s making it all up. You know how kids are.” 

“Mrs. Price? Is this true?” 

“Yes,” she said, then raised her head and said the words she had wanted to say for years, but had never had the courage to speak aloud. 

“Help?” she said. 

An hour and a half later, Benjamin Price Sr was in the back of another police cruiser, on his way to the Hamilton County Detention Center, and Officer Riley helped Benji Price and his mother, Angela, load some clothes and a few of their belongings, including Beji’s bike, into the trunk of his cruiser. 

“My Mom says we can stay with her as long as we need,” Mrs. Price began. “After that…” 

“After that you’ll be free,” Officer Riley said. 

“After that, we’ll be free,” Angela said, a smile washed over her face. She turned to Benji. “Should we get going? Grandma can’t wait to see you.” 

“There’s one more stop we need to make,” Officer Riley said. 

That afternoon, Benji Price rode his bike in the Greenhills Village Fourth of July Parade. The streamers poured out behind him in wild pandemonium. And for the rest of his life, whenever he thought of what it meant to be free, he would remember this exquisite joy.  

Dawn – By Joseph Courtemanche

The Fondue Writer’s Club and Bar & Grille and Laundromat Free Memorial Day Fiction Explode-A-Ganza comes to a close today, and what better way to end it than with a story from Mr. Joseph Courtemanche. Mr. Courtemanche is, himself, a veteran, and has made it a Thing(tm) to write a Memorial Day story each year, to help us keep in mind those we’ve lost.

Joe C puts it this way: “I ask merely that today you reflect on those who gave their lives for this nation. They’d want you to have the barbecue and the beer. But remember their sacrifice as well.”

Ain’t no better way to put it than that. Enjoy your celebrations. Enjoy your families. Remember the sacrifices of those who made these things possible. Check out “Dawn

We will be back in a few weeks for Independence Day. Thanks for joining us. We will see you then.

The Kid

Thomas Brown was about to salt the steaks he would soon put on the grill for the annual Burley Circle Community Memorial Day Celebration when he noticed the Kid again. This time, the Kid stood in the corner of the kitchen, watching him. 

As usual, the Kid said nothing.

The annual Burley Circle Memorial Day Celebration had grown into quite a Thing™ over the years. A few people from the row houses at the bottom of the Circle decided one year that, since there were no fences blocking off anyone’s backyards, they might as well pool their resources and do a combined party. 

“It’ll keep the Kids busy, and give us adults some time to do … adult things!” said Mrs. Paoletti of number 14, who’s twin sons Jeff and Josh were notorious for breaking windows, yard signs, and a few larger pieces of property throughout the community. A few people grumbled that she just wanted to spread her children’s destructive proclivities to houses other than hers, but most folks said that, even if that was the case, so what? Raising two boys as a single mother is hard work, and what good is a community if it can’t help bear the burdens of others now and again?

So it was that, with this collective and communal positivity, the Burley Circle Memorial Day Celebration was born. And, boy, did it grow quickly. 

One year, Mr Kellersmith from number 32 offered up his collection of wading pools and Slip & Slides. The next, Johnny Teague from number 18, owner of the local toy and hobby shop, Johnny’s Toys, brought a bevy of backyard games, including a set of lawn darts, which most of the parents forbade the little Kids to use, but then indulged in themselves later that the evening when the Kids had gone to bed and the alcohol flowed more freely. 

One year, Mrs. Bello from number 27 organized the entire community to line up everyone’s picnic and card tables so they could go for the Guinness record for “World’s Largest Salami Sandwich.” They actually got the record one year, but lost it six months later to a group of automobile engineers from Bern, Switzerland who, for reasons unknown to God and Man (as Mrs. Bello put it, when she learned they had been eclipsed), took umbrage with the idea of Midwestern Americans holding any meat-related Guinness records. 

But no matter. The party continued, year in and year out. It ws right about the time that Mrs. Paoletti’s destructive offspring had returned from their respective collegiate sojourns, ech with a wife and two sets of destructive twins in tow, that Sean Hinken from number 1 Burley Circle, who tended Bar at The Friendly Stop, a local hole-in-the-wall bar and grill, had a creative idea. 

“You ever notice how our yards slope down to that flat part at the end?” he said one evening, while sitting on his porch. 

“Yeah,” A few of the other guys responded. 

“And have you noticed how they sorta curve around, like an amphitheater?” 

“Woah,” the guys said. “Yeah.” 

“What if, this year, we built a stage and had some bands play?” 

So they did. David Hester, who taught shop at the Great Oaks Vocational School, tagged some of his students to gather supplies the morning of the next Memorial Day. They got started around 8am, and by noon they had a fully functioning stage, complete with wired sound equipment and lighting. A few local bands started the show that year about dinner time, but the highlight was when Thomas Burns invited his old college buddies to play an assortment of rock anthems, along with some of their original works. 

