Love – Hate – Love


three stories


LOVE 1.0

a short story

by Michael C. Just

“I hate him.”

Candace smiled and nodded. She adjusted the gain on her speaker and clicked off her email to increase the bandwidth on the image. Sam came into resolution a little clearer.

“Are you still engaged?” Candace wondered.

Sam shrugged.

“You can’t spend this much time with someone and not get on each other’s nerves,” Candace offered to her patient.

“I am so glad this happened before the wedding.”

“But you’ve called off the wedding five times.”

“Sixth time’s a charm.”

“I hate her.”

Candace smiled and nodded to her screen. “Have you called off the engagement?” she wondered.

“Yeah. By mutual engagement. You know, we were never well matched. She’s got the PhD, ’n all.”

“Kind of like me.”

“Yeah, kinda like you.”

“We’ve talked about this before, Dennis. She doesn’t mind that you’re a truck driver.”

“Yeah, well, maybe I mind.”

Candace adjusted her screen so that she could see both her face and her client’s at the same time.

They didn’t know about each other, Dennis and Sam. They didn’t know that Candace was seeing them both. And she couldn’t tell them. Ordinarily, for a psychotherapist not to disclose such an important fact would be malpractice, but the way the confidentiality laws were, and the way the cases developed, Dr. Candace Donald was seeing the two halves of a couple, but was unable to tell either half about the other half’s status as a patient, much less the content of their conversations.

She couldn’t even bring up the subject, since to do so would be a breach of the confidentiality laws. It all evolved that way because she hadn’t discovered until well after she’d started seeing them both that they were partnered with the other. And she didn’t find out that they were seeing each other because of Sam’s paranoia. And because of the confidentiality documents they signed online prohibiting disclosure of their respective identities to any other party. Of course, the virus didn’t help.

Sam would absolutely not allow Candace to disclose the existence of her case to anyone. She was running for office again and was zealous about her private life. In the initial interview, she only said that she sought therapy because she was having problems with her life partner. For the next 6 sessions, that was all she talked about. Candace didn’t know the gender, the history, anything about that partner until Sam offered his name in their 7th session.

Dennis didn’t want his fiancé to know about him either, although at least he let her know it was a fiancé who identified as ‘she.’ Sam hadn’t told her that she was engaged.

And by the time Sam told Candace that her fiancé’s name was Dennis, she made it absolutely clear that there was to be no communicating with Dennis – in any way, through any medium.

“I don’t like him.”

“Maybe that’s an improvement,” Candace said to the freckled woman with luxuriant red hair that shimmered onscreen. “During our last session, you said that you hated him.”

“You can only hate what you love. ‘Like’ is closer to indifference, don’t you think?”

“I hadn’t thought about that, Sam.”

Sam was checking out something just below the screen. Finally, she lifted her fingers. She’d done them to match her lips. Flaming red.

Nails. That reminded Candace. She needed to nail that picket back to her fence in the garden out front.

“Are you still living together?” Sam asked.

“Of course, we’re still living together. He doesn’t have anywhere to go. He’s a truck driver who’s been furloughed. That means he doesn’t have any income. And even if he did, who the hell wants to move during a fucking pandemic?”

“I hadn’t thought of that.”

Well start thinking about things. I pay you $200 a session to think for me.”

I really don’t like you, Candace thought. “But I am curious as to what moved you from ‘hate’ to ‘don’t like,’” Candace said.

“Something he said at dinner last night. He said that it was more important for him to listen than to be heard.” Sam sighed, poured herself some coffee and looked at her phone.

Something I told him to say, Candace reflected.

“So, I started talking, and then I started bitching. And he just sat there and took it all, without saying a word. And when he was finished, he just said: ‘What I heard you say was…’ And then he repeated every word back to me. I mean, not word-for-word, but close enough to where I knew he’d got what I said to him. And then he added ‘Is that right?’ And it was right. He’d got it. The truck driver had gotten the lawyer.”

Candace made a note of it. Her coaching of Dennis was getting through to him. The note was for his file, not Sam’s.

“And then when I’m all done, he said: ‘Is there anything else?’ And I thought about it, and there were a couple a things I’d left out. So I dumped those on him, too. About how he dribbles urine in his underwear when he comes back from going in the middle of the night. About how he lets the hair grow out from the lobes of his ears and doesn’t use the electric shaver to get rid of it, or uses my electric leg trimmer to do it. So I dumped that shit on him. And he repeats: ‘What I heard you say was…Did I get that right?’ And he got it, for the most part. And when I was done, he asks if he can say something.”

Candace scribbled the notes now. Some for Sam’s chart, some for Dennis’s.

“And instead of lighting into him, I hear this thing unexpectedly coming up from my gut. And it’s these tears. And it’s because I finally felt like he heard me. And he just sits there without eating my steak tartar and lets me cry.”

Finally, some progress. It’s hard doing couples therapy when they’re not both in the room at the same time, especially when they don’t know about each other.

“And then I stop crying, and then he waits awhile, and then he asks me whether I’m finished, and I nod. And then he talks. And he tells me that he didn’t know. He didn’t know that it bothered me that he dribbled a little in his shorts, and that next time he’ll shake it a little bit more at 1 a.m. before he comes back to bed. And that he’ll use his own razor and trim his ears lobes. And then he says he’s done.

“And I say: ‘What I heard you say was that you didn’t know that you dribble in your shorts and that it bugs me that you use my Lady Schick Electric. Did I get that right?’”

No, Sam, you did not get that right, and that’s how I’ve been training you to use active listening techniques for the last few weeks, ever since you told me that you had, in fact, a fiancé.

“And he says: ‘Almost.’ He says: ‘I knew that I left a few drops of pee in my shorts, but I didn’t know that it bugged you.’

“And I repeat that, and then he says that I got that right. And I started crying again, because nobody ever told me that I heard them right. And then we started talking about all kinds of things. Like how I feel about his getting laid off at work, and how he feels about me running for Water Commissioner, and pretty soon we’re holding each other and kissing.”

Candace wrote a note: SEX?

“But we didn’t go beyond spooning.”

She crossed out SEX.

“And then the next morning, I get up and feel the same way, or pretty near the same, like I did before we had that long talk.”

“But different enough to move from hate to don’t like,” Candace added.

“Yeah, I guess. But most of it went away by this morning. He was his usual asshole self for breakfast.”

When Dennis told Candace about Sam and the problems they’d been having, she asked him if they wanted couples counseling. He’d said no, that he always felt ganged up on in couples work when he’d done it with Sam before. He’d used her name.


“Yeah, why? She’s a girl and not a boy. I ain’t gay.”

Aside from the sexism and homophobia, Candace had her suspicions that maybe Dennis had been referring to her Sam, but not too great. This was teletherapy, and the catchment Candace had drawn Dennis from and then Samantha from as individual clients was a county-wide area with a large metro area tucked within. What were the chances?

They were already into our 6th session together – Dennis and Candace – and Candace already had strict instructions from Sam, who was two sessions ahead of him, that under no circumstances was Candace ever to divulge to anyone, much less her fiancé, that she Sam was in therapy.

So, she couldn’t tell Dennis about Sam. But could she tell Sam about Dennis?

The more she thought about it, the more of a dilemma Candace had on her hands. She sought consultation. She referenced the books on ethics. She would need Dennis’s permission to tell Sam about Dennis. But she couldn’t get Dennis’s permission to tell Sam about him unless she told him why she needed it. Which would be to tell Dennis about Sam. So, she was stuck. She couldn’t tell either one about the other, and she had to go on treating them both. Neither one would consent to couple’s work. She was really Cyrano de Bergerac in this one.

“I don’t like her.”

“You don’t.” It was half-question, half-sigh. Dennis’s face kept jostling as he repositioned his phone on the truck’s dashboard. At least he wasn’t driving. Dennis had his own truck and he went out there for sessions so Sam wouldn’t know.

“I tried what you told me last week. I tried it last night.”

“Did it work?”

“At first, yeah. I mean, I listened to every word she said, Candace. And she’s just goin’ on ’n on about how I pee in bed – which I don’t – and about how I steal her razor on purpose so I can shave my balls. I only did it once ’cuz mine wasn’t chargin’.”

“U-huh.” He needed a shave, Candace thought. He looked like Fred Flintstone.

“And she’s just goin’ on ’n on about how this guy on her campaign staff is prob’ly a mole, and she starts cryin’. And I hold her even.” He stopped himself. I could see the tears well up in his eyes. Of the two of them, he was the real crier. There’s one every couple.


“And next mornin’, she’s the same. All bitchy and everything. A couple tears fell down his coppery cheeks, already red from the rosacea he didn’t treat.

“You know, Dennis, there’re a few stages in every relationship between partners.”

“Yeah. Lust. Addiction. Divorce. Murd—”

“No.” She cut him off. “There’s Eros. Yes, that is the chemical attraction that gets people together.”

Or you two would’ve never gotten together to begin with, she thought.

“He’s OK.”

“He is?”

“Yeah. Yesterday, he told he’d do whatever it took to hold the house down if I won.”

“That’s always been a big sticking point between the two of you; who’s responsible for the shopping. cleaning and cooking.”.

“Yup. Then he started talking about the stages in a relationship,” Sam said as she texted on her phone. She suffered from ADHD. “About the how the Greeks had different words for love. He talked about Eros. He said that that’s what got men and women together.”

Or women and women, as in my case.

“Or men and men. It doesn’t matter. He said that it’s all the same. The chemistry that gets people together, he said. And then, he talked about a bridge. Something called agape. How the Greeks would make each other’s citizens safe when they crossed out of their own city’s territory into the land of another city state. He said it was kind of like détente during the Cold War, where the U.S. and Russia didn’t link all their bad issues together. He called that ‘linkage’ when each side every issue to every other issue. But he said that with détente, each issue was negotiated, diplomatically-speaking, so that the two sides didn’t link it to any other issue. He’s getting this from someone. I don’t know who. He said that agape was like when he used to ride.”

Candance shrugged. She didn’t know what that meant.

“You know, motorcycles. He said that if you were patched, into a club, you had to call ahead and let the other clubs know you were gonna be riding through their territory, so you didn’t get stomped. Then they’d protect you, allow you through, when you went through their territory.”

“Give you safe passage.”

“Exactly. He said that that second kind of love – agape, which was really more like détente than the feeling of love – allowed a couple to get through the tough times in their relationship. It was like a bridge, he said. I don’t know where he’s getting this stuff. He doesn’t read books. I know that.”

