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. 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.”

Something Might Happen

Dad said not to bring my glove. “We’re all the way up in the red seats,” he said.“No one’s gonna hit it up there.” Then, as if to emphasize the point, “No way. Not. At. All.”

But I brought it anyway.

It was an early April morning in 1988. The late ’80s were good years – after Pete Rose had broken the record but before the mess of banishment – when the Reds seemed to always finish second to the Dodgers, Giants, or Astros, no matter how hard they tried.

Dad and I rode a city bus down Winton Road from the northern suburbs, through St. Bernard, through Corryville, past UC, and straight through Over the Rhine like a Barry Larkin line drive, ending up on Fountain Square an hour ahead of the Findlay Market parade. It was Opening Day, the holiest of baseball holidays, and we reveled in our annual pilgrimage.

I held the glove under my left arm. Dad eyed me sideways. “You never know,” I said. “Something might happen.”

Dad got a coffee, I opened a bag of peanuts, and we sat on the steps overlooking Fifth Street. The crowds started to gather. “Tell me the Johnny Bench story again,” I said, and he launched into an elaborate tale of the time, when he was in middle school, he and a friend got a ride home from Crosley Field with the new Rookie catcher, Johnny Bench.

“He rolled up to us in a big convertible and said, “You boys need a lift? Of course we said yes, and he drove us all the way home.”

“What did you talk about?”

“Nothing. We was both too scared to say anything, so we sat in silence the whole way.”

The parade started. Marching bands, decorated Cadillacs carrying politicians, and elaborate floats with local celebrities carrying signs for hometown staples like Goldstar Chili and JTM hamburgers went by in quick succession. When the last float passed, the crowd flowed in behind, following the parade like a jubilant, New Orleans wake, down to Riverfront Stadium for the start of a brand new season.

We made it to our seats high up in the red seats about as far away from the field as you could get.

“You think the Reds have a chance this year?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Dad said. “Soto’s washed up, Bo Diaz is a rusted out, chain-link fence behind the plate, and I’m still not sure about Larkin over Stillwell at short.”

I soured a little. He noticed.

“Then again, that Tom Browning is pretty good, Eric Davis can hit the cover off the ball, and with Franco closing, you never know…”

“Something might happen,” we said together, and laughed. It was always easy to laugh when it was him and me.

The game was a tough one. Mario Soto gave up an early lead to the Cardinals. He was, indeed, washed up, which didn’t bode well for the season. The Reds were down 4-1 in the sixth, but battled back to a tie in the seventh and took it to extra innings.

“More baseball for the exact same price!” Dad used to say.

The game was fun, but I wanted a ball. I stood for most of the afternoon with my glove on my hand, ready. Dad just shook his head like he knew something I didn’t.

For a while, it seemed like that might be the case but, in the 11th, Tracey Jones tagged a foul shot off of a Cardinal reliever, and I watched as the ball soared up to our section.

“Go for it!”

I ran down the steps to the front row, reaching my glove as far out over the railing as I could, hoping for a miracle. The ball danced around the webbing at the tip of my glove, then bounced away, falling to the blue seats below. I returned to my seat, dejected.

“That’s alright,” Dad said. “You’ll get the next one.”

But the next one didn’t come. Not then, anyway. Kal Daniels knocked in a run in the the twelfth, “And this one belongs to the Reds!” everyone shouted, mimicking Marty Brennaman’s signature phrase. The Reds won 5-4 and, right then, everyone in the stands truly believed that day’s success would carry us all the way to the World Series.

Opening Day does that to you, somehow. It makes believers out of all of us.

I fell asleep on the bus afterward. Dad carried me from the bus stop to our house, my glove secured safely in his left arm, the same way he carried his glove when he was young. The same way my kids carry their gloves today. The sins and graces of the father passing down unto multiple generations, forever and ever, Amen.

It was a good day.

It was a good year, too. Chris Sabo got his start, and it wasn’t long before all the kids in my school wanted their own pair of Spuds McKenzie goggles. Danny Jackson won 23 games and would have won a Cy Young, too, if not for Orel Hershiser. Tom Browning threw a perfect game and Ron Robinson came within one strike of the same feat, too.

The Reds hosted the All Star Game, with Barry Larkin – who really WAS better than Kurt Stillwell it turned out – on the team, proving himself more than capable of carrying Concepcion’s mantle.

Dad and I went to a lot of games that year and in the years to follow. But nothing beats Opening Day. No matter how bad the Reds are, no matter how bleak the prospects, on Opening Day anything is possible. On Opening Day, the slate is clean and the entire season stretches out in front of you like a dream.

Another Opening Day is right around the corner. The Redlegs could tank, sure, but you never know. Magic could strike at any time. It happens. All it takes is the willingness to believe, just for a day. So grab your glove, keep your eyes open, and wait for something to happen.

Because on Opening Day, something always does.

Caramel Hill – A Free Easter Story from Jamie D Greening

The Fondue Writers are back, and this time we’re tackling Easter WITH A VENGEANCE.

Okay, so we’re not really tackling Easter, per se. We’re really more addressing it. Or commenting on it. Or writing free fiction about it. You get the idea.

Whatever it we’re doing to Easter … we are definitely doing it … WITH A VENGEANCE. That much I can assure you.

Leading us off for the Easter Explode-A-Ganza is our dear friend from Austin, Texas: Jamie D Greening. And BOY does Jamie have a good yarn for you. If all the pomp and circumstance around Easter – and most holidays in general – seems a bit STRANGE to you, well, you’re gonna like checking out “CARAMEL HILL.” 



Jamie’s got a lot of other stuff you can read at his website, jamiegreening.com, including his wildly popular Butch Gregory series (see The Little Girl Waits, How Great is the Darkness, and A Dream Within). Jamie has a few books in the works coming out later this year as well.

Stick with us for the next two weeks as we bring to you at least six short stories (one of which is from Yours Truly!) to help make your Easter Dreams come true. Or stop them. Whichever it is you’re looking for … We got you covered. 

Rejoice! Free Fiction is Upon Us Yet Again! Rejoice!