They played late into the night as the entirely of Burley Circle, in addition to more than a few folks from the surrounding neighborhoods, gathered to listen and just enjoy the feeling of Joy and Love that only good community brings. 

Since then, Thomas’s band, Jelly Pudding, was the highlight of the annual Burley Circle Memorial Day Celebration. After a day full of water games and good friends and more food than you can possibly eat in one sitting (despite what the grumps from Bern, Switzerland might think), everyone settled into the natural amphitheater behind the row houses on Burley Circle to hear local bands play their hearts out. And the evening came to a perfect conclusion with yet another stellar performance from Thomas Burns and the boys of Jelly pudding. 

Except, this year, things might be a little different. Because Thomas Burns saw the Kid again. 

Thomas had just started salting the steaks, which his brother brought in directly from his farm in a small town in Wisconsin, when he saw the Kid. He was an Afghan boy, about nine years old. He wore a tunic with long pants, a bright red cap over his head, and a dark, blue chapan coat under which he was strapped with enough explosives to level several buildings. 

The Kid stood in the corner of the kitchen and watched Thomas Brown. 

Thomas Brown returned the Kid’s gaze, let out a sigh, then returned to salting his steaks. 

“You again?” he said, sprinkling sea salt over row after row of Ribeye steaks. “I figured you might show up today. It IS Memorial Day after all.” 

“Here,” Thomas offered a handful of salt. “Want to help?” 

The boy stood in the corner, saying nothing. 

“Course not.” Thomas returned to salting the steaks. “You never do. Just just stand there in your tunic and your cap. A quiet, little, nine-year old bomb. And you say nothing.”

Thomas put the salt down and looked to the floor. 

“It’s been twelve years! Twelve years since you walked into that room with stupid caape of yours, that blank expression on your face. Twelve years since you walked in and killed all my friends. Everyone in the room …  but me.” 

The boy stood in the corner, saying nothing. Thomas sat on the floor aa few feet away, so his head was level with the boy’s. 

“Why? Why did you kill them? Why did you kill them and not me?” 

The boy stood in the corner, saying nothing. 

“Twelve years you’ve been doing this and you can’t answer. You have nothing to say for yourself. You just stand there and stare at me.” 

The boy stood in the corner, saying nothing. 

“SAY SOMETHING YOU LITTLE SHIT! SAY SOMETHING!” 

“Tom?” Thomas’s wife, Cheri walked into the house from the back door. She held and inflatable penguin in one hand and overly large sunglasses in another. Tom stood up quickly, focusing his attention on the steaks. “Tom, what’s wrong? Who are you talking to.” 

“No one,” Tom said, affecting a cheery tone as best he could. “Just getting these steaks ready.” 

 Cheri stood in the doorway, staring at her husband in silence as he stared intently at the steaks. 

“The Kid is back, isn’t he?” she asked, gently. 

“Yeah.” 

“Where is he?” 

“Over there in the corner.” 

“You know he isn’t real, right?” 

“I know.” 

“What does Dr. Feldman say?” 

“He says hallucinations are a rare but sometimes expected side effect of PTSD.” 

“That’s true, honey.” 

“He also says exercise should help.”

“Oh?” 

“He suggests going on long bike rides. Dr. Feldman is always going on about riding bikes.” 

Cheri started gathering the now well-salted steaks. Thomas lifted the plates as they made their way to the backyard to join the party. 

“Well, it could be lots of fun. There’s a long path up by Milford we might try sometime.” 

“Yeah,” Thomas said. 

“Come on, sweetie. Everyone is excited to hear you play!” 

Thomas and Cheri Brown stepped outside to the wild applause of their neighbors. Everyone was full of joy and laughter and love, except Thomas, who watched the boy in the tunic follow him out of the corner of his eye. 

Thomas couldn’t pull his mind away from his friends. They’d set up in an abandoned house in a small town near the Hindu Kush east of Kabul. Operation Enduring Freedom had gone well, but they were a few months into the Taliban’s resurgence, and the feeling of inevitable, quick victory had just begun to turn. 

“Might as well settle in,” their commander had said on more than one occasion. “Looks like we’re gonna be here a while.” 

Thomas had been part of team chasing insurgents from small towns near the mountains. They had cleared four similar towns in the last month with very little resistance. Most of the fighting took place to the south, so Thomas and his team spent many long nights in small places like this. 

That day, Steve Erlich, a teacher and father from Austin, Texas was trying to teach everyone how to play a new card game he invented. 

“So it’s like Spdes?” of the new guys asked. 

“Uh huh!” Steve said, excited. “And Euchre, Hearts, and Rummy … all rolled into one!” 

“And you need three decks to play?” 

“Yep!” 

“Why not just play Euchre with one deck?” said James Cook, a construction worker from Ohi who had developed a small drinking habit in his time, patrolling the Hindu Kush. “Seems simpler.” 