Candace smiled.

“She’s alright.”

“You don’t say.” That’s better than hating her guts, I suppose.

“She told me about Philadelphia. You know what that means?”

“The Liberty Bell?”

“No. The City of Brotherly Love. Get with it.”

Candace played dumb, as always.

“She said that ‘philia’s’ the word for love without wantin’ anything back.” He chewed on his sub and Candace could see the lettuce. Yuck. But it meant she was seeing Dennis on his lunch hour. He was working again, which was good for the relationship since it balanced out the animus with the anima.

“No expectations? Is what philia means?”

“Exactly,” he said, and pointed at the screen. “She called it valuing somebody without expectations. She said that it was expectations – her expectin’ something – that always killed relationships. She said that the hard thing about couples stayin’ together was that you thought you always had a right to expect things from your husband.”

Or your wife.

“Yeah. She said that it was part of this K thing. Contract. ‘K’ means contract to lawyers. They got different words for everything. Anyway, to death do us part is hard ‘’cuz you always thought you had a right to expect something in return for what you gave: ‘Not cheating. Take out the garbage.’ It’s always something, she said. Either around sex or money. The sex part, she said, it made up such a small part of a relationship, but when it wasn’t workin’, it was big thing. You couldn’t win with sex. She always wants more than I do. We talked about that. She said she’d been unreasonable. Can you believe that?”

“Hmmm. You’ve said that it’s always been a big bone of connection between you.”

“A bone a something. Anyway, then she says that it’s either sex or money couples fight over. Sometimes kids, which we don’t got. And then she says it don’t bug her so much if I dribble a little bit in my shorts. And that it’s alright if I use her Lady Schick. Can you believe that?”

“Sounds like she’s changing.”

“Yeah. She’s goin back to bein’ the girl that I fell for. And pretty soon, I’m tellin’ her I’ll shake it a few more times at the toilet in the middle of the night, and then I go out and buy her a new razor! We’re fallin’ all over each other, bein’ nice.”

“Things are changing.”

“Damn right they are. We had sex for the first time in weeks last night.”

Candace thought she’d seen that warm glow.

“That’s real progress for you two.”

“Yeah, and we’re doin’ it all on our own. It’s like magic or somethin’.”

Or something.

“She’s alright, is what you’re saying, Dennis.”

“Yeah, she’s alright.”

“I like him.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, he’s really changing. You meet somebody and you fall in love. I mean, who thought I’d ever fall for a truck driver. I’m a lawyer, running for office in a small town.”

“For Water Commissioner.”

“Hey, everybody’s got to start somewhere,” she accused Candace onscreen.

‘No, that’s not how I meant it.”

Sam clacked her gum and drank her latte. “And I meet Dennis standing next to a keg at a pig roast. I tell him that Marcel Proust used to write in bed. He tells me it’s pronounced Proost, not Prowst. Right there, I look at the guy and know I could spend the rest of my life with him. He answered all my needs, all my wants, all my prayers.”

“Thought you didn’t believe in God.”

“I’m being metaphorical, ya dope.” She swilled the rest of the espresso and poured more. Sam drank five three-shot lattes a day.

Candace nodded and took off her spectacles and smiled. She thought she needed a haircut, even though her curly red hair barely made it over her ears.

“And then, somewhere along the line, after years with the guy, you wake up across the bed, and it’s like he’s a thousand miles away. He’s a stranger and I never knew him. He’s changed. He’s stopped loving me. He doesn’t even give a shit whether I live or die.”

Candace just nodded and put on her glasses. She’d seen the pattern before. She didn’t need to do much now but provide minimal encourages. The clients always did the work themselves after finding what they needed to find within them.

“And I gotta think, if I see that in him, he’s gotta see the same thing in me; that I’m a stranger to him, too” So I ask myself: ‘Why have we stopped giving each other what we need?’” She slabbed the purple bubble gum onto the side of her cup and with it came the pink stain of today’s lipstick. Samantha had a different shade for each day of the week.

“Why do you think?” Candace asked, almost perfunctorily.

Sam shrugged.

Candace couldn’t spoon feed her. That defeated the purpose of therapy.

She pulled out her pipe, packed it with dope, lit it, and started tugging, always a sign she was working out a problem.

“I think,” she said. “I think I stopped giving myself what I needed a long time ago. And then I looked for it in him, and when he couldn’t really give it to me, I blamed it on him. That’s what he said he’d done with me. Used me to try ’n fix himself.”.

That was Candace’s therapeutic interpretation, too. She’d given that to Dennis to give to Sam.

“I like her.”

“You do?”

“Yeah. You mind?” he asked as he puffed his Cuban cigar to life.

“Well, we’re not face-to-face, Dennis,” Candace remined him as he smoked up the cab of his truck.

“She’s started changin’ again. Bein’ who she was. She even did her hair like she used to when we first met.” His great big eyes smiled as he recalled it. “And she asked me out on a date like she did the first time we met.”

“Sounds like you’re re-romanticizing your relationship. I’d told her to—” Oops.

“You told who to?” he inquired with winnowing eyes. “To do what?”

Candace had told her to ask Dennis out, but of course, he couldn’t know.

“How did you reciprocate?” she asked.

“I had this idea that that agape thing I read about.”

That I told you about, Dennis, she thought.

“I told her about it. She pronounced it like agape, like your mouth bein’ wide open. But I corrected her and told her it was ah-gop-eh. Almost led to a fight but I de-escalated with those Gottman exercises I read about.”

Like I taught you to, Candace reflected.

“I had this dream the other night that agape’s just a bridge to another kind of land, another kind of relationship,” he said.

“Another kind of love?” She led him, just a little.

“Yeah, exactly.”

When a client responded with those words, a therapist always knew she’d gotten it right. That payoff, that feeling inside when she did, it was why Candace did the work.

“I think I might love him.”

“You might?”

Samantha twirled her red hair the way a teenager might. She was in love alright, “But it’s not the kind of love we had before. Before, it was all passion and sex and romance. But that never lasts. I look at all these old couples that’ve been married forever, and they still get on each other’s nerves. My Auntie’s been married to my Uncle Pat forever. She says she still gets in the car sometimes and drives around the neighborhood after they fight, because he still drives her nuts with his nitpicking. He’s never stopped telling her how to run her kitchen, and they’ve been married 6 decades.”

“In a marriage, there are solvable problems and unsolvable ones.”

Sam snapped her fingers and pointed at the screen. “That’s exactly what Dennis said!”

Too on-the-nose, Candace. Be careful here.

“The solvable ones, he called them the things we can work on, like more sex and less urine dribbling at night and the Lady Schick on his ear lobes shit. But there are things we’re just gonna have to learn to live with, about each other I mean. Like how he hates how I’m running for office and won’t campaign with me, or how he’s always correcting me when I mispronounce a word. He likes Eugene O-Neil and Beth Henley.”

“The playwrights?”

She nodded. “I like Two and a-Half Men. Those, he says, are unsolvable problems. But they’re workable realities.”

“I’m curious what has to do with your Uncle and Auntie.”

“Well, they’re in their 80’s so I’m sure it’s not Charlie Harper every night in the boudoir if you know what I mean. But they’re happy. They don’t seem to want anything from each other.”

“Desireless valuing,” Candace supplied.

“That’s what he called it!”

“No, I think that’s what I told you it was. The third stage of love.”

“No, I don’t think so, Candace.” She eyed her therapist suspiciously.

Candace was forgetting who she supplied what with to give to who. What information did she plant with Dennis to give to Sam? It was the danger of doing couples therapy without either half of the couple knowing about it.

“I don’t think so,” Candace bluffed.

Sam stared at Candace. Candace held her breath. It felt like a bridge hand with no points.

Finally, Sam shrugged. “Maybe you did tell me,” she said. Candace released a silent sigh as she muted her zoom button.

“Anyway,” Sam said. “The engagement’s back on.”

For the millionth time, Candace thought.

“I think I love her.”

“Is that so?” Candace replied, a little under her breath.

“Yeah. She’s finally comin’ around.”

Candace raised a clinical eyebrow. “How so?”

“Well, she asked me to marry her again,” Dennis replied as he applied deodorant under his beach shirt in the cab of his truck. “And this time, I said yes.”

“Sounds like progress.” Candace smiled.

He nodded. “She’s really changed back to who she was.”

“Maybe you’ve changed, too, Dennis.”

“Maybe we both did.”

“Maybe so.”

“Yeah, so, maybe one more session. Whatdya think?”

Candace smiled, nodded.

“I love him.”


“Yes. He asked me to marry him again.”

“You did.”

“No. Pay attention, Candace. He asked me.

“Oh, my apologies.”

Sam flashed a victorious grin. “And this time, I said yes.”

“Sounds like all that hard work you’ve done has paid off.”

“He even agreed to go campaigning with me.”

“Now that is progress, Sam. I’m happy for you.”

“Yeah, and I’m doing all the work. I don’t think therapy’s been all that helpful, to tell you the truth, Candace.”

“I’m sorry I haven’t been able to be helpful.”

“And I said ‘Proust’ wrong again and he didn’t even correct me. And I mispronounced ‘anonymity,’ and he opened his mouth, then I saw him fold his tongue in half, and he said nothing.”

A strategy I gave him, Candace started to say, but then folded her tongue. “What was the context, of you’re using the word ‘anonymity,’ I mean?”

“Well, he told me he’d been in therapy, and I told him so was I!”


“And I asked him what he talked about, and he said that it was anonymous. But I remembered from law school that it was confidentiality that applies in therapy, not anonymity. So I corrected him, and he thanked me instead of swearing at me! I told him my therapy wasn’t doing all that much for me.”

“Okay. So, do you think that maybe we can get ready to terminate, since that was the problem you listed on your treatment plan? You and Dennis finally getting married?”

“So I asked him with who? And he says that’s confidential, too. Then he asks me with who, and I said what’s good for one is good for the other. And we agreed to disagree. I came up with this idea of agreeing to disagree. Some problems are just unsolvable, ya know?”

“A workable reality.”

“A what?”

“You know, one of those unsolvable disagreements that even successful couples get into every once in a while. Like my aunt and uncle. I gotta say: I learned more from them than I did from you.”

“You need to respect his privacy,” Candace suggested. “Just as he needs to respect yours.”

