My goal for the Carol in Fire project was to provide an illustration in a comic book style. I wanted it to show action. I also wanted it to evoke a feeling of discomfort from wanting the person to get out of the environment.
I started painting by adding flat areas of color. That allowed me to paint until the colors had the values I wanted. I also felt like that approach gave me better control over my progress.
Things started to go wrong when I tried to deviate from the lines I had drawn for flames and smoke. I should have used the sketch to plan the locations of fire and smoke, but should not have drawn them on the watercolor paper. I should have only created them with the brush. In the end, I painted too much fire to cover lines I couldn’t erase. I also ended up cropping out the smoke to balance the painting.
I didn’t get the light around the subject right. I was not sure what to do about shadows when light surrounded the subject. I tried lighting up a model using lamps, but didn’t use it effectively. This is something I need to learn to do.
I must have been distracted when I was painting. I forgot to add details to Carol’s hands. I also noticed that I painted the jewel and her eyes the wrong color when I was uploading the image: I had to do a last minute digital edit.
In the end, I didn’t feel that I achieved my goals for this painting. Carol doesn’t look like she’s worried about getting out of the fire. She just looks like she’s taking a naked jog through it.
I found it on the worst night of my life. That night, I was dragged out of sleep to flee from my home. I was tortured. Everything I had was destroyed. When I was rescued, I was only wearing a diaper and this gaudy bracelet.
The night I found it, I was woken hours before dawn by the sound of a woman screaming. It came from outside and was muffled, but I could tell she was nearby. The woman screamed familiar names: the name of my male neighbor and of their children. ‘Get out!’ she screamed and ‘Hurry!’ Her panicked screams contrasted with the beautiful yellow glow outside of my window. It was as if the sun had risen and its light was diffused by my curtain as it entered my room. The light did not come from a sunrise: it came from my burning neighborhood.
I knew my house was next. I had to get out of it. I thought about what I would take with me. I lived alone. I did not have pets. I did not like to have things. All I had was my own skin, a laptop for my livelihood, and a gaudy bracelet I acquired from a shady character.
My cousin and I had been browsing at a market in Mexico City. A handsome man had approached us and, with a charming accent, had asked us if we would allow him to show us a jewel worthy of our beauty. We had pretended to listen to his description while surreptitiously enjoying his attention.
“Buy it, Carol,” my cousin had urged. “It’s not fake. It looks like he stole it from a museum. There might even be a reward. Or you could sell it for a lot of money.” So, I had been hoodwinked into buying something I did not want. I had paid a lot, but less than he had asked for. He had seemed happy to be rid of it.
I had not had any particular feelings about the transaction at the time. I had just hoped either the metal the bracelet was made of or the green stone encased in it would be valuable. But then I had to sneak it out of Mexico and into the U.S. It was then that I had felt like a part of corruption and a thief. I would not sell it or get it appraised: I would keep it in the safe in my home office hoping to forget about it.
I heard the roar of the fire outside as I walked into my home office to retrieve my two belongings. I heard propane tanks explode. I easily found my laptop on my desk. When I tried to open my safe, the sounds of danger outside made me ham-fisted and I had trouble turning the knob. I couldn’t even remember the combination. I tried everyone’s birthday: my mother’s, my father’s, my sister’s, and my own. At last; it was the numbers from my closest cousin’s month, day, and year of birth that opened the safe. As its door clicked open, the smoke alarms in my house went off.
Back when I had shopped for a home, I had fallen in love with my house because it had a porch that wrapped all the way around it. I had really enjoyed that porch over the years. I had watched it rain in the afternoon under its protection. I had walked barefooted on its cool wooden deck drinking my coffee. I had watched the sun rise and set while rocking in a chair my parents had given me as a birthday present. The deck I loved so much burned all the way around the house and trapped me inside.
I went upstairs to try to jump out of a window. The house was filled with smoke, so I scuttled close to the ground and held my breath as much as I could. I could not see, but I could have found my way through my house with my eyes closed.
When I found a window, it would not open. I broke the glass with the closest thing I could find. I grabbed some pillows from a bed beside the window and stuffed my laptop between them for its protection. I then tossed it out of the window as far as my strength would allow. I was also going to throw the bracelet. Instead, I put it on and protected my wrists from broken glass as I pushed against the window frame and climbed out.
I stood on the roof of my porch and searched for a place to jump to. Once I found it, I changed my posture to get ready to jump. The shingles must have melted because I slipped on one. I fell and my body hit the roof causing it to collapse.