“Nah,” said Steve. “This is way funner. You’ll see once you get the hang of it, Cookie.”

Steve dealt another complicated hand, much the consternation of everyone else. 

In the backyard amphitheater of the row houses of Burley Circle, the Annual Memorial Day Celebration was in full effect. Kids were tossing plastic footballs and frisbees, adults lunged in all manner of lawn furniture, drinking strange alcoholic concoctions that may or may not pass local ordinances on either the amount of alcohol in the drink or the process used to produce it, and a band, comprised entirely of teenagers Thomas’s Kids would have derided as “way emo” blundered their way through covers of My Chemical Romance, JImmy Eat World, and Fallout Boy. 

“Dear God, these Kids suck!” said Tim Jensen, Thomas and Cheri’s next-door neighbor. 

“They’re learning,” Thomas said. “Everyone sucks in the beginning.” 

“There’s learning,” Tim said, “and then there’s this.” he motioned toward the stage with a full glass of Long Island Ice Tea. 

“Well if you’re so good,” Thomas said, “Why don’t you go up there yourself and show them?” 

“Nah, big man. I’ll just wait for you to show them.” 

Everyone laughed, except for Thomas. The boy in the tunic and cap sat nearby, saying nothing. 

The daylight had just begun to darken in the house near the base of the Kush mountains when Jason Chao, a college student from Milwaukee who joined up the day after 9/11, threw down his cards in frustration. 

“How the hell did I lose that one?” 

Tim Suggs, a former linebacker for the Alabama Crimson Tide, chimed in. “What you should have done was play the Ace of Spades instead of the Queen.”

“Ace of Spades!” Cathy Flynn, an actuary from Chicago said in a sing-songy manner.

Suggs continued: “Then, he’d have had to follow suit and you could have taken the last three tricks.” 

“Oh yeah, Suggsie? If you’re so good, why don’t you come down here and show everyone how it’s done?”  

Suggs smiled, slapped Jason on the shoulder and almost put him through the floor. 

“Nah, big man. I’ll just wait for you to do it.” 

The room burst open with laughter, which was quickly hushed when Thomas noticed movement outside. 

“What’s that?” he said. 

Hundreds of Afghanis walked down the main street through town. Their clothes were covered in mud and their faces looked worn. It was like they’d been caught in a dust storm and then tossed into a mud pit. 

No one approached their house. 

“Looks like maybe a bunch of workers coming home at the end of the day,” said Suggs.

Outside, a light rain began to fall.  

“I don’t know,” said Thomas. “Everyone all at once?” 

“I’m calling it in,” said Steve Erlich. “Better safe than sorry.” 

Everyone agreed. 

Thomas was able to register that Cheri had spoken, but he did not know what she said, so he asked her to repeat herself. 

“Looks like those steaks have been cooking for a while, hon. Want to call it done?” 

“Yeah,” he said. “Better safe than sorry.” 

He moved the steaks from the grill to the large resting plate, then called out to the crowd. 

“DINNER!” 

Everyone dug in, filling plates with burgers, hot dogs, various casseroles, fruits, veggies, and, of course, Thomas Brown’s signature steaks. A bit well done, but still tasty. 

Afterward, Thomas and his band mates made their way to the stage just as the daylight began to darken near the Burley Circle row house amphitheater. 

Thomas tightened the screws on his Sabian cymbals when he noticed the Kid standing  just offstage. 

“Can you just let me have this?” he asked. “I just want to play music with my friends and enjoy the party. I want to forget about that house, those guys, that day. Can you please just go away and let me have this?” 

The Kid stood just offstage, saying nothing. 

Thomas sighed. “Fine,” He said. 

The band started playing and the crowd stood up and swayed. Even with the Kid watching just offstage, Thomas smiled. Nothing beats that Emo crap like good, old fashioned rock.

They played AC/DC, Metallica, The Who, The Rolling Stones, and more. Every song built on the other to produce a crescendo of energy that ran through the crowd and lit up the night sky. Everyone in the neighborhood, along with people from several other neighborhoods was there to enjoy the show. Even the cops, who had shown up in response to noise complaints from nosy Karens sprinkled in the community, eschewed their duties and cheered with their community as Thomas’s band brought the evening to a wonderful climax. 

Thomas started into the heavy slow, bass drum kick of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks,” when The Kid came forward and touched his arm. The drumming continued but Thomas’s mind trailed back.

A series of long, slow, heavy knocks on the door of the house at the base of the mountains broke the peace of the card game. The drizzle of rain outside had increased to a downpour. The crowd of people had all gone to their respective houses. Steve’s communication with the command office let them know that replacements were on their way and would likely arrive in a few hours. A few hours and this particular mission would be over. 

But then, there was the knock. 

Suggs approached the door, tried to look out into the night. With the raid, there wasn’t much to be seen. 