“So we made an agreement: never to ask each other who the other’s therapist was.”

Whew! Candace thought.

“So, can we make this our last session?”

Candace nodded, and smiled. Whew.

“I love her,” he said.

Candace smiled and nodded.

© 2020 by Michael C. Just

Mike’s novel, The Dirt: The Journey of a Mystic Cowboy, is available in softcover or eBook formats through Amazon.

You can purchase the book through this website. Or go straight to amazon at

Mike’s other titles, including The Crippy, The Mind Altar, and Canyon Calls, are available through Amazon at



a short story

by Michael C. Just

I worked as forensic psychologist part time to supplement the meager income I made in my private practice. I saw mostly Medicaid clients in my practice. And Medicaid didn’t pay much. And it didn’t pay for NC/NS, No Call/No Shows. So, I did evaluations for the courts. All kinds of evals, Psychosocials, Psychosexuals, PSI’s, evaluations for Competency, Fitness to Stand Trial, Custody, Parental Fitness.

Evals were laborious, but the courts paid well. Sometimes, I’d have to testify at trial, and they paid me at my hourly rate for that, including prep and travel time.

On the criminal side, the fact patterns were pretty gruesome. I was used to that. I used to work with sex offenders. The media was wrong. Most weren’t pedophiles and most didn’t re-offend, once they were caught. But after working five days a week with men who abused the underaged, on the weekends I had to take a psychic shower. I suffered from burn out, what was called compassion fatigue in my profession. I often wondered why I chose to work with people who scored over 33 on the Hare Psychopathy Index, the cutoff for antisocial personality disorder.

Because no one else would. Because they would and would judge their clients pretty harshly, trying to work out their own countertransference issues on males who, through the exercise of power and control, had disempowered themselves. Because everybody deserves a second chance, even my own abuser. Maybe by working with them, I was trying to fix him so he wouldn’t hurt any other child. He was my countertransference, which was just a five-syllable word for skeleton, for ghost, for shadow.

He’d been an older neighbor boy. This latest case had brought him back to mind. I wonder whatever did happen to him.

Anyway, the police reports said there’d been two roommates living in a small, rented house. Two men. One older man and one the younger. They’d been stuck in lockdown because of the virus. Though they worked outside, they were furloughed because a lot of the mills and factories were closed. So my client and his roommate were stranded without money. Their rental was out in the middle of nowhere, in the North Woods. In Wisconsin, that was nowhere.

I practiced in Madison. That was back in somewhere. I contracted to do the forensic interview. I had to travel up to the jail in Vilas County.

The drive up north always pulled memories from me. Maybe that’s why I thought of my twin. I believe the scents stirred those memories, good and bad. That green odor of pine as the farms gradually surrendered themselves to the evergreen forests in the great northern belt. My grandfather had lived up here, near Eagle River. I’d spent my summers here. That was where it happened, with our neighbor’s son.

I checked in at the Northernaire, an old hotel on the Three Lakes chain. The room was cold and stale, even in late spring. It had the smell that old hotels did. The paneling all local spruce poplar. The floors bare of anything but old, cold tile the color of pulp. No air conditioning. Old double beds with pilled green bedspreads. Prints of the endless forests decorated the walls. The one over the bed was of Iron Mountain. Or maybe it was Rib Mountain outside Wausau. Or even Baraboo farther south. No TV. An old dial phone. No internet hookup. Rust stains around the drains in the sink and bathtub, and water that smelled like stale eggs. It felt like I’d stepped into the early 1960’s. It felt perfect.

I washed up with the tiny square of soap left on the edge of the pink porcelain sink, made some very old and very bad coffee. Then I went for my first interview with Michael Gale Martin, alleged to have murdered Sidney Thomas, his roommate, with a chainsaw.

“Hi. I’m Doctor Candace Donald,” I greeted him. “I’ve been assigned by the State to conduct a an evaluation to determine whether you suffered from any psychiatric conditions at the time of your alleged offense.”

“You don’t remember me, do you?” he said from the other side of the glass.

“Should I?”

“You used to work down in Madison? With SO’s?”

“Are you a former client, Mr. Martin?”

“Call me Michael, please.”

“Michael are you a former client?”

“Of a kind, I s’pose.”

I hated it when they were abstruse like this. Playing games just to magnify their own sense of importance.

“Were you or were you not?”

He studied me with a distant look for a moment before he answered: “I was not.”

“Do you understand why I’m here?”

“To determine whether I was insane at the time of the commission of my crime.”

“Well, sanity is a legal determination that I’m not allowed to find. But I can aid the finder of fact in your court case in coming to such a conclusion.”

He snickered. “Boy, you are cold as tuna, aintcha?”

“I’m sorry?”

“Never mind. We cannot change our dispositions, I s’pose. We was born with ’em. Anyway, I been through these question and answer things maybe a dozen times, for everything from DUI to the battery of a peace officer. So I’m conversant. You can feel free to jump in without explanation.”

“Very well, Michael. Then let’s get started.”

And start we did. This would be a long session. Sanity Q & A’ were the longest of any forensic interview. So much was at stake, for everyone involved.

We went through preliminaries, and then began his developmental and family history. He kept studying me as if he were trying to place me, to recognize me from somewhere, his dry lips suffused with a grin of curiosity. He sat back on his stool as if to take all of me in at once.

“Did your parents stay married?”

“Yeah. ’til they died.”

“And do you have a close relationship between your brothers and sisters?”

“I haven’t seen ’em in years. My sister kept close, though.”

“Your twin?”


“When was the last time you had any contact with her?”

“Just before all this blew up.”

“You mean your charges?”

“No, I mean the virus.”

“About four months ago then, back at the end of March?”

“That’s when it all started, you know.”

What would that be?

“They say adversity builds character, ma’am.” He shook his head. “But I don’t think that’s the way it is.”

“What way is it then?”

“Adversity introduces us to ourselves. They say that, too.”

“Do you believe that?”

“What do you believe?” he said. “That’s what’s important.”

At first, I thought maybe he was being rhetorical. But when he didn’t reply, I realized he wanted me to.

He breathed out, and as he did so, he fogged up the glass that separated us. I almost felt he was trying to infect me with it. If he had it. The prison authorities wouldn’t tell me whether he did or not. Privacy. HIPAA, integrated with a dozen state laws protecting patients and inmates.

But the thick security glass separated us, and his gravelly voice crackled through a wire and not an aperture in a window. There was no way anything could get through. But what I’d begun to fear moving from him to me, already existed on my side of the glass.

“What I believe isn’t what we’re here to discuss,” I replied. “We’re here for your sanity eval—”

“—I’m sane. Put it down on that paper you got there. I ain’t trying to get outta nothing. I know I’m going away for natural life. After what I did.”

“Let’s start with that. What did you do?”

“You read the reports, from the police right?”

“It’s always best in your own words, though. The police can be biased.”

“Alright, if it makes you happy for your statement of facts. I took a Stihl 16-inch to him, and then he died.”

“Was it planned?”

He laughed. “Of course it was planned. My hand didn’t slip on the trigger, ma’am.”

“No, what I mean is, how long had you been thinking about it before you did it?”

He lathered his gray stubble with his long fingers. He had strong, bitten up hands, covered in white scars. “I never thought a that before,” he admitted. “I hated him though. I guess you don’t do what I did to another man unless you really hate his guts.”

“Who was he to you?”

“Whatdya mean, who was he? My roommate.”

“What I mean is, was he your friend? Your relative? You never told the police how you’d come to share a house with him?”

He shook his head. “He wasn’t no friend a mine. Wasn’t no blood a mine neither.”

His face changed. He swallowed as if he were digesting something, but at the same time, as if he were regurgitating a cud that had been down there in him for a long time. His eyes narrowed and he cast his irises low. He was about to confess. I’d seen it a hundred times.

“We met,” he swallowed dry, “in a bar. At Blackie’s, up near Iron River.” Then he glanced at me like he expected me to know it. “Wouldn’t expect you t’know it, but there’s a lot of lumber work up there. Woodsmen, we’re the bottom of the barrel.”

I took notes. The County wouldn’t let me in with any electronics.

“Don’t know a one that don’t drink. Most of us do meth or crush oxy or somethin’ to keep the pain away from the damage we done.”

I glanced up into his sunken eyes, caught the edges of his dark teeth. He was gray and the gray in his hair matched the gray in his skin. One shoulder higher than the other. His elbows sharp and boney. The whole man 6 feet tall, yet barely 150 pounds. He just waited for me take him in like that.

“We don’t got skills other than taking down trees. Most of us wander from job to job, from state to state. Depending on the season.”

He kept looking me over, up and down as far the glass that halved us would allow.

“Lotta times we shack up. Two or three to a trailer or a fifth wheel. I found this place on the edge of Rhinelander. Rent was month-to-month, but it was too much for me t’make. You put out the word when you’re on a crew in spring. By the end of the day, usually, you got some other poor cocksucker come up to you ’n tell you that yeah, he can float ya. He’ll come up with the cash next check.” He pushed his tongue out between the space for the missing incisor, and looked like a worm trying to get out of his rotting mouth.

“I had to front for him with the landlord. Not a big deal. I done it dozens a times over the years.”  He swathed the back of his neck with his great hand, knotted on the back with veins the way a gall swells a tree. He grimaced from some pain.

“We move in a week later. That’s when the virus hit. They close down the mills. Close down the forests. No more work. No more bars for drinkin’. We’re on lockdown.”

“And that’s when you killed him?” I said without looking up as I scribbled the facts.

He snickered, shook his head, and irritation spread across that face chiseled like pine bark. “Ma’am,” he said. “That was just the beginning.” He sniffed the air like he was retrieving a memory.

“It was a tiny place. Just the two bedrooms, a kitchen, a small living room. No carpet. Linoleum floors. Furnished. Had to use camphor for the bedbugs. Was all we could find. No TV. But hell, we bought enough beer to last 5 pandemics. Took up the whole fridge.”

I scribbled as fast as I could. My cursive was so bad, I only hoped I could read half of what I wrote. I had a theory that the longer you went to school the more abstract your handwriting.

“I ask him before he moves in: ‘Do you use?’ It was the one thing I always ask. ’Cuz it’s the one thing I cannot abide. He says ‘no.’ Puts his hands out like he’s declining another card from the deck. ‘No way,’ says he. ‘Gave that shit up years ago.’”