I found myself burning in the middle of a fire. Flames were all around me. I was in excruciating pain. I flopped like a fish on land trying to move my body away from burning material, but my movements were ineffective because there was no place to go. I hoped I would pass out and it would be over.
But the torment was not ending. I decided to get myself out. I tried to use my hands to stand, but the ground was covered with burning materials. I finally steeled myself to endure the pain, got up, and pushed through the burning materials that were once my home. I walked over a red and black ground feeling my bare feet burn.
Once I got out of the flames, the pain stopped. I looked at my hands, and they were unharmed. My clothes and hair had completely burned off, but I could not feel burns on my face or see burns anywhere on my body. I was going to take the bracelet off, but it was cool when I touched it. I also had no better way to carry it.
There was smoke all around me as my neighborhood continued to burn. The wind blew smoke and the heat of the fire at me. I stumbled over the pillows I had thrown out the window. I used a pillow case to make a diaper to cover my bottom. Then, I held a pillow and my laptop against my chest to cover my top.
I ran down the center of the street searching for a way out of the neighborhood. The most open place I could think of was a golf course that was a couple of miles away. I did not know what else to do or where else to go, so I walked in its direction.
On the way to the golf course, a group of firefighters emerged from the smoke. They led me to safety. As I sat by the firetruck, a firefighter told me I had made the right choice in getting out immediately without stopping to get anything. Most of my neighbors had not been able to escape.
“I’m glad that you read a lot, but I’d like to see you having a good time with people your age,” Donna said.
“Grandma, all the kids in my high school are stuck-up,” Kenneth said. “Besides, I need to keep my grades up so I can go to college and you can stop working at that factory.”
“Don’t you worry about me,” Donna said. “I like staying active, and the ladies I work with are hilarious.”
“You can’t do that job forever,” Kenneth said. “What happens if you hurt your back one day?”
“Your grandfather left me enough to comfortably spend all day in chat rooms,” Donna said. “But we’re talking about you right now. You can’t tell me there’s not one decent kid in your school.”
Kenneth remembered that no one had talked to him in any of his classes since the middle of last year. He remembered all of the lunches he had spent alone. He felt like a stunted plant in a garden: neglected, but watched. The gardener not pruning or expecting blooms – not wanting to kill a plant, but hoping for it to die. “There’s not,” Kenneth said. They stood together in the living room for half a minute staring at each other. When it was clear the discussion was not going to move forward, he left.
Kenneth’s response broke Donna’s heart. After his parents died, she had watched him live quietly like a beggar on the side of the road being ignored by the same people over and over again. She could not replace his parents. The few friends he had before they died, avoided the stench of his sadness.
Donna conjectured reasons Kenneth did not acquire new friends. He did not seek nor draw attention. His looks, intelligence, athleticism, and personality were so average he was imperceptible among others. He never caused any problems. His most remarkable trait, that he truly loved others, did not help him. It actually kept him from others. He knew people were afraid to be loved and their existence valued automatically. Those feeling, when revealed, were misunderstood and repulsive. Most of all, he did not want to feel the pain of losing someone again.
“This is as good a time as any,” Donna said to the living room furniture.
When Kenneth walked through their front door after school, Donna was waiting for him on the sofa. He looked at his grandmother. She radiated energy as always. Were it not for her gray head of hair, laugh lines, and vintage glasses; she could have been just another young woman in a sweat suit.
“Put your exercise clothes on. We’re going for a jog,” Donna said.
“I’m tired, Grandma,” Kenneth said.
“That’s because you don’t exercise,” Donna said.
“I have P.E. at school in the morning,” Kenneth said.
“I guess you’re all set then,” Donna said. “Well – if I don’t come back in an hour, please call an ambulance. My heart has been funny today.” She put her right hand over her heart and took a deep breath.
“Hold on,” Kenneth said, “Just let me get my shorts on.”
Minutes later, Donna and Kenneth were running up the left side of a road. Donna ran ahead of Kenneth. She led him out of their neighborhood and into a rural part of town. She allowed him to catch up several times, but then pulled ahead so he would follow her to where she wanted to go. After three miles, she stopped in front of a tractor that was parked on the side of the road and waited for him to arrive.
“Grandma,” Kenneth said out of breath, “Your heart. You know we have to run back the same distance, right?”
“I’m perfectly fine,” Donna said. “I want to show you something and this is a good place. The sun is shining brightly above us and no one is around.”