“What is it?” Steve asked. 

“Shh.” 

“Who’s there?” 

“Shut up.” 

The door knocked again. This time, it sounded like heavy boot knocking against the door, a thick drumbeat that put them all on edge.

“We got any night vision?” Suggs asked.

“Yeah,” Jason said. “Back there. Back in the kitchen.”

“Why your dumb ass leave it back there?” 

“I don’t know,” Jason said. 


“Brown,” Suggs said. 

“Sir?” 

“Go get it.” 

“Yes, sir.” 

Thomas Brown walked toward the kitchen, and had just made it through the door when the front door blew open. Thomas turned around to see a kid walk in. He was about ten or eleven. He wore a white tunic with a red cap, and was strapped with enough explosives to level several houses. 

Thomas screamed, “NOOOO!” 

The kid made eye contact with Thomas for just a second, and then the world tore apart around them. 

Thomas Brown woke up several hours later on a helicopter. They were flying him back to base. 

“What happened?”

“Suicide bomber. Got everyone but you. Even a few townsfolk standing outside, too.” 

“Why not me?”

“The blast threw you back into the kitchen. Most of the shrapnel hit the wall. For some reason, they made that wall really strong. Saved your life.” 

“Suggs? Jason? Steve? The rest?” 

“All gone, son.” 

“And the kid. How did he make it?” 

“What kid?” 


“That Kid. Right there. Sitting in the back, staring at us. How did he make it?” 

“There’s no one here, but me and you, son. No one but me and you.” 

Thomas stared at the Kid. The Kid stared back, saying nothing. 

“Why me?” Thomas  said. “Why me?” He broke down and sobbed. 

There was silence around him as he sobbed. The band had stopped playing, the audience had grown quiet. Everyone looked at him with sad, questioning eyes. 

Cheri ran onstage and hugged her husband. SHe helped him down from his drumkit. 

“He’s alright,” she said, “He’ll be fine.” 

The audience cheered. The band began tearing down their equipment. Cheri st Thomas down in a lounger a few feet away and handed him a beer. 

“You need to see Dr. Feldman this week,” she said. “And I’ll ride with you wherever you need to ride to get past this. You hear me, Tom? I’m with you the whole way.” 

“I hear you.” 

“You need anything?” 

“Just a few minutes,” he said. Cheri went off to help clean up dishes from dinner as the party continued around them. 

The Kid sat down next to Thomas. 

“You know. I’ve hated you for a long time. Each time you show up, I hate you for killing my friends. I hate you or NOT killing me.” Thomas took a drink from his beer and looked at the night sky. 

“But it wasn’t your fault. You were a kid. I could tell from your eyes, you were terrified. No one else saw it. But I saw it, and I knew. You were terrified.” 

Thomas looked at the kid. The kid looked at Thomas. 


“It wasn’t your fault, kid.” 

“It wasn’t your fault, either, Thomas,” The kid said. 

“It feels that way, sometimes. A lot of the time.” 

“I know,” The kid said “But it wasn’t your fault, either.” 

Thomas looked up to the stars again and wept, quietly, this time. 

A while later, the crowd had diminished. The few families that were left gathered around the picnic table in Thomas Brown’s backyard. Everyone told stories. 

“I’m tired of these same, old games,” one fo the men said. “Anyone got a new game we can play?” 

“I have an idea,” Thomas said “It’s a card game. It’s a lot like Spades. Euchre, Hearts, and Rummy, too. You need three decks, though.” 

“Why not just play Euchre with one deck,” one of the wives said. “Seems simpler.” 

“That’s what I thought, but trust me. You’ll see how much fun it is once you learn.” 

Thomas dealt the cards, and the Annual Burley Circle Memorial Day Celebration continued for a while longer. After one or two hands, Thomas smiled.  

The Day of Peace – Rob Cely

Rob Cely is great at asking questions that make you think. In today’s Memorial Day short story, Rob wonders what might happen if we make peace our ultimate and only goal. How much of a cost might we pay? And are we blind to the consequences.

Check out “The Day of Peace” by Rob Cely

Resolved, by Jamie D Greening

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fondue Writer’s Free Fiction party is starting up again, and what better way to lead us all off than to have our resident literarian (is “literarian” even a word? I think so! Let’s go with it), Jamie D Greening, start us off with a poem.

Check out Resolved, a wonderful Memorial Day poem from Literarian and all-around good guy, Jamie D Greening.

King Koopa Does It Again

I played a lot of video games as a kid, and one of my favorite things to do while playing video games was to complain that the game was cheating. 

You ever do that?

You fight and fight to get to the end of whatever Mario Brothers game you’re playing, and then King Koopa shoots you with a fireball before you have a chance to move and that’s it. Game over. So sorry. 

“The game is cheating again!” I’d tell my Dad. 

“No, it’s not,” my Dad told me. “You just suck. You need to figure it out.” 