Q, I wrote. Client meth addict?”

“I walk into his room one day and he’s skin poppin’.”

I glanced up at him and he seemed to read my mind. “Me? I hadn’t used in years. That shit gets into you, man, turns you into a smile zombie overnight. I made a vow to my sons that I wouldn’t be doin’ meth no more. And I abided by that.”

“You have children?”

“Two boys. 12 and 15. They stay with my moms in Kansas. Down in Great Bend. That’s where I’m from. I send home the money. That’s what I do.”

His mouth pursed into a bitter regret and his eyes narrowed, as if he’d cry. “I haven’t been a good dad,” he whispered. “But it all starts when you’re a boy. Somethin’ happens to the boy. The boy acts it out, with somebody else.” I saw the regret on his face.

“Did you act it out with your boys?”

His somber expression turned into sour betrayal. “No. Why would you even think that?”

I allowed him his moment of indignation, then nodded for him to go on.

“I had no objection to the Leinenkugel that stocked the icebox and the extra cases we kept on the front porch in cold storage. I partook of plenty a that, ma’am. I don’t mind tellin’ you. But he wasn’t gonna be jammin’ that other shit up infronta me. I tole him before he moved in: no drugs.”

I saw the rage build in those fading eyes, the fire behind them. They clinched and his jaw clinched and the skin around his boney knuckles tightened. It was the first real anger he’d betrayed, and with that betrayal came the evidence that he could limb a man to death with a gas-powered saw.

“‘No. Don’t worry. I don’t do that shit no more. I learned, boy,” he mocked his victim with a whiney voice. “First night in, he’s fuckin around with a spike, all bunched up on his mattress. Skinny little fuck. I shoulda known.” And he held up his arms and the gray skin sagged off his bones in a demonstration of just what meth and its analogues could do to a man who used them for chronic pain, for the energy just to work in a job for which his body had long ago given out. He had all the hollows and hallmarks of addiction. “The house, it was out in the middle a nowhere.”

I pulled out the picture of the cottage from my file. It stood on an old logging camp in the National Forest land that bordered the U.P., the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It was one of those old, clapboard cottages, rotting away in the trackless, boreal forests. This region of the world got more snow than just about anywhere, owing to the effects of Lake Superior and the Superior Upland on which it stood. All those storms rotted the wood, and the white paint had peeled off the wooden slats, betraying gray bones. The tar shingle roof was carpeted with pine needles instead of rivets.

“I think the nearest other house, it was a few miles down the logging road.”

“Yeah,” I agreed as I put down the photo.

“We shoulda been posting double shifts 5, 6 days a week. But when the lockdown order came, they laid us all off. It was just me ’n him, stuck together in that little cabin. Didn’t have the money to head back to home, owin’ to the fact I’d put it all down on the rent. Landlord always wants first and last month’s rent, figurin’ you’ll skip. Plus, I figured the furlough would end soon enough.”

“What happened next?”

“Gets cold up there in the Superior Forest, cold well into June, Joo-lie, especially at night, Screens in the windows were all busted. Gotta have some woodsmoke to keep the skeeters out at night. So, we cut us up a couple cords from what we found near the cabin. You know, mostly beetled pine. In fact, he was up all night lumberin’. Draggin’ back trunks with his chain tied to his beat up ol’ Honda hatchback. Talkin’ to the trees. He tole me each one had its own personal-i-tee.”

“Had he been that way when you first met him?”

He shook his head.


“Whatever it was he was injectin’ inta his skin there. Bath salts. Kroc. I don’t fuckin’ know.”

I looked at the post mortems with a cold, clinical eye, the first batch taken on scene, the second on the slab. I’d seen thousands as a forensic psychologist.

The body was unrecognizable. The face a jigsaw of deep and superficial wounds, as wide as the chain. The nose a stump so I could see into the cavity. The lips excised. The neck garroted. A long incision along the sternum which I noted from the larynx to the testes. The arms and legs stumps. It may have been that he did it this way out of rage. Or it may have been an attempt to dispose of the body, maybe feed it to the wolves in pieces, in different parts of the forest to lessen chances of identification. I’d handled a case where the defendant, a veterinarian, had killed his wife, then cut off her hands and feet and her head and fed the parts to dogs that he was kenneling for vacationing owners. He got caught when one of the dogs excreted part of a finger while his owner was walking him.

They didn’t do a blood workup for the autopsy. Cause of death was kind of obvious, and a dead woodsman wasn’t really worth all that effort, especially during the time of the virus when the coroner had other DB’s piling up in her morgue.

“Anyway, he was tweakin’. I tole him, I said I can’t sleep with you runnin’ that saw all night.” He almost pled the words as if he was telling his victim all over again with those washed out eyes begging.

“He sits down on my bed. I mean, it’s tic season for Chrissake and he’s all dusted with litter ’n pulp.” I took his words down. They’d be the only words the judge would hear at his plea and sentencing. That gave me a certain amount of power. To portray the defendant like that at his allocution.

“Get the fuck off my bed!” he yelled, and I jumped back. The guard at the door looked over, but I wasn’t too concerned since my defendant was chained down. The other inmate sitting at the end of the row glanced over, too. “And I kicked that fucker off.”

He waited for me to finish my note. I didn’t even have to look up. He timed it perfectly, courteously.

“He don’t care. ‘The- the- the- the way it’s laid out is the key,’ he says. ‘It’s all preplanned, like a subdivision. They- they- they- they- they know. It’s all accordion to a preplanned plan.”

“‘Accordion?’ What the fuck you babblin’ about, boy? Thing is he never stuttered before. I knew all the signs. He was tweakin’ alright. That daddy was spikin’ up but good. It was 3 a.m. He was tweakin’ alright.” He said it with a hatred reserved for the drug, with a derision put upon his addict-victim, but meant for himself, too. Who he’d been. How he’d ruined his life and the lives of his sons.

He said he was a Kansan, but the PSI I’d gotten from pretrial services said he’d been born in the U.P., up in Marquette.

“‘Each tree’s got its own soul. If you think about all the hundreds of millions and billions of trees on the planet. Ya-, ya- ya- ya know there’s over three trillion trees on the planet Gaia, dontcha? Maybe we’re here for them and not the other way around. We harvest 10 billion a year, for a net netnetnetnet loss. In 300 years. They’re all gone man. Wh- wh- wh- where’s the old growth left up here, man, huh?’

“I kicked him again and he stood with his saw drippin’ chain oil all over the wood floor. GET THE FUCK OUTTA ERE WITH THAT THING!”

I reared back again.

“Stop shouting!” the C.O. barked from her post at the door.

“‘L- L- Look around you,” he says. ‘The floor, the walls,’ and his crazy greenish eyes scanned the ceiling. ‘The whole house. Yer bed, the dresser. Everything around us is made from ’em.’”

He waited for me to finish my note. “Then he just walked outta my room.”

I scribbled my notes in pencil. They wouldn’t allow in pens. Most jails weren’t so restrictive, but up here, in the North Woods, they were decades behind. As the eraser on its end ticked back and forth my writing, it occurred to me that the wood in my pencil had once been a tree.

“He finally run outta gas,” my defendant said. “I thought that’d be the end of it.”

He looked around the visiting room. White light buzzed in tubes underneath metal grates high above. Black-glassed cameras watched from quarter circles in the corners of the room. For some reason, the guard was absent, but the lone prisoner in the VR, my suspect, was chained to a stool mounted into the floor.

“Know what’s cruel?” he asked me.

I demurred.

“What’s cruel is takin’ away everything from a man, and not replacin’ it with nothin’.”

I decided to go with that. “What do you mean?”

“Shakespeare said intemperance is a cruel master. What’s crueler is takin away all the ways a man copes and not givin’ him nothin’ to cope with in their place. Like smokes, ’n beer, ’n the woods themselves.”

Social histories could be difficult when the person you were taking them from was a poor historian. Michael Gale Martin was different. He was lucid, not tangential. His memory was intact. He didn’t enjoy the stage as much as he seemed to have the need to unburden himself. I found myself patient with him. Some clients you like, some you don’t. Despite what he’d done, he was drawing me in.

“That’s what happens when you’re in stir, ma’am.” He chewed on what appeared to be a strip of paper, maybe left over from a breakfast napkin. Who knew? “You end up with just yerself, ’n yer memories a what you done. Lotta guys get locked up ’n they think their memories will save ’em. But you can’t recapture your first lay, or the day’s first cigarette. You try t’do that, you get stuck in time. You keep goin’ back to the well. That’s what addiction is. Sooner or later, they gotta take it away from you.”

“So what about you?”

He ignored the question. “That man, he lived to cut. He loved to take trees down. The compulsion was in him. He had to find a way t’do it until the meth worked its way out of his system.”

“What did he replace his addiction with when he ran out of gas?”

“When he ran outta fuel for his saw, he found an old handsaw and he started limbin’ all the trunks he’d felled with the Stihl. But then he ran outta gas. The drug in him wore off. He fell out. He slept.”

He lathered the stubble on the sharp corners of his chin and I noticed that half of one of his pinkies was missing. How come I hadn’t seen that before. It wasn’t in the medical screen. But then, a man like this had all kinds of damage he woke with every morning and worked with every day. He’d take something like a missing finger for granted, where the more civilized among us would complain.

“For days he slept. He’d wake up, drink some a that cold well water from the tap. We didn’t have no hot water for showers ’n such. Didn’t even have no shower or tub in that ol’ cottage. Just a sink ’n toilet with the flush overhead on a chain. He woke up every other day or so that first week, ’n raided the icebox ’n drunk my beer ’n ate my beans ’n boiled my rice.”

“What were you doing during this time?”

“I carved.”

You carved?”

“I’m— I was a carver, ma’am. I used dead trees.”

“What did you carve?”

“My dreams.”

“What were your dreams?”

“Don’t we have but all kinda dreams? Sometimes they’re angelic and full a light. Most of ’em, though, are darker, haulin’ our doomed souls down that River called Styx into the Underworld. You gotta work them dreams out or they pull you under ’n claim you.”

He was getting sidetracked. Tangential speech, I jotted.