Kenneth leaned over and put a hand on each knee as he breathed heavily. Donna had maintained a race pace, but that did not seem to have an effect on her. She walked to the back of the tractor making sure he was watching her. She looked around to check that no one watched them. After she felt sure there were no eyes on them, she walked between the tractor’s links and put her hands under the towing hitch. She lifted the back end of the tractor off the ground, looked at him, and lowered it back down.
Kenneth stood up and walked to Donna. She backed away from the back of the tractor and suggested with a motion of her hand that he should try to do what she had done. He put his hands under the towing hitch and tried to lift the tractor, but it did not move. He looked underneath it for a jack, and there was not one. He waved his arm over the top for a wire.
“What would it be tied to, silly?” Donna asked.
“How did you do that?” Kenneth asked.
“A family secret I’m about to share with you,” Donna said. She reached up to her neck and pulled on a silver chain until she held the jewel at the end of it in her hand. “Do you know what this is?”
“A sapphire,” Kenneth answered.
“That was a trick question because I don’t know what it is either,” Donna laughed. “I only know it was passed down to your grandfather by his father. I actually didn’t know about it until the day he asked me to wear it. It was the same day he died.”
“Are you a super hero, grandma?” Kenneth asked.
“Heavens, no!” Donna laughed.
“Then how did you do that?” Kenneth asked.
“I don’t know,” Donna answered. “What I do know is that whatever I try to do, I can do more of it when I wear this. I can lift heavy things. I can run really fast. I can do so many neat things.”
“Do you get tired?” asked Kenneth.
“Well, no. I need to take it off so I can sleep,” Donna answered. “If I’m not in the sun, I’ll get hungry before I get tired. Trust me, you don’t want to get tired while you wear this thing. It feels bad.”
“Can I try it?” Kenneth asked.
“One day you can, but not today,” Donna answered. “You need to do three things for me before I’ll let you.”
“What?” Kenneth asked.
“You need to make friends,” Donna answered. Kenneth groaned. “You also need to do something big on your own.”
“Like what?” Kenneth asked.
“You tell me,” Donna answered. “Big. And you must never, ever, ever, ev-er tell anyone about this thing.”
“Why not?” Kenneth asked.
“Walk with me,” Donna said. She and Kenneth walked back down the farm road a quarter mile. They approached a dead raccoon they had seen earlier on the side of the road. It was fresh. She looked around to ensure no one was looking. Then, she reached down and touched the raccoon gently with her bare hand. Kenneth cringed. The raccoon’s stomach began to fill and its body became bloated. It released gases, fluids, and a stench into the air that Kenneth could not bear. The body began to disintegrate. The raccoon’s dry skin covered the ground for a few seconds, and then it was gone. When she pulled her hand back, there were only bones left on the ground.
Ashley leaned against a police car, held her gun with both hands, and wondered how the suspect would try to use the hostage to escape. The man she and her partner, Kimberly, called the Quantum Killer had beaten her twice that evening already. The first time, he had killed the victim almost right in front of her. The second time, he had been able to flee the scene as she pursued. As she stood against the car and took deep breaths in the dark, she was relieved the chase was over. However, she had a new problem: the suspect had kicked open a front door and a woman who lived alone in the house was his hostage.
Ashley was not going to let him beat her a third time. She and four officers had secured the perimeter of the home and they had it under surveillance. She and two of the officers were at the front of the house, and two officers were at the back. The SWAT team was on its way.
Ashley took her right hand off her weapon and tapped around her body to make sure she had everything. She felt her vest, badge, handcuffs, and her hair tied back. She fidgeted to keep herself alert. It was late and she was tired. The seconds were long as she waited. She tried to keep her mind in the moment; but it wandered around the mysteries of the case. The biggest was that earlier that night, like every other night, the Quantum Killer took two victims in two cities in the same way at the same time. It had been an impossible and horrible trick.
The murders had been in the national news, so the suspect had gotten sloppy trying to make sure he would be given credit. He must have thought little to nothing of the intelligence of the police. The clues he had left were more than enough for Kimberly, her partner, to correctly identify the cities in which the crimes were to take place. In fact, she had correctly identified the possible locations of the crimes within a couple of city blocks. The women had split up and each had been allowed to lead a special team of police officers to protect civilians and arrest the suspect.