I’d grumble and grunt about Dad being Old & Out of Touch. But, inevitably, I’d learn to zig where I used to zag, dodging Koopa’s fireball, allowing me to win the game (either that or get shot by all NEW fireballs. One or the other). 

The lesson is clear. More often than not, the obstacles we run into are not the results of some grand conspiracy. The world is not set against you. You just suck, and you need to learn to do it (whatever IT is) better. Yes, there are some instances where the system is unfair. We can talk about those some other time. For the most part, though, if you have to decide whether it’s you or the system that needs to change, the answer is You. 

I lost the District 4 International Speech Contest last weekend. 

That’s not exactly right. I was technically the third place winner. That puts me in roughly the top 350-400 people out of over 30K who started the contest back in January. That ain’t nothing to sneeze at. 

But it’s not what I wanted. I’ve been to this level many times before and, while I really really felt like this might be my year, I still didn’t make it. Koopa shot me with the same damn fireball he’s caught me with each of the last twelve years. 

A friend asked me how I was feeling shortly afterward, and I said I was pissed. For an hour or so, thoughts like “Those judges don’t know what they’re doing!” and “I’m never doing this again!” crossed my mind. Self-centered, petulant b.s. to be sure, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from competing in (and not winning) this contest for over a decade now, it’s that you have to take anything said by a contestant who recently met the end of their contest season with a grain of salt. The amount of work, time, and energy put into developing a speech at nearly any level is astounding, and to have that all just END … RIGHT NOW … it takes a few hours or maybe days to let it go. If I extend the same grace to other competitors who’ve lost, I should probably extend that to myself as well. 

I wrote back to my friend the following day to say that I wasn’t really pissed … just disappointed. And even that isn’t right. I went back to watch the video of the contest, and I could see areas where I needed to improve. I watched the winner’s speech again and saw what it was that made his speech better than mine. Once again, the game wasn’t cheating. The judges got it right. I just need to get better next time around. 

You can see the same thing in your work. You hit roadblocks. Your career stalls. The skills that got you here won’t get you there. Something new has to happen or Koopa will hit you with that same old fireball. Not because he’s cheating, but because you need to learn to zig instead of zagging. 

The truth is, you might zig and zag for a very long time and still catch Koopa’s best. You might still fail. OVer and over and over. Most of us have been there. The defining difference here is not whether you learn to skate past whichever obstacle is holding you back. There will be even more challenging obstacles just around the corner: the kind of stuff that make This Present Difficulty pale in comparison. 

What matters is whether, after you’ve been knocked down the third, fourth or fifth time … or, in my case, the tenth time over a decade of trying … you have the willingness to get up and try it again. 

Well, do you? 

Last night, when I found myself with a few moments of free time, I started jotting down notes for next year’s speech contest speech. I’m still having fun with it. And, let’s be honest, I’m a glutton for punishment with it comes to these things. 

P.S. 

Keep an eye out for Suraj Venkateswaran. His speech was amazing. He’s gonna take over the world. 

Communities

Round 4 (of 6 or 7, depending on how you count it) of the Toastmasters International World Championship of Public Speaking fast approaches … at least for me. Most places around the world have either already crowned their District champs or will do so this weekend.

Those of us who are still left are frantically practicing our speeches, trying to find that extra edge, that extra je ne sais pas that will put us over the edge to win not only the Round 4 District contests in front of us, but also the Regional Qualifier. They send a video of each of the winners of Round 4 to the Video qualifier, and the winners of THAT qualifier get to compete in the semifinals … which is either Round 6 or Round 5.

Like I said: depending on how you count it.

To put things in perspective: Anywhere from 30K – 40K accomplished speakers from 130-ish different countries started this contest back in January. At the Round 4 District level, there are maybe 800-900 left. You win that, you’re top 100-150. You make it to the Semifinals now, you’re top 25-ish.

These next few weeks, a lot of dreams will come true, and a lot more will get crushed with the always disheartening “Congrats on an amazing speech! Better luck next year…”

You’d think this would be where things get more cutthroat. Where those who have made it this far SNIP and SNARL at each other, protecting their speeches from any potential intruders, always wary of someone looking to cross a moral line in search of victory.

That’s how most of the rest of the world works, right?

Not here, though. At least: not most of us.

Just this week, I got together with some friends who are still in the contest to run through our speeches, work out some of the kinks, and help each other get better. We’re not competing against each other – not yet, anyway. No, we have our own districts to worry about at present, and we took turns running through our speeches over Zoom, then discussing some of the different way we might approach things.

For me, this was an invaluable practice session. It’s easy to get caught up in your own head, to get TOO CLOSE to the material. When you have the gift of feedback from accomplished professionals (and also: me), it can help you achieve breakthroughs you might not otherwise have seen.

It was like we had our own, little Nash Equilibrium, right there in the Zoom space.