“And I would put the faces of the dreams into the trunks of trees. Make them stories startin’ from the top, movin’ down to the bottom. Bodies twisted in the wood. Filigrees. Friezes. Frescoes. Effigies carved on the surfaces a different things besides. In the legs of tables and the bannisters and balustrades of houses I sometimes did woodwork in for people of means in the winters when it was hard to find work in the North. I was a sawyer, but I believed in makin’ somethin’ outta of what I did besides the mindless felling of living wood. The spirit of the tree had to be honored. I had to release it to its proper bardo. So it wouldn’t hang around and cause mischief.”

He’d stopped dropping his g’s. His elocution sharpened. His vocabulary broadened as he spoke about woodcarving.

“Everything three useless man cut down for no good reason, I made it into something else, to make sure the spirits he liberated from the live trees he cut went to the right place.”

“The right place?”

“The right bardo, ma’am. For their sake, and for ours.”

I stopped writing. “I’m not sure I understand.”

“Why do you think everything’s happening the way it is? The world’s turnin’ on us. The virus? Droughts. Locusts. We haven’t honored the earth, so she’s flickin’ us all off her shoulder.”

I scrawled a note: religious delusion.

“Every spirit needs to be free, don’t it? And if it isn’t, it lingers where it’s not s’posed to be.”

None of this would make into my report to the court.

“The energy’s gotta go somewhere.” He licked his thirsty lips and I could hear him swallow. “You kill for a reason. Alright. We gotta take life to live. You needlessly kill, the Lady, she don’t like that.”

“The Lady?”

“Our Mother. Earth.”

“Okay.” But it was hard to separate an earnestly held spiritual belief from a delusion.

“If the spirit isn’t freed, it causes trouble. It can’t help itself. Some call it dark matter. Dark energy. 68% of all energy’s dark in the universe.” And he looked around as if that energy eavesdropped on him now. “The web, 96% of it’s dark. Slave trade terrorist money drug deals money laundering hackers.” He rattled them off.

“The dark web?” I knew what it was, but not much else about it.

“Navy developed it, then gave it to the genpop. I was in the Navy for a stint.”

My interest in him dropped, but I felt a certain satisfaction that I’d hit paydirt, as he might’ve called it. Once they started talking about dark matter and dark energy – terms used in astrophysics – and linked them to the dark web of the internet, the outlines of his delusion took shape.

“How long were you in?” I readied my no. 2 pencil for a note which could support my opinion as to my client’s inability to appreciate the logical consequences of his actions at the time of his offense. “Were you in the Navy, I mean.”

“12 years.”

My pencil stopped. 12 years? I’d expected two years, with a general discharge for psychiatric reasons. Maybe a dishonorable for a series of positive drug tests.

“18 years?”

“I was in Intelligence.”

“What did you do? For Naval Intelligence, I mean. And don’t tell me it’s ‘classified.’” I smiled.

He didn’t smile back. “‘The truth is out there.’ You heard that before?”

I nodded. “I believe the reference comes from the old X-Files, the television show that explored alien conspiracy theories.”

He nodded back. “The truth is that the truth isn’t out there. It’s in here,” and he tapped his heart with his fingers, fingers plagued with knots and burls. “But that doesn’t make it any less mysterious.”

I wrote down his quote.

“I worked in SIGINT,” he said. “Signals Intelligence. Detached service to NSA.”

I’d have to confirm that. How did a Naval Intelligence Officer (NCO, I assumed) end up chopping trees down for a living? His diction. The way he presented. It didn’t fit with Naval Intelligence. I suspected a delusional disorder at best. Schizophrenia as the most likely.

I finished writing out the note. “Why did you leave?”

“You heard of the Doomsday Signal?”

I shook my head. Once the delusion came, a client like this, with some remarkable characteristics, became just another sanity determination, maybe with some unfitness to stand trial thrown in. Could he cooperate in his own defense and understand the nature of the charges and proceedings against him? Those were the issues. I could charge for a separate fitness report, if I played it right.

“It’s a signal, from space. We’d been listening to it for decades. Microbursts sourced distantly in space, in the direction of a particular quasar.”

He chewed on his thumbnail. I twiddled my pencil before making a couple notes: DELUSIONS –  Navy Intelligence. UFO SIGNAL.

“The frequency was such that we were convinced that it meant somethin’.” He licked his lips again. “Could sure use a beer,” he suggested, as if I’d go out and get him one.

“I figured out it didn’t mean nothin’,” he concluded.

“Were you a mathematician or an engineer?”

He shook his head. “I was a decoder of a different sort, ma’am. I was just a listener. An equipment operator. I began to understand that the pattern didn’t have any meaning. It was all just noise.”

“Just noise,” I repeated. Like you’re making right now.

“In the spiritual life, there comes a point, there comes a time, when you realize that this here, all around us, isn’t all there is. Then, you begin to focus on where you’re goin’. But where you’re goin’ is where you are.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Nah, I knew you wouldn’t. The frequency – the pattern they were lookin’ at – it was comin’ from them.”

“From who?”

“From the people who were studyin’ it.”

My brow bunched. “From their listening devices?”

“No, it wasn’t no artifact. Don’t you understand? It don’t have its origins from outer space. Every pattern you see is a pattern you make up. It’s all just noise. There’s meaning, but it comes from the meaning maker. You’re condemned to find it. In you, in me, in the world. And when I don’t make no sense, you diagnose me. You say I’m the one who’s nuts. You got yourself a PhD ’cuz you wanted to figure out why some things don’t make sense. Somethin’ in your childhood maybe. But then you end up lookin’ at me and sayin’ the problem’s in me. Then you don’t gotta look at yourself no more.” He was irked. More than irked, he steamed with an old anger.

He laughed derisively, taking me in as if I were the stand-in for the whole system that oppressed him, probably since childhood. I’d seen the look many times before. I represented that psycho-legal system.

“Your circuit board of a system won’t believe in a God, but still, the world’s gotta make sense somehow. And when somebody don’t fit your molds, you sentence ’em and throw ’em in places LIKE THIS!”

I flinched as if the spit that flecked the glass had hit my eye. He panted. I glanced up at the black, quarter globe up in the corner of the white, cinderblock room, as if to say Did you see all that?

I stiffened my arms, looked down at my all-important notes, retrieved a breath. “I would like to return to your relationship with the victim in this case, Daryl Wolpe. Why did you kill him?”

He delivered a bitter huff, shook his head. “Boy, you people take the cake. I just give it all to you, and you always put it back on the guy behind glass, or in the grin bin, or lying on the gutter with three winter coats in June babblin’ to himself about the city in the mountains on the moon, Triton.” He configured his gaze and spit it out it me: “I killed him ’cuz that same noise started comin’ outta him. The same frequency that emanated from that quasar.”

“You couldn’t get away from it.”

He shook his head. “No ma’am I couldn’t.”

“Why didn’t you just leave?”

“I just wanted it to stop.”

“The noise.”

“Yeah, the noise.” He bit on his cuticle, and I could see the angst that came out in the blood that squeezed out between the nail and the skin. “But more than that noise, it was the pattern that I thought I heard coming from his mind, at night especially.”

I finally looked up at his cold, insane, hot, killing eyes with a dead look of detachment of my own, planting my tongue in my cheek in a nonchalant way. It was the only way to stay sane among them. Maintain your distance.

“You see God, It ain’t what people think It is. It’s really just the chaos, the unimaginable immensity you can’t get your head around. Your head, it’s just the receiver of the signal, of the pattern. Your mind’s tryin’ to get itself around anything and everything. It thinks if it can figure somethin’ out, then it can contain it, control it. God’s just that sum total of everything we can’t claim to understand. It breaks all the patterns. Its signal busts the receiver, ’cuz the receiver’s too small to gather it all. The signal terrifies. It drives you mad. Like sailin’ too close to the sun and lookin’ directly into its single Cyclops eye. And that chaos was comin’ from him, that Doomsday Signal, and I just didn’t wanna be reminded of it anymore.”

“Of what?”

“It was the God signal. The same signal that’d been emanating from that quasar. Came from him.”

“Why would you want to kill that?”

You can’t kill it. You can’t kill God. Most people try to go to God. They wanna get to heaven. You try to focus on where you’re goin’. But where you’re goin’ is where you are. ’Cuz paradise is always just here ’n now.”

“So then why?” I really wanted to know. Why would you kill God? “Why did you kill him?”

’Cuz I wasn’t ready for paradise, ma’am. I just wasn’t ready. But if his signal spread to me, then just like the coronavirus, it’d begin oscillating from my mind into other minds. It would infect me and from me it would infect others. Until we all come into resonance with each other.”

He was flitting from sense to nonsense, from sanity to insanity and then back. What was it about the mad? They possessed raw, archetypal contents – half the truth. But they couldn’t carry it because it had destroyed their vessels.

“What would’ve been wrong with that? Coming into resonance with him instead of dicing him with a chainsaw.” I’d learned not to argue with a delusion. You play along until it reveals what it’s standing for. But I’d had it with all the blood and rape and hate I’d had to take from all these patients all these years.

“The world, it ain’t ready for paradise either. It ain’t ready for mercy.”

“It has to start somewhere, doesn’t it? Where, if not between two men in a cabin?”

“Compassion, forgiveness, they’re earned. That man didn’t earn nothin’ but contempt.”

I’d lost patience. The insane could be just as evil and selfish as any other men or women. “Get on with your story, please.”

“I’d wake up, and he’d be standin’ over my bed. His eyes’d be open. When I’d call his name, he wouldn’t say nothin’. I’d nudge him with my foot. He’d gasp, claim to have just woke up. Said he was sleep walkin’. Then he’d never stop gabbin’. Never stop eatin’ me outta house ’n home. He’d go off on these rages, bustin’ stuff up. Drinkin’ my beer ’n flyin’ off into these fits.”

I made a note: SELF-DEFENSE? But that was for a defense lawyer to determine, not a sanity evaluator.

“He was a younger man than me. I was afraid…” His voice faltered. “I feared that maybe one day, he’d take me.”


’Cuz he said he would. He said it was either him or me. That only one of us was walkin’ out of the forest.”

“Did you tell that to the police?”

He shook his head.

“Why not?”

“Didn’t think they’d believe me, once they saw what he looked like.”

I remembered the death scene and autopsy photos. They didn’t seem to show a man who’d been killed in self-defense. “How could he hurt you? I thought his chainsaw was out of gas.”

His mighta been.”

“But yours wasn’t?”

“I kept mine under my bed. But I couldn’t keep it with me every second a the day. So I drained it. Kept the gas in a jar, out in the shed.”

“So, what happened?”