To ensure the victim would be found quickly, the Quantum Killer had been bold. The two victims had been newsstand sales associates on busy city streets. There had been one or two perfect minutes where there had been no pedestrian traffic and the suspect could strike. The back of the newsstand faced the street, so passing cars could not see inside of it. Ashley had not actually seen the crime occur, but she had spotted a man dressed like a runner step out of a newsstand. He would have blended in perfectly with other pedestrians, but looked odd as he stepped out of a newsstand. Kimberly had not seen the suspect in her city, but she had heard a woman who found the victim scream.
Ashley was snapped back into the moment when the SWAT team arrived. The SWAT teams’ vehicle looked like a mobile home painted black. It was too large for the neighborhood they were in. The SWAT team leader jumped out of the vehicle and walked briskly toward Ashley.
“Detective Ashley Smith?” asked the SWAT team leader. She nodded. “I’m Johnson. What’s the layout?”
“This neighborhood has no outlet for motor vehicles,” said Ashley. “Woods run behind the houses: five acres wide. The home is on a slab and there’s no attic. Front door and garage exit, two windows on each side, one door and a large window in the back. Bathroom windows do not open.”
“Weapons?” asked Johnson.
“A knife. Possibly a handgun,” said Ashley.
“Possibly?” asked Johnson. He scanned Ashley from head to toe.
“We did not have eyes on him when he carjacked,” said Ashley.
“One hostage?” asked Johnson.
“Yes,” said Ashley straightening her posture to match Johnson’s.
Johnson spoke into his radio, “Williams and Jones, I want intel on the suspect and the hostage.” Immediately, two men exited the SWAT team’s mobile home. They disappeared into the shadows.
“We last saw them in the kitchen,” said Ashley.
“Yeah, thanks,” said Johnson dismissively. He looked at her again as if checking that she was a woman. “Is the perimeter secure?”
“Yes, there are two…” began Ashley.
“And under surveillance?” interrupted Johnson. Ashley did not like how he was asking his questions. When she took a deep breath both to stay composed and reply, Johnson’s and her radio chirped. The SWAT team members and an officer conveyed the same message at the same time to their leaders: the suspect had walked out the back door of the house and was holding a knife to the hostage.
Leaving Johnson behind, Ashley sprinted down the side of the house toward the back. She slowed down just before arriving at the corner and prepared herself to aim down the sights of her handgun. When she peeked around the corner, she saw the two police officers on her team aiming their weapons at the suspect. He shielded himself with the hostage and controlled her movements with the knife.
The suspect was only aware of the police officers, and he faced them. Having a side view of the suspect and hostage, she saw she had a clear shot. She hesitated. It was a shot she did not want to take. If she put the suspect down, she would not be able to interrogate him. She may never find out how he coordinated the simultaneous murders. As she considered her nonlethal options, she heard a shot fired from a sniper rifle. The hostage screamed and the suspect fell to the ground.
Early the next morning, Ashley sat in her cubicle doing her paperwork for the case. She could not bring herself to put words down on the standard forms. She knew she could not put it off because she would need to participate in the SWAT team’s review and evaluation that afternoon.
Ashley was dreading seeing Johnson again. He had handled the situation perfectly, and she had botched almost everything. The SWAT unit would be relaxed and able to declare success. She would be able to declare how she allowed three victims: the man who’d been found dead in the newsstand, the driver who’d had his car jacked, and the woman who had been held hostage. All she had to show for that disastrous night was a dead suspect, a knife from the hostage’s kitchen, and a rock the suspect had in his pocket.
Ashley picked up the evidence bag in which she had placed the rock. She examined it through the plastic. It looked to her like a gumball made of orange sugar. She looked for something like it online and it looked like it could be an orange diamond. Given its size, the suspect would not have taken it from the last victim or hostage.
Finding the owner of the orange gemstone would have to wait. Ashley’s highest priority was to find the other killer. She absentmindedly took the gem out of the bag and fidgeted with it as she considered if there could be more than one accomplice out there. She asked herself, how many monsters could there be? How many people were willing to end human lives for vanity? How many were capable of taking human lives for sport? It was her and Kimberly against these monsters.
Ashley held the stone tightly and pounded the top of the desk softly and rhythmically. She fidgeted as she thought about what they could do to solve this case once and for all. She felt stretch thin. She thought, if only there were more detectives on the case like Kimberly and herself. She suddenly felt dizzy. She told herself it was the stress, but then she had double vision. She felt faint and as if she might slip out of her chair. She closed her eyes, leaned back, and put her hands on her head to steady herself. When she opened her eyes, there was a woman in front of her. It was not Kimberly, but someone who she felt she should instantly recognize – like her mother or sister. However, there was something wrong with the appearance of the woman. It was herself. She was looking at herself standing in her cubicle.