My contest in May 14. District 4 if you’re interested. I’m proud of the speech I’m doing this year. I’m excited to give it, and I hope it means something to those of you who have heard it or will hear it.

I don’t know what will happen that day. I might get to keep going. I might get handed my “better luck next year” condolences trophy. Either way, working this hard on something and being a part of others working equally as hard on THEIR something has been a big joy this time around.

I hope you can find similar communities for the stuff you’re doing. Life really is better lived with other people.

A Passover for Maxwell Bennett

Death rarely makes house calls. But, in the case of Maxwell Bennett, he made a happy exception. 

Maxwell Bennett had been on Death’s short list for several years, much longer than any of the other miraculous escapees. Most people cheat Death at least once or twice in their lives. That’s a given. You turn left when you were supposed to have turned right, and the horrific car crash you get T-boned by a logging truck or electrocuted by a downed transformer doesn’t happen. You and everyone else go about your days none the wiser, unaware how close you came to your end. 

But Death knows. 

Death can see the results of each non-choice played out to its conclusion. Maybe not the ENTIRE consequence of each non-choice – only God can do that – but for at least a few weeks or months, he sees what might have happened to you, and he knows how close the two of you were to finally meeting. 

There are a few charmed folks, the aforementioned miraculous escapees, who seem to have a preternatural understanding of Death’s plans for their final moments. They’ll get an odd feeling in the pit of their stomach or an itch in their skin, they zig when they were supposed to have zagged, and their grisly demise becomes a pleasant afternoon in the park. This has often perplexed Death, making him wonder whether these people have some deeper insight into the machinations of all things, or if they’re just lucky. 

They can’t last forever, though. No one can. They’ll skate by for a few weeks, maybe a year. Then, one day, when they’re not looking, a bus catches them with their foot off the curb, or they’re out celebrating a friend’s wedding and that nasty shellfish allergy they didn’t know they had finally catches up to them, and that’s that. Deaths books are in order once again, and all is right with the world. 

There are these people. And then there’s Maxwell Bennett. 

Death had been tracking Maxwell Bennett for a long time; most of his life, in fact. 

The first time Maxwell Bennett was supposed to have died, he was only a year and a half old. Little Maxwell had a nasty cough, and his mother, who hadn’t slept a wink in three whole days, gave him a dose of adult cough medicine to get him down. She left the unopened bottle next to his crib and, in the middle of the night, when Little Maxie woke up, he grabbed the cough medicine like it was his bottle and downed the whole thing in one gulp. 

That should have been enough to do him in, but his teeth had just broken through his gums, and as he laid down to go back to sleep, he soothed the pain in his mouth by gnawing on the wooden posts of his bed, dislodging several splinters into his mouth in the process. This new pain woke him up immediately, and the force of his screams did what no medically administered ipecac would have, ejecting the recently consumed bottle of cough syrup all over his bed, his room, and himself. 

Mrs Bennett, unaware of the tragedy that would have ensued – should have ensued – had it been any other child, was none too pleased at the prospect of cleaning up the vomitous expectoration in her son’s room in addition to yet another sleepless night. 

When he was eight, he rode his brand new BMX bicycle down a large, grass hill, through the remnants of a wire fence denoting the property line on a farm that had long since been abandoned. Maxwell was a small boy, and the chinstrap on his helmet hung low. As he passed through at breakneck speeds, a taught cord of low-hanging wire caught the chinstrap and knocked him off his bike. He suffered a bruised tailbone instead of the outright decapitation that would have been the case for normal boys with properly positioned protective gear.. 

At ten, as Maxwell Bennett prepared to take his turn at bat in a Little League baseball game, he walked right up next to the hitter on deck just as the hitter took his practice homerun swing. He would have caught a metal bat to the face had he not ducked at just the right moment to tie his shoes. As things stood, Maxwell’s teammate struck out, and Maxwell hit into an inning-ending double-play. 

Maxwell loved baseball, but baseball rarely loved him back. 

Shortly after Maxwell’s twelfth birthday, the neighbor’s rabid pit bull attacked when Maxwell was cutting the grass behind his house. But because the canine had dislodged most of his teeth fighting a rogue German Shepherd down the street the previous night, none of the bites broke the skin. Instead, the teeth fell out of the dog’s mouth at first bite, and all Maxwell got was loud barking, a few scratches, and enough drool to fill a very large bucket. The doctors who checked him out said he was extremely lucky. “It’s a miracle!” they said. 

But it wasn’t a miracle. It was just Maxwell Bennett. 

Death’s record followed Maxwell Bennett into adulthood, enough to fill several notebooks. A near tragedy involving a table saw in high school that should have cut into his jugular, a hidden chicken bone at a sports bar on a night out with friends in college that should have become lodged in his throat, a mass shooting at a mall in Kentucky where he would have been gunned down by a madman if only he hadn’t got pulled over for running a red light two blocks shy of the mall. 