He kept gettin’ drunker. And I suspected somethin’ else.”

“What do you mean?”

“He wasn’t sleepin’ again. I thought maybe he had some more stashed somewhere’s.”

“Meth? How could that be? You two were marooned in the middle of the Superior National Forest.” I was the prosecutor now, cross-examining.

He shook his head. He seemed frightened, his yellow eyes askance. “Don’t know.”

No, he wasn’t scared. He was evasive. He wasn’t telling me something. My instincts kicked in. Like a lawyer crossing a client, I had an intuition when it came to lies. I’d heard enough of them over the years. Clients who held back information. Suspects who didn’t want to admit to evidence of prior crimes for fear of exposing themselves. Mainly, I had familiarity with the paths – the sociopaths and psychopaths. They were artists with lies. But I could dismantle them. All this one needed was a little push over the edge. He was ripe for confession. “Sure you know,” I goaded.

His eyes clinched, and they were so deeply set and furrowed that it seemed he didn’t have any eyes. When they opened, tears streamed down the runnels and furrows like they watered a long-parched ground droughted far too long.

“It was mine,” he croaked.

“What was?”

“The stuff.”

“The meth?”

He couldn’t get the words out. He just nodded.

“Where did you keep it?”

“The one place he wouldn’t look. In my saw.” He said it as if it was betrayal, and I supposed it was: of all that he’d tried to do to atone for his dirty life.

“In the gas tank,” I guessed.

He nodded, and sobbed.

“So, then it wasn’t him, was it? Standing over your bed. It was you, standing over his.”

He nodded again.

“Did he even get high at all?”

He shook his head, wiped his face with the inside of his arm.

“Sometimes, you try to change, but you just can’t make it,” he said. He wept. “Sometimes, you just can’t make it.”

“So, you were using the whole time, and you blamed it on him.”

“This thing just crawls up your gut and claws on the inside a you,” he whispered in a rage. “And you do things you can never take back.”

He looked me in the eyes, looked inside me as if he knew me. And that’s when I felt it, that bizarre chill. As if I’d known him.

“I want you to do something for me,” he asked. “Will you?”

“It depends.”

“I want you to visit something. It’s up there in the forest around that cabin where he died.”

I knew it was another body. “How will I find it?”

“First, you’ll have to drive up to the cabin. From there, take Forest Service Road 35. Take it 10.2 miles west. There’s an old logging road south from there. Turn onto it. Follow that for another two miles exactly. The second road’s unnumbered, but the odometer’ll read two miles exactly after you make that left.”

“What will I find?”

“You’ll know when you see it.”

I noted the information. I made no promises. I didn’t plan to go.

Each year, one-third of suicides in the United States occur in institutions where the patient is observed one-on-one or with 15-minute check-ins. Most completed suicides in hospitals and jails are due to hanging, but not necessarily where the patient’s feet leave the floor. In fact, most institutional suicides don’t involve suspensions. It doesn’t take much to choke off the flow of air and cause asphyxiation. A doorknob will do.

15-minute checks are insufficient. They fall below the standard of care. Best practices include direct observation at all times, and the itemization and control of the inventory of bedding and clothing. Jail staff are supposed to identify anything that can be tied or draped around the throat.

A small, rural jail doesn’t have the kinds of resources needed to watch an inmate one-on-one, 24 hours a day. He died the day after our interview.

I should’ve notified the Sheriff. But I was curious. I’d notify the Sheriff after I found what I found.

The North Woods are part of the boreal forests of the world. They’re not quaint little woods with little trees that you can picnic in. They stretch endlessly across the Superior Upland of northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Lapping up against the low mountains and cliffs that line the inland sea called Superior, those forests eventually merge with the taiga and come up against the ends of the earth.

An everlasting wind drove through them as I rattled down the forest service road in my little Yaris toward the site of the killing. I drove down gravel and dirt mile after mile, walled in by white spruce and black spruce which cast the road in a long, eternal shadow.

The North Woods are cold, the soil boggy and poor. They couldn’t grow things up here, so the farmers, they all came and in a generation they were gone. At night, even in July, my breath made frost. Black flies tortured me during the day when I stopped for a break. Mosquitoes swarmed me at night, when the clouds grew so vast, they brewed into super swarms measured in square miles. Their one single note whined in warning to any creature with blood which stepped into their single vast cloud after dusk. Far off wolves harmonized with the whine, melting into a chorus of gloom. This was the region of Peshtigo, the deadliest wildfire in the history of the nation. Slash had been left after the great lumber rapes in earlier times, resulting in the fire. Menominee and Winnebago were cleared away as if they’d been lumber, too. Then the golden age of fishing camps and hunting came and went. What could be left here but ghosts? And woodsmen.

I drove down the single-track road past mountain ash and paper birch. My low chassis barely cleared the poor ground. Up ahead, a white patch in the mesmerizing visual field of green studded with trunks of vertical brown.

At the center of a clearing, the white resolved into a clapboard cottage. Not a regal huntsman’s cabin of massive, hewn beams and fieldstone chimney with bouldered foundations. Just old lead paint peeling off the slats. The front porch windows were glassless flaps of wood battened down with hasps. The glass door was broken and boarded up with wood. This was where it happened.

I expected the police tape to be x’ed across the door. But there was none. I pulled over, shut off the engine, stepped out. The Laurentian cold, even in the sun, made me shiver. The wind roared through thousands of square miles of forests empty of asphalt and cities.

I circumnavigated the small, cold-water cabin. Crude, single-paned windows were punched along its rear wall. It was the one on the southeast corner. That’s where Michael Gale Martin snuck into Daryl Wolpe’s bedroom at 2 a.m. and carved the man’s face into a wood pulp. I shivered again, held my own body in a grip against the image. The vision of it passed. After I left this world, and a few police and a judge and a couple lawyers did as well, no one would know of the grisly happening here one night just two months ago. And that seemed for the best. The tragedies of the world are best left in ruins such as this crumbling cottage, unremembered, so the future can move on without the drag of its unspeakable crimes.

I stepped back in my car and followed his directions from the cabin. I saw the sign for FS 35. My little two-door whined down that single track for 10.2 miles. An unmarked logging road, a little better maintained than the Forest Service road, cut in. I followed that south. The cold scent of pines, with weak sunlight barely filtering through to the bottom of the forest gave way as the spruce and fir relented to successional aspen and sweet fern and balsam poplar. The odor was something I remembered from my time as a girl when we would come and see our grandfather on Lake Planting Ground. I remembered his immense collection of butterflies, and I smiled.

But as I drove those last two miles, I felt sicker and sicker. Someone else had been murdered and I’d be the first to discover it. I should’ve called the Sheriff. What if he’d left booby traps, snares designed for bears? The gruesome find I expected to find might be me, there for the Vilas County Coroner to take pictures of, photos for some other forensic investigator to peek at in her file. I pulled over and gripped my chest, panting. This was a mistake.

But I had to keep on now. I couldn’t turn around and drive back 2 ½ hours to inform the Sheriff of something I should’ve mentioned days ago. All that wasted time. I had to see. Something impelled me. I didn’t really do forensics or work with the -paths to supplement my income. I did it because I was driven to know the unutterable, to see what lay in its maw, undigested. To know the heart of the monster might help me understand the monster that had left its searing brand upon my heart when I’d been a little girl. Yet the closer I drew, the ruttier the road, the sicker I got.

I was that little girl again. The neighbor’s boy abusing me in the woods. The older brother of my new friend, the girl next door up to spend her summer there, too. Her name was Monica. I don’t remember his face and I never knew his name. Maybe it had been better that way.

I never told a soul. I’d only been 8. Grandpa asked what had happened when I came running back through the birch, crying. But I never said a word.

I remember feeling worse when it was over than when it was being done. It was that smell. That distinct woodland scent up here that no other woods in the world smelled like that brought all the horror of that day back. I sniffed the air and smelled that same aspen scent right now. I felt nauseous.

Now, the light slanted down in fallstreaks through the upper story of the quakies. It made everything pristine, washing away the immensity of the horror.

Closer. Closer. My window open full wide so I could throw up. The odometer ticking over that last tenth of the mile unto 2. I braked, left the engine humming. Then thought better of it and switched it off. Didn’t know if I’d ever turn that key again. But I had to know.

I stepped out of the car. An altar up ahead. A sacrifice of some sort. The color of bark, the height of a stupa. I approached, wobbly. Wiping the bile from the corner of my lips.

I approached it: a totem. Not a Native totem, for that would neither be respectful nor in context. But the story of a life, of my life, fashioned into a tree. CANDACE was carved at the bottom, with a relief of a little girl with a tear dropping from the corner of her eye, then another, and another which by its third iteration had evolved into the petal of a flower, a hyacinth. A chill willowed up my shoulders. What a demon he was, celebrating my pain. What right had he to pull me up out of wood like that? To chunk my name without my permission? To exhume that horrible memory. A violation all over again. I picked up a stone with a sharp point and I stabbed those letters out, x’d them out as best I could. But to obliterate them, I’d have to kill the tree. Something told me not to do that.

Somehow, the great cedar into which his frieze had been carved still lived, replete in its bough of green. It must have been two feet across, that trunk. EXPIATIO was chiseled above the girl, and above that, the relief of a gallows and an empty noose. Expiatio. It meant atonement in Latin. Had Michael Gale Martin killed himself to repent of what he’d done to me?

The bas-relief spiraled up the trunk the way a squirrel escapes a predator. And as it rose, hyacinths decorated the borders in sunken relief. The flowers were everywhere. I was a Jungian, and Jungians believed in the power of dreams. In dream symbolism, the purple hyacinth represented forgiveness, absolution. I realized in that moment what a mistake it had been to deface my name at the bottom of the tree. Forgiveness was for the forgiver, not the forgiven. By holding on to my rage, I chose to mire myself in my pain. This tree allowed me the ritual for which I’d searched my whole life. Through it, I could finally move on.

I gazed up at wooden angels, their arms outstretched to heaven as the story wound around the trunk and reached higher, higher. Winged seraphim along with creatures of the forest: eagles and bears, wolves and doe. The filigree spiraled up the sides, took up every surface of the trunk in a divine helix, but not too deep so that it would harm the tree. A fresco in relief. A frieze in minutest detail. The most beautiful latticework I’d ever seen. The faces of the cherubs so delicate I could make out the individual lashes in their guileless eyes.