“Compare the color of the ground here,” said Andrew as he moved his hand in a circle over the earth with his right palm facing downward, “to the color of the ground over here.” Sandra knew he was only defining the edges of the excavation aloud and not instructing her, but she was irritated. His habit of thinking aloud made her feel as if he was talking down to her. It hatched the need to tell herself she was just as good, or better, an archeologist as he. She licked her teeth as she listened to him go on and on, and she looked at him from head to toe with a hint of aggression. She always expected him to be dirtier than he was, but then she remembered that all of his shirts and all of his pants were identical so he would not need to think about his clothing.
“We should expand the edges for belongings,” interrupted Sandra.
“Oh, I’ve looked and haven’t found any indication he had any,” said Andrew. He backed up and looked over the ground as if he could see through it. He had the look on his face a chef has just before diners begin having their meal. He had a theory that the chiefs of this tribe were judged by their generosity. Therefore, it was a great honor to have no possessions throughout their lives and be buried with none. When he examined the site, he only found one grave. That was unusual in such a beautiful location. The two archeologists excavated under what appeared to be the opening of an enormous cave. From a distance, they looked like two tiny figures under a colossal stone wave that was about to crash down upon them. Many could have used the formation as a shelter, but it was instead a massive headstone for an ancient human.
After weeks of careful work, Sandra and Andrew began to exhume a body. Sandra bit her lips as she looked at the boundaries of their dig. She was troubled. “Andrew, I don’t think we defined the edges of the context correctly,” said Sandra.
“No, no, no,” said Andrew. “They’re good. The ground penetrating radar only showed human remains.”
“I’m going to run the metal detector over the sides just to make sure,” said Sandra.
“Now?” asked Andrew. She nodded. He took a deep exasperated breath, but he estimated if he protested they would argue longer than it would take her to fail to detect a stray find.
She returned with the metal detector and began to work around the edges of their dig. Andrew listened to her move about, but focused on exhuming his chief. Then, the metal detector sounded a positive signal.
“You just had to look, didn’t you? Look, we are not going to dig out of phase,” said Andrew looking up at Sandra.
“No, we’re not,” said Sandra. “We’re going to define the edges of a new context and do a proper dig.”
“We’re not going to ruin our schedule for nothing,” said Andrew.
“You don’t know it’s nothing,” said Sandra.
“I’m leading this dig, Sandra,” said Andrew.
“Do you really just want to run with this and have that flaw in your work?” asked Sandra. “I’m not just going to forget about it.” She felt so strongly, she waved the metal detector around as she spoke without noticing. She emphasize, “I can’t forget about this.” As she unconsciously pointed to the location of the signal; the metal detector slipped from her hand, hit the earthen wall, and dirt poured down. A red object flowed down with it.
“What is that?” asked Andrew. He had seen the object in the earth.
“Don’t move!” exclaimed Sandra.
“Don’t tell me not to move,” exclaimed Andrew. “You’re the one that just over-cut the site.”
“Stop and listen, Andrew!” pleaded Sandra. He felt rumbling under his feet before his ears perceived it.
“Run!” shouted Andrew. Sandra did not hesitate. She was off like a sprinter after the gun. He would have taken his alleged chief with him if he could. Instead, he clawed with his hand into the earth where he saw a part of the red item peeking through. That decision cost him. There was a deep-seated landslide and a layer of the cliff they worked under broke off. It fell with the force of ice calving off a glacier. He sprinted, but he only made it to the edge of the debris flow. Earth and rock covered him. A cloud of dust made it impossible to see. He could not breathe from the heavy weight on his chest, and he felt himself slowly lose consciousness.
When Andrew woke, he heard Sandra crying near him. He opened his eyes, and they teared up to wash the dirt out. He looked toward the sound of her sobs and saw her sitting awkwardly on the ground. She was covered in dirt. Her wrists rested on her legs. Her palms faced upward. They were raw and had blood on them.
“Is that my blood?” asked Andrew.
“No, it’s mine,” answered Sandra. Andrew stood up and dusted himself off. Sandra let out an odd yelp as if someone had just given her terrible news.
“What’s wrong, Sandra?” asked Andrew.
“You should be dead!” exclaimed Sandra. After hearing the strange sound of distress in her own voice, she visibly tried to compose herself. She used the back of her hands to wipe the tears from her face. She slowly stood up. Andrew saw cuts on her legs. She appeared exhausted.
“Are you OK?” asked Andrew as gently as he could.