“I’m sorry, officer,” Maxwell Bennett said. “To be honest, I was distracted by a text on my phone and I didn’t see the light.” 

“Be careful, son,” the officer said, as emergency vehicles sped past them on the way to the mall. “This could have been a tragedy.”

Death just stood by and watched in disbelief. What else could he do? For nearly forty two years, whatever Death threw at him, Maxwell Bennett seemed to dodge with ease. The final tally, according to the now voluminous series of notebooks in Death’s accounting, included 792 missed encounters with wild animals, 2,297 failed food-related accidents, 4,256 missed car accidents, 1,406 walking/hiking accidents, and an eight month relationship with 1 red head who had learned from her mother how to kill a man with a ball peen hammer and dispose of the body in lye. 

Unable to ply her trade with Maxwell Bennett, the red head moved on to an author of submarine fiction in Vermont, where she was much more successful. The lye pits near Manchester proved particularly useful. 

This night, however, would be different. Death would look Maxwell Bennet in the face. And when the night was over, he could finally put a close to the most troublesome accounting problem he’d had since the births of both Methuselah and Keith Richards. 

Death walked up to the door, and knocked three times. MAxwell Benett opened it. 

“Hello,” he said. “I’ve been expecting you.” 

“You have?” 

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I? Everyone says you’re inevitable, right? You and taxes?” 

Death sighed, put his hand on the door frame, pulled it away quickly, wiping off the sticky scumon his jeans. 

“The problem with all those quotes about Death is 99% of the people who say them are still alive.” 

“What do the 1% who are dead, say?” 

“Want to find out?” 

“We’ll see,” Maxwell Bennett said, smiling. “We’ll see. Come in. Sit down. Dinner’s almost ready.” He turned around, headed for the kitchen. The sound of pots and pans being moved about emanated from the doorway.  

“Dinner?” Death stepped into the apartment and looked around, as if expecting some sort of trap. When no immediate attack presented itself, he shrugged, stepped in further, and took a seat at the kitchen table. 

“So what brings you here?” Maxwell Bennett asked. 

“I’ve been following you since you were a boy. All the many ways you’ve cheated me over the years. Your name is first on my list, and I plan to collect.” 

Maxwell Bennett laughed from the kitchen. 

“Have you been practicing that line? If so, you need to keep working on it. You sound like McDonald’s employee asking me if I want fries with my meal.” A cabinet door slammed. “Put some growl into it, some menage. You know? Really put some stank on it.”

Maxwell stuck his head out of the kitchen doorway. “Can I get you a drink? Beer? Glass of wine? Orange Juice, maybe?”

“Water is fine, thanks.”

“Sure thing.” Maxell returned to rummaging in the kitchen.

Death stared at the space in the kitchen door where Maxwell’s head used to be.

“You know, most people try to bargain with me when they find out who I am. They offer me gifts, riches, keys to their tiny, little kingdoms. Most people are afraid. But you…”

Maxwell Bennett stepped back into the dining room with a large plate.

“You serve me dinner?”

“It would be rude of me not to,” Maxwell said. “Besides, this is a special dinner.”

Death took the plate from Maxwell Bennet and set it on the table. The bitter herbs, romaine lettuce, charoset, karpas, a roast egg, and a roasted lamb bone. .

“Is this what I think it is? Is this a Seder plate?”

“Of course! It’s Passover, is it not? Are you familiar with Passover?”

Death grunted. “Of course. I was there at the first one, remember? They were trying to avoid seeing me.”

“Ah, yes,” Maxwell said. “I forgot.”

“I don’t understand, though. You’re not even Jewish.”

“You don’t have to be Jewish to celebrate Passover. God loves everyone, even us Gentiles, and we can celebrate him.”

Death smiled. “I see your plan, now,” he said. “You think affecting these rituals will keep me at bay like it did for Moses back in Egypt. Well, it won’t work.”

“No. I just had some extra lamb bones and charoset lying around, and I thought: ‘Why not?’ I had this feeling you know?”

Death swiveled his head to the corners of the apartment. Each of the miraculous escapees had reported these feelings just before escaping Death’s various traps. He wondered what trickery was at play.

Maxwell Bennet smiled, and waited.

“Well, at least you could have let me know. I’d have brought some bread to share. In fact, if you’ll allow, I can step out for just a moment and get the finest of loaves one can find in the farthest reaches of the Mediterranean. Your mouth will water just from the smell. And the taste! Oh, you will spend the rest of our life searching and never find a bread with a taste such as this.”

Matthew picked up two brown, paper bags.

“I got this Matzo at WalMart. Manager’s special! It was on sale for $1.95 with a BOGO discount. Can you believe that? I think it will work for us just fine. Plus, we need more than just bread to live, don’t we? Isn’t that in the Bible somewhere?”