And at the top, a final angel before a carved cloud just about to occult the shafts of the sculpted sun. The face on that angel was me. Not as a child, but as I looked now. How had he known what I looked today?

He hadn’t seen me before. Had he?

Michael Gale Martin had abused me, then tried to make amends in the only way he knew how. I suppose he could’ve gotten a likeness of me from the picture on my website. Had he killed Daryl Wolpe in order to get me up to see him? So that he could try to make amends? The chain of events seemed too tenuous. He would have had to know that I would’ve been the one to take his forensic interview. And yet, this was the way it had worked out.

There was something about him that seemed different in the last part of our interview. Something that surfaced in the final moments. Something in his fading eyes. It was the light I’d searched for in the cold, deliberate eyes of all those hundreds of -paths I’d interviewed and worked with before him. If I could find it in their eyes, in just one of them, then I could forgive the boy who hurt me. And if I could forgive, I could let go. And get on.

I had to confront my abuser and grieve a little girl lost, lost in the woods, at the same time. I left a part of myself back in the North Woods of Wisconsin, near the vague borderland with the trackless forests that went on to the very verge of the world.

I had a space inside me now for something new.

© 2020 by Michael C. Just

Mike’s novel, The Dirt: The Journey of a Mystic Cowboy, is available in softcover or eBook formats through Amazon.

You can purchase the book through this website. Or go straight to amazon at

Mike’s other titles, including The Crippy, The Mind Altar, and Canyon Calls, are available through Amazon at


LOVE 2.0

a short story

by Michael C. Just

David pulled up in the old Jeep Wagoneer, the gravel crackling and wisping as it rose in soft columns in the rising sun. The kids jumped out before he even came to a complete stop.

“Wait ’til we stop!” Donna scolded as Martin and AnnaBeth ran around the twin hackberry trees out front in figure eights.

AnnaBeth pretended she was an airplane, stretching out her arms. It seemed apropos for a Midwestern girl who’d never before seen mountains to feel she was flying, as she was running around on top of a great hillock in the foothills of the San Juans.

Dave, Jr. and Lynn took their time. They were in high school now (sophomore and junior), and the sometimes-gradual way adolescence sometimes unpacks itself to confront an adult world like Aunt Candace’s could seem less than enthusiastic to those adults.

AnnaBeth froze from landing herself, sniffed the air.

“No, you’re not going to smell a rotting corpse, AB,” Dave, Jr. insisted.

“Are you sure? I smell something!”

Look! I just saw her move around the corner,” Martin, her older brother by a couple years, said.

“Martin,” Donna warned.

But AB wouldn’t take another step. “Daddy!” She held up her hand as Dave unpacked a few suitcases from the wayback.

He dropped them between the two uneven hackberries, one tall and the other a dwarf, and walked slowly threw the fireweed that had grown ankle high without anyone to cut it these last few weeks. He took his littlest’s hand. Dave noticed her eyes clinched against the terror of Aunt Candace’s ghost. He crouched down, recalling how his older brothers and tortured him with tales of the ghosts of dead ancestors.

“Auntie Candace is dead now.”

“And dead means she won’t be back,” AB whispered in a rehearsed way, her eyes still clenched.

“That’s right,” he whispered as the others unloaded the Wagoneer, weighed down for the past 1,700 miles with clothes and camp gear and canned goods and water. Everything they’d need to ride out the second wave. Everything they thought they’d need.

“That’s right,” he whispered again, attending to the more important task of explaining death to a six-year-old. “Dead always means they won’t be back.”

“Is dead the place where people go?” AB asked.

“No,” he said.

“Where do they go?” she asked.

“I don’t know.”

“But Auntie Candace went to the same place like Cloris,” she concluded. Cloris was the girl who died in the other second grade class.

He nodded, holding back his tears as he searched her eyes.

“I’m sorry, Daddy. I didn’t mean to make you sad.”

“You didn’t make me sad, AB. I was already sad.” Over his shoulder, Donna cast an eye on them as she took in a breath, closed her eyes for a moment, took the key to the cottage out of her pocket. With two sleeping bags over her shoulder, she stepped onto the wraparound porch like she embarked on a cruise ship. Her older three followed.

“But what if you’re wrong,” AB said as Dave closed his eyes. “If you don’t where they go, then maybe they come back and haunt us like Martin says.”

“Daddy’s not wrong,” Donna said over her shoulder.

“Look,” Dave said. “You can sleep with Mommy and me tonight. OK?” A wind rose and the eaves over the covered porch creaked.

“Look, the house is making noises!” AB pointed.

Dave sighed, set his fingers on his little girl’s shoulder, and shot his wife a helpless look. She shrugged a helpless one back as she plopped the sleeping bags down on the dusty porch and wrestled open the rusty storm door that screeched as the wind yanked it out of her fingers, where it slammed the siding.

“What was that noise!?” AB shrieked.

“Oh, AB, give it a rest,” her older sister, Lynn, groaned.

Her mother keyed the door, but the knob lock fought back. Gnats tried to drink from her eyes and one whined in her ear. “This door WON’T OPEN.” Finally, she kicked it open, and cold air flew out, making its escape. She felt the chill. Dave Jr. sniffed the stale air escaping.

“Smells like stale cabin,” he said.

“That’s what it is, Davey,” Lynn teased as she brushed passed him inside. He hated when she called him that.

As soon as her mom was out of her sight, AnnaBeth bolted from her dad and ran into the small cabin in the foothills of the San Juans.

“Always been Mommy’s girl,” Dave whispered.

He stood to his full 6’3” and smelled the fresh air. The early sun from the east, the direction of the mountains, made him smile for a moment. It’d been his idea to come. At first, everyone else was against it. It always felt to him as if it were he versus the rest of his family on everything, from where the kids should go to school to whether Martin really needed braces. Coming out here to ride out the second wave of the virus was no exception.

In temperament, he was so different from Donna and the kids, much more like his sister. They were both loners. But it was had to be loner when you had 6 people sharing a bathroom because the primary breadwinner had a Catholic schoolteacher’s salary.

Candace could indulge her desire for solitude. She’d never married/ She wrapped up her practice quickly and moved out here to her second home. No one knew if Candace moved out here to ride out the storm of the virus, and the arriving civil conflicts and food shortages. Or did she do it because she always relished that aloneness.

At first, Dave welcomed the idea of coming out here for a few weeks in the summer. But the romance of solitude soon gave way to the terror of what enforced it. No one wanted economic collapse, civil insurrection, total war, and authoritarianism which Dave, a social studies teacher, saw coming, maybe in 10 years. No one wanted a world like that.

He knew his sister hadn’t either. She may have been a loner, “but even a lesbo prepper has her uses, Dave, and that use was to die and leave you her mountain hideaway,” his older brother, Earl, said in his final conversation before Dave and the family left southeast Wisconsin for the remoteness of the San Juans in southwest Colorado. “Her dyin’. The timin’ couldn’t’ve been better.” Earl may have been a bigot one cold sonofabitch, but his parting words to his younger brother had meaning: Every once a saeculum, the worm takes a dark turn.

He looked around the steep meadows that ran down the side of La Plata Canyon, with tall grass and lilies and paintbrush and edelweiss that dotting the shoulders of the mountain. It was beautiful, yet forsaken somehow. He sensed it. They were Midwesterners, knowing nothing about how to survive off the land, much less whether they’d manage the harsh winters the mountains would bring. Still in the foothills, he stood at over 8,000 feet above sea level, plus 6 feet 3 inches.

The air was cool, even for late May, unseasonal even for the altitude. The peace brought by the stainless light carried in its wavelengths a warning. Deeper than dystopia, the mourning doves cooed and the hummingbirds still buzzed over to the dry feeders and floated for a few moments before they zipped off. The winds swayed through tall stands of uncounted spruce and fir, the light silvering in the canopies of quakies.

It was forlorn, the de-peopled beauty lost in warning to him, his family, everyone in the world. A clock had ticked past midnight finally, not to be reset this time. The doomsday clock the scientists had always placed perilously close to midnight. It had finally tocked past its irreversible midnight. And the Gaian goddess had rebelled, perhaps to flick humanity off its shoulder. Humans had been forewarned, yet chose to drown Gaia’s admonition in their greeds and lusts where her soft, simple message went unheard.

Dave picked up the suitcases and stood for a moment on the porch with hummingbird feeders long empty of their red nectar, housing only the husks of unlucky wasps that had some wormed their way into the honeytraps. He only hoped he hadn’t led his family into one, too.

The nearest dwelling was five miles down the mountain and like his sister’s, the cabin had propanel roof peaked like the knave of a medieval church. Candace had bought an inholding. Her 12-acre plot was surrounded by National Forest on all sides.

She’d moved up here from Madison toward the tail end of the first wave. She told Dave that she’d needed to hold out a little longer than she’d wanted to because she was seeing a couple in counseling and the case was more complex than usual and took longer to terminate. Then she had to wrap up a forensic evaluation in a murder case up in the North Woods. After that, she closed her practice and came to the mountains, her second home.

But they needed help down at the County jail in town. They looked her up and found she had a PhD and experience working with inmates. Would she volunteer her time? Of course. Candace never said ‘no’ to anyone. Dave always thought it was part his sister’s problem.

And it cost her. She picked up the virus she so feared. Candace never made it off the ventilator.

Dave and his older sister had always been close.  Born 11 months apart, they grew up like twins. Her will deeded this 2-bedroom, 1½ story cabin, limned with blue pine, to him. Dave convinced Donna, who had to convince the kids. They came up for the summer – and maybe the winter – depending on whether he had a job come autumn. The school didn’t know whether they’d open in the fall. Since so many families had defaulted on tuition, they didn’t know whether they could afford to pay him. But he believed in consolation prizes. The house and all its contents were his consolation for his sister’s death. They’d ride out the second wave right here.

They couldn’t help but feel haunted, especially Dave. Everything reminded them of Candace. The collection of plates that went around the walls of the first story, one painted with a young woman in a fur felt cloche hat and a hand tooled leather bag sitting in a corner in a train station. A cardinal clinging to the branch of an elm. Plates painted with mallards. One with a bugling elk. There must’ve been three dozen plates on the wall. Old coffee pots and cast-iron kettles circled the kitchen in the same way, on top of the outdated cabinets.