“How are you OK?” asked Sandra. She motioned toward a pile of rocks. “All of those – all of them – were on top of you.”
“Those rocks?” asked Andrew in disbelief. The pile could have filled several bathtubs.
“And those,” said Sandra pointing toward boulders that appeared to have been dragged from where he laid. “I used the truck and a chain to drag them off of you. You were at the edge of the landslide. I thought I could save you, but after I removed heavy rock after rock after rock.”
“Thank you, Sandra,” said Andrew. She stared at him. There was along moment of silence during which he allowed her to look at him.
“You had no pulse,” said Sandra.
“I’m fine,” said Andrew.
“I may have hit you with the pick,” said Sandra.
“Don’t worry about it,” said Andrew. “Nothing is hurting.”
“And I may have been the cause of some stones falling back onto your head,” said Sandra.
“Your dissertation was on exhumation methods,” said Andrew.
“Of people who have been dead for years. I was trying to get you out, you jerk. And look at me,” said Sandra looking over her wounds. She looked at him again. “And look at you. There isn’t athing wrong with you.” Andrew realized she was right. He felt like he was eighteen again, or at least the idealized memory of how he felt when he was 18. The only odd sensation was his clenched fist. He felt something in his hand. He turned away from Sandra so she could not see him looking into his palm. There was a red jewel in it.
Thomas lies face downward against the body of a dead soldier from his regiment. He is not hurt, but his little brother Joseph is shot and lies somewhere behind him in the meadow. If Thomas is going to get Joseph, he must do it quickly. The fighting will provide the only cover on that bright summer morning. The way it is going, it might soon be over. Once the fighting stops, there will be nothing to keep confederate soldiers from spotting his movements out there in the open.
Thomas abruptly turns his head to search for his brother. It is clear Union regiments are losing. Many from the 2nd Massachusetts are down. He notes the losses by the 27th Indiana and they shock him. His eyes tear up and a lump develops in his throat. A wave of hopelessness flows over him that he had not felt since the Battle of Cedar Mountain when Jackson was handing their butts to them. This morning’s order forced his regiment to attack the Confederates from the meadow now covered with bodies in blue uniforms. The 27th Indiana is receiving the worst of the assault from soldiers positioned behind a stone wall.
“If Joseph is alive, I’m going to shoot him,” says Thomas. It was Joseph who wanted to join the 2nd Massachusetts two years ago. Joseph joined for duty and honor. Thomas joined because he was not going to allow anyone to kill his little brother.
Thomas swallows his hopelessness and looks behind him for his brother. He has cover behind the body of a soldier who fell just after Joseph did. Thomas hears someone from the 27th yell, “Fire!” He takes a crouching stance and runs from body to body searching each face.
Thomas hears a ball fly by his ear with a whooshing sound. He dives for the ground, but he does not stop searching. He crawls across the field checking the faces of more soldiers than he believes could have marched between his brother and him. He believes he has gone in the wrong direction until he spots a pink handkerchief. Thomas tied a handkerchief he borrowed from their mother to the back of Joseph’s belt as a prank.
Thomas crawls to Joseph. Joseph lies face down, so Thomas fears the worst. He begins to call to him “Jo!” cries out Thomas. “Jo! Jo!”
Thomas arrives at Joseph’s body. He grabs the cross belt and rolls Joseph onto his back. Joseph’s face is distorted from pain. Thomas is relieved Joseph is alive. Joseph has both hands against his chest. There is a lot of blood behind them.
“Keep pressing down on that chest wound, Jo,” says Thomas.
“It’s just my hand,” says Joseph. “But it hurts like GRRR!”
“Can you move?” asks Thomas.
“Maybe,” says Joseph. “How’s my leg?” Thomas crawls down to take a look at Joseph’s leg. His light blue trousers are soaked in blood on the outside front of his thigh. There is more blood at the back of the same thigh. It looks to Thomas like the blood is from an exit wound.
“Unless you were shot twice, it doesn’t look too bad,” says Thomas.
“I was shot twice,” says Joseph. “I was shot in the leg once and fell. When I saw you hit the ground, I motioned to you with my hand. That’s when I got shot again. They shot my hand.”
“You idiot,” says Thomas. “You and I are going to run a three legged race to those rocks over there.”
“We can fight from here,” says Joseph.
“We’re done here,” says Thomas. “We were done before we started. Even the commander knew that. How are you going to shoot that musket with no hand? Are the Rebs just supposed to run over here and fall on your bayonet? I need to get you to those rocks and stop all that bleeding.”