“It is,” Death said. “It is.”  Death took a sip from his water. He appeared lost in thought.

Maxwell sat up straight.

“Now that the sun has gone down and we have the elements in place, why don’t we begin?Mind if I do the honors?”

“Of course.”

“True,” Maxwell Bennett said, and began.

Maxwell bowed his head to pray. Death eyed him warily.

“The sixth day. And the heavens and the earth and all that filled them were complete. And on the seventh day God completed the labor He had performed, and He refrained on the seventh day from all the labor which He had performed. And God blessed the seventh day and He sanctified it, for He then refrained from all his labor – from the act of creation that God had performed.

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who sanctified us with His commandments, and hoped for us, and with love and intent invested us with His sacred Sabbath, as a memorial to the deed of Creation. It is the first among the holy festivals, commemorating the exodus from Egypt. For You chose us, and sanctified us, out of all nations, and with love and intent You invested us with Your Holy Sabbath.”

When Maxwell paused for breath, Death interrupted with a question.

“Tell me, Maxwell Bennett. How did you come to escape me all these years? Do you think God loves you more than everyone else?”

“No,” Maxwell Bennett said. “If that were true, the Cincinnati Bengals would have won the Super Bowl last year. I’ve been a Bengals fan since I was a kid. I love my family and friends and I help out in my community, but the one thing I’ve consistently prayed for my whole life was for the Bengals to win a Super Bowl. I figure if God loved me more than everyone else, he’d have made that happen by now.”

“But how can you tell? What if you are favored among men? Just imaging what you could do?”

“It’d be fun,” Maxwell said. “I bet I could finally get high average for my bowling league some season.”

“Here.” Death picked up a large carving knife and handed it to Maxwell. “Take this knife. Thrust it into your stomach. If God really does favor you, he will stop you from killing yourself. Then, you will know and will finally be able to celebrate.”

Maxwell laughed. “Can you imagine me showing up at the hospital with a carving knife sticking out of my gut? And when the doctors ask what happened, I tell them: ‘I was just checking to see if God loved me?’”

Maxwell took a long drink from his wine.

“Plus, whether God loves me a lot or just a little, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go testing him like that. I’ve seen a lot of televangelists go down that route, and that ain’t me.”

“What if it is?”

“Did you see Tammy Faye Baker’s tattooed mascara tears back in the day?” MAxwell asked, washing his hands. “Uh uh, Bubba. I don’t want nothing to do with the kind of thing that make people do that to themselves.”

Death laughed. Maxwell dipped vegetables into the charset and handed some to Death. Death declined. Maxwell shrugged and ate the vegetables anyway.

“You’re funny,” he said. “You’ve got a remarkable personality. Have you considered doing a podcast or TikTok or something?”

“There’s this friend of mine in Texas who does a podcast with his church. It’s called ‘Under The Water Tower.’ I thought about doing a response podcast to his podcast once. I’d call it ‘Water Tower Adjacent,’ and I’d spend my time making jokes at his expense.”

“That sounds promising. What if I could help you grow your podcast – or TikTok or YouTube Channel or whatever? What if you could get your words into every corner of the earth? Does that sound like something that would interest you? All you’d have to do is follow me.”

Maxwell Bennett was confused.

“Follow you? Like on Twitter?”

“No. Like follow my lead. Go where I tell you to go. Worship me.”

“Oh, absolutely not. My friends all tell me I’m a #nofilter kind of guy. I get myself a podcast and get the word out to the whole world, I’m liable to say something stupid. And what then? I’ve got a record of me making an ass of myself for everyone to see.”

“Don’t you already have a blog?” Death asked.

“Nobody reads blogs,” Mawell Bennet said. “And anyway. The way I figure it, worshipping God is what got me this far. I might as well keep at it now. No one’s better than him, right?”

“Right,” Death said, frustrated.

“We’re at the part where we recite the story of Exodus. Would you care to do the honors?” Maxwell asked.

“I think your passover tradition has already done its job,” Death said, standing up. He reached to shake Maxwell’s Hand. Maxwell reciprocated.

“It’s been a pleasure meeting you,” Maxwell said.

“Likewise,” Death said, and he left.

Maxwell shrugged, sat down.

“Now, I’ve got to do this all by myself,” he said as he thumbed through a well-worn Bible to the book of Exodus. Of all the weird things to happen in his life, this was by far the weirdest.

Maxwell was about to close his eyes to begin the prayers, when he noticed a slip of paper next to the chair where Death so recently sat. He opened it.

“Dear Maxwell. It truly was a pleasure meeting you this evening. You are a good man. Stay strong in the faith and God will see you through many struggles. Sincerely, Death.”

Maxwell Bennett flipped the page over, where the note continued.

“P.S. See you in six months.”

Maxwell Bennett smiled. “We’ll see,” he said. “We’ll see.”