Closets brimmed over with clothes and shoes and pillows and sleeping bags up in the cabin with 11 steep steps to the balcony loft in the too tall house. The deep pantry filled with all manner of cans and oats and rice and gluten free porridges. Donna happened to be gluten free. She had celiac disease.

The oil painting above Candace’s queen bed showed the La Plata Mountains with a coat of snow, on the shoulder of which a cabin rested. It was her cabin. This cabin, painted in broad, wispy strokes beside endless stands of pine. My sister’s signature floated in the lower left. There were red canyons in purplish sunsets, impressionistic renderings that relied on bold, passionate hues which betrayed the emotion she wore almost always on the inside.

Dozens and dozens of DVD’s lined the bookcases. Twin Peaks. The entire David Lynch catalogue of movies which Donna forbade her two youngest to watch after accidental exposure to Blue Velvet. And the books: hundreds on everything from Jung (her specialty) to Genghis Khan to string theory. Curiously, David thought, she had the complete collections of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps and Harry Potter and a catalog of YA, too. Dave knew she never worked with kids. Why would she have these?

“Was Aunt Candace a mystic?” Lynn wondered as she picked up Mysticism off the dusty shelf upstairs in the master bedroom turned family room. She paged through Evelyn Underhill’s tome.

“No, she was a Jungian,” Donna replied.

“What the hell’s that?” Dave, Jr. asked as he made himself at home in Candace’s tiny loft office, pulling out the old desktop tower from a cabinet.

“The two are not mutually exclusive,” Dave, Sr. remarked, pulling an air compressor for one of the inflatable beds from the space above the closet-cum-office supply cabinet.

“Hey, language,” Donna reminded Jr., and gestured with her chin toward AB, who carted out a giant dictionary from a pedestal as Martin dragged the pedestal across the floor. Now they had sleeping room tonight.

Lynn set her hands on her hips and surveyed the old ceiling fan that dangled with cobwebs from the cathedral ceiling of the living room, over the edge of the balcony. “This whole place is in need of an update,” she said.

It was true. The small cabin had been built in the 80’s. It still wore the original linoleum, the old cabinets and vanities. “Plush champagne carpeting?” Lynn scoffed. “C’mon, aunt Candace.”

“She never had a sense of style,” Dave agreed.

“Did she build this place?” Jr. asked.

“No, your aunt would never do that,” Donna explained. “She hated development.”

“But she’d buy a place already built,” Dave said. “It was the outside she took care of. She sprayed for weeds, and didn’t use that Round-Up stuff. Just vinegar she had to order at the right strength. She limbed the trees, took out the dead ones. And she did that all by hand, with that cheap Wal-Mart hand saw you saw hanging outside on the porch.”

After they unpacked about half their clothes, the kids fought over who slept where. They’d been out here before, so it wasn’t total war, but Donna had to hand out the final berths.

“Look at this,” AB said as she dragged a brand-new air mattress out from a closet. “She bought the air bed we saw at that camp store in Durango last time we were here.”

“It’s not called an air bed,” Martin corrected her.

“It’s what I call it.” They looked at the state-of-the-art bed and Lynn connected the air hose to the compressor. “The one I wanted but you wouldn’t let her buy. It’s even the same color: purplink.”

Martin laughed at AB’s naming convention.

“What color’s that?” Dave asked.


“We call that fuchsia,” Donna supplied as Lynn set the mattress alongside an old, glass bookcase that’d been Dave’s grandmother’s back in Milwaukee.

“I think she got it for me,” AnnaBeth crowed.

Donna put Lynn in charge of inventorying the food Candace had left behind and assigned AB and Jr. as her assistants, something Jr. didn’t like so much.

While Sr. and Donna unpacked way too much clothing, Jr. huffed up the steps. “You checked out the basement?” he asked.

“No, why?” Sr. asked.

“Come and see.”

Donna and Dave stopped unpacking and passed by Martin, who was in charge of dusting downstairs and was doing the job one might expect of a 10-year-old boy.

They walked through the kitchen and down the dark stairway into the cold, dry cellar. They stop at the foot of the stairs of the unfinished, windowless basement, which resembled a bomb shelter with its dark, concrete walls.

Rows and rows of metal shelves took up about three-quarters of the cellar. They were jammed with canned goods. What wasn’t taken up by shelving was crammed with stacks of plastic drawers, huge plastic moving boxes, and a kitchen table that held MRE’s and Muscle Milk and medicines of all kinds. Even antibiotics.

“She was gettin’ ready for the End,” Jr. observed. “Uncle Earl was right. She was a prepper.”

“Uncle Earl was…” Donna started, without finishing off with just what Uncle Earl was.

“She sure was,” Sr. replied, picking up a big canister of powdered milk.

“Those’re beans,” Lynn said to her sister. “Over there, AB.” She pointed.

Donna surveyed the food pantry in miniature. “Oh my God,” she whispered.

“I know.” Junior said. “Can you believe it?”

“There’s gotta be hundreds and hundreds of cans down here,” Senior. said, noting tuna and sockeye and beans, mostly beans. Black beans, chili (with and without meat), turkey chili, baked beans, vegetarian baked beans, pork and beans, molasses beans.

“We got enough beans to power those generators outside through flatulence alone.” Donna’s voice trailed off.

“And those big bins over there in that corner are filled with rice,” Lynn pointed and said. “And those have cereal. And there, by the solar batteries, those’re emergency rations good for 30 friggin’ years!”

“Your mouth, Lynn,” Donna scolded.

“‘Frig’ ain’t a word,” AB explained as she counted water bottles.

“And look,” Jr. said, and he walked over to a freezer as tall as himself. He opened it. “Blueberries, strawberries, yogurt, veggies. Veggies of all manner and what’s not: kale and spinach and gourds.”

“Gourds?” AB asked.

Lynn glanced over at the item in Jr’s hand.

“Squash,” Lynn said. “Zucchini.”

“Pizza,” AB said, running over and pawing the gluten free box.

“I know, it’s crammed,” Lynn said.

AnnaBeth went back and harnessed a gallon jug of water in her arms and waddled over to Lynn. “Water? Over there,” she pointed.

“Where? It’s heavy!”

“Next to those giant blue water reservoirs.”

“What the hell is a reservoir!?” AnnaBeth said.

“AB!” Sr. said.

“I’ll show ya,” Jr. said, and led his sister over to the opposite corner.

“There must be dozens of gallons of water,” Sr. marveled.

There were shelves that had boxes of nitrile gloves, and plastic sheeting, and foot covers, and goggles and N95 masks. There shelves filled with supplements. Donna picked up a giant bottle of D3, and then monolaurin, next to vitamin C and a row of quercetin.

“Much more than any single person would need in a lifetime,” she whispered to her partner. “And your sister was a loner.”

“It’s almost like…” Dave began.

“It’s almost like she did this all for us,” Lynn finished.

Donna and Dave sat alone on the wide, wraparound porch that surrounded the small cabin, its eaves protecting them from the soft, sun rains that came for a few minutes that afternoon.

It was early June, at dusk, the end of their first day on the mountain. The sun cast an ocherous twilight on them as Donna sipped ginger tea and Dave sipped ginger beer, compliments of Candace, who believed in its medicinal quality and loved its zest. Dave remembered his near twin.

Dave, Jr. and Lynn, practically twins themselves, were off exploring the mountainside, finding the boundary trees and lot markers which designated the frontier. AB and Martin were upstairs, trying to get online. Good luck with that, Dave thought.

Before Donna and him stretched a meadow that plummeted down to a stream rushing with the spring melt. In an ultimate way, all that water made its way to the San Juan and then to the Colorado. How all water made its way to the sea, where it lost the names of the rivers people had given them along its way.

A fresh wind blew the gnats away. The air cooled. Donna tugged a black sweater she’d found in the downstairs closet a little tighter around her shoulders. It fit her perfectly. The store tag was still on.

“It’s almost like she was expecting us,” she said, piercing the solitude.

Dave nodded. “The extra bed for AB, in purplink.”

“The shoes. Did you see them?”

“No. Why?”

“Three pair in that downstairs closet in the bedroom you and I’ll sleep in. Work boots, hiking shoes, even slippers. All new. All my size.”

He shrugged.

“Dave, we didn’t wear the same size.” She teased his arm with her long, delicate finger.

He couldn’t understand how she’d known. Candace had only been up here a few weeks herself. A lot of the stuff – gloves, bleach, Lysol – she couldn’t even buy today, online or retail. And she wouldn’t have had time.

“And these clothes, they’re all new.” She pulled at the bottom of her jeans.” And we weren’t the same size there, either.”

“Kids, too?”

“That’s what Lynn said.”

“Our daughter’s gone on an inventory crusade.”

“The dresser drawers? She segregated clothes according to Lynn, AB, Martin, and Junior. She even vacuum-packed Martin’s favorite cheese. And no tree nuts, anywhere. She remembered the allergies, and went gluten free for me.”

He nodded. “She was expecting us. That was Candace.”

“You think she saw this whole thing coming?”

He looked out at the vegetable garden. His sister had raised low walls with cinder block, evened out with a with wood along the bases, wood she’d scavenged from a nearby mine adit, judging from the lumber stamp on some of the pieces. She made the fence posts made from old rail ties that had led into that mine drift Dave and his boys had explored just a couple hours ago. She’d fenced the garden with chicken wire and window screen. One of her talents was making do with whatever was at hand. “New uses for old tech,” she used to say. But the garden was way too big to feed one person.

“I think she did. See it all coming, I mean. She was a planner.”

“But a prepper?”

“You don’t have to be conservative to be a prepper.”

The garden was dead, just like Candace. The altitude, the drought, the incessant winds. Mainly, the fact that there’d been no one here to tend to it since she’d passed. It had gone to seed.

“Could be something else,” he admitted to himself.

She rocked in the old rocker Candace had stripped and restored. She waited for him to go on.

“I think she knew she’d die.”

“Would make sense,” Donna agreed.

He stared at his partner, studied her slender, sunlit nose.

“All her things are gone from this place,” she said.

He squinted, not understanding.

“All her clothes, all her jackets and winter gear, her shoes.”



They were quiet after that, gazing down into the forlorn meadow. A hummingbird buzzed by the empty feeder, then drifted off into the trees.

“We’ll have to get to work on that garden tomorrow,” she said.

© 2020 by Michael C. Just

Mike’s novel, The Dirt: The Journey of a Mystic Cowboy, is available in softcover or eBook formats through Amazon.

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