“Alright,” says Joseph. “If it’ll get you to shut up.”
“How’d you manage to get shot in the right leg and right hand?” asks Thomas. “You’re going to have to put your right arm around me to hold yourself up. I’m going to have that disgusting hand dripping blood on my shoulder.”
“I’m just afraid I’m going to pick up an illness rubbing against your thigh,” says Joseph.
“Shut up,” says Thomas. “On three.”
“No,” says Joseph, “Ready. Go.”
“Fine,” says Thomas. “Ready. Go!” In one motion, Thomas pulls Joseph’s arm over his head and lifts him off the ground. Joseph growls with pain. Having run many three-legged races as children, they move quickly across the field despite the obstacles on the ground. Shots fly through the air by them with a whistling sound and they crouch. They reach the cover of a rock and Thomas pushes Joseph’s back against it. Thomas helps him lower himself and sit.
“Don’t get comfortable, boys!” yells another soldier. He fires his musket. “We’re getting flanked!”
“You hear that, Jo?” asks Thomas. “Can you make it back to the woods?”
“Guess we’ll find out,” says Joseph.
“Ready. Go?” asks Thomas. Joseph nods his head. “Ready. Go!” Thomas pulls Joseph’s arm over his head again and lifts him off the ground. Joseph exhales sharply. They run from the cover of one rock to another. The other soldiers continue firing, but they retreat. Thomas and Joseph run through the woods. The sound of muskets lessens. They only hear shots fired in the distance. Their footsteps and breathing make the loudest sound.
At camp, Thomas cleans and dresses Joseph’s wounds. Their mother’s pink handkerchief is wrapped around Joseph’s leg. Thomas looks over his little brother and leaves to wash himself.
Thomas pours water from his canteen over his hands to wash off Joseph’s blood. After he dries them, he examines them. They are trembling.
Thomas hears an order to fall in. He shakes his head. He runs to the spot where he left Joseph to pick up his gear.
“Because of you, I won’t have whiskey after this battle,” says Thomas.
“What?” asks Joseph. “We just came back.”
“You’d better hope I get shot, Jo,” says Thomas, “or I’m going to beat you when I get home.”
“Just raise your hand,” says Joseph, “and wave at the Rebs like an idiot.” Thomas reaches down and squeezes Joseph’s leg. Joseph yells from the pain. While Joseph’s eyes are closed, Thomas runs to join their regiment.
The White Oak was as spacious a tree as anyone could hope to be a prisoner in. The branch Steven stood upon was twelve feet above the ground, but the tree itself was one-hundred-twenty feet tall. Its crown of glossy green leaves provided a lot of shade. The thick trunk was white and brown, and its numerous strong branches spread as if offering to embrace. However large the tree; it was an island in a sea of yellow, brown, and green grass. Steven estimated he could not reach the cover of the woods by outrunning the collie, Labrador, and German Shepherd who treed him in the first place. He certainly could not fight them. His only choice appeared to be to wait for them to become bored and leave.
“Hey, how did you do that?” asked the collie. Steven was not expecting a question. Speechless, he looked down at the dog. It continued, “I can’t do that. Can you guys do that?”
“Do what?” asked the Labrador.
“He clearly means to ask us if we can climb trees,” said the German Shepherd.
“He could have meant stand balanced on a branch,” said the Labrador.
“We could all stand and balance on a branch if it were on the ground, but climbing a tree is something we’ve never done,” said the German Shepherd.
“Yes, I meant climb the tree,” said the collie. “How did you do that? I don’t know any dogs that can climb trees.”
“The cat can climb trees,” said the Labrador.
“His point is that dogs, at least any known to us, cannot climb trees,” said the German Shepherd.
“That little dog can,” said the Labrador.
“You’re beginning to catch up,” said the German Shepherd.
“I want to know how he did that,” said the collie.
“Probably fear,” said the German Shepherd. “Have you seen this dog run from a cardboard box? You’d think he’d seen Death in it.”
“You don’t know what’s in every box,” said the Labrador.
“Little dog, I want you to climb that tree over there,” said the collie. He gestured toward a loblolly pine; a very tall tree with a medium sized trunk and gray bark. Steven inspected it. Climbing it presented him with two challenges. The first was that the bark looked as if it could come off when he dug his claws into it. The second was that the nearest branch was more than halfway up the tree: sixty-five feet up. There was one potential advantage: the tree might have lacked branches because there might be trees close enough to give it competition. If they were close enough, it could be a way to escape.
“You may accept the challenge,” said the German Shepherd, “or we can wait for the eagles to return.” Steven searched the branches above him. He saw an exceptionally large nest that looked like someone dropped a pile of sticks on the highest branches. He was familiar with nests, eggs, and birds because the latter two were a part of his diet. By the look of the nest, it belonged to a very large bird. Even small birds could be fierce. An eagle would not ignore a gray fox near its nest.
Steven climbed down backwards with his tail leading the way down. He watched the dogs closely. He made sure to dig his claws into the bark of the White Oak with each step. He was ready to climb back up if they gave any sign they were going to bite him.
The dogs watched in awe as Steven climbed down. They visualized themselves walking up and down the tree, but they could not imagine being able to stop along the way or move backward to get down. They watched him paused on the trunk like a squirrel. He looked in their general direction, and they knew he was afraid. Seeing how his tension slowed him down, the dogs stepped back and gave him more room. He continued to descend slowly. When he reached the ground; he turned around with his head bowed, his ears back and flat, and his tail between his legs.
“You can’t outrun me, little dog,” said the collie. “Just show us how you climb a tree.”
Steven moved slowly toward the loblolly pine as the three dogs escorted him. When he reached the bottom of the tree, he put a little tension in his hind legs and then leapt onto the trunk. He smelled the pine leave the bark as his hooked claws dug in. He felt strong when he began to climb. He climbed fifteen feet and began to feel his muscles pumped. When he reached thirty feet up, he paused until he felt secure about his grip. At forty five feet, he was as high as he had ever climbed before. He saw a branch above him where he could rest. It was another fifteen feet up. He wanted to finish climbing, but could not release his claws from the bark. His muscles trembled. He looked down at the dogs on the ground. His grip on the bark tightened, and his limbs shook noticeably.
“Why are you stopping?” shouted the collie.
“At least make it to the first branch!” shouted the Labrador. Steven was frozen. He felt his muscles weakening. They betrayed him. He felt his claws loosening as some of the weaker muscles failed. Falling became a real possibility in his mind. Then, the German Shepherd barked loudly and ferociously. It frightened him so much, he scrambled the remaining fifteen feet to the safety of the branch. He stood upon it looking down at the ground far below. He panted. His heart pounded.
“Did you see that?” shouted the collie. “Did you see that little dog climb all the way up that tree?”
“I’ve never seen a dog do that,” said the Labrador. “He looks tiny up there.”
“It makes me wonder if he is a dog after all,” said the German Shepherd.
May arrived and filled the field around the burrow with life. When Steven emerged from the den before dawn, he was greeted by the strong fragrance of flowers. It was loud outside as insects whizzed, buzzed, and whirred as they seemed to try to drown each other out. Despite the noise, he could hear water making its way over rocks in the creek nearby. It all made him want to go explore.
As Steven walked about sniffing and studying all of the different smells, the horizon hinted the sun would soon rise. The ambient illumination rose slowly until there was enough light to see the reds and yellows that covered the field. The Earth seemed to celebrate, and he felt the days ahead would be better than the cold and hungry days behind him.
Lisa slept in the den while Steven explored. She had begun sleeping longer than she used to. He estimated he would have enough time to hunt and return with a treat before she woke. He wanted to surprise her with an eastern cottontail. Steven surveyed the field one last time for its beauty. Then, he changed his point of view and began to hunt.
The day became brighter as the sun slowly crawled its way to the top of the sky. The coolness of the morning air was gone and was replaced by a nervous warmth. Steven had not had success. He picked up and lost scents of prey. Tracks led him to nothing. It was as if the rabbits were suddenly disappearing as they hopped along.
Steven suddenly found himself hunting much farther from the den than he had intended. He was in unfamiliar territory. At a distance, he saw buildings from a farm he avoided whenever he could. There was a large unpainted barn made of distressed wood, holes in the roof, and doors that appeared to be unmovable. There were rusted farm machinery and car parts randomly scattered between the barn, house, and shed. Tall grass and weeds surrounded and grew into the insides of the materials. The house was one fourth the size of the barn, but almost equally neglected.
Three dogs who rested on the porch of the farmhouse caught Steven’s scent. One of them began to bark. As soon as Steven heard barking, he searched the distance for the source. He expected to see a dog threatening somewhere far away. However, about a soccer field away, he saw a black German Shepherd and a black, white, and brown collie sprinting toward him and closing in.
Steven turned and ran. He knew he was not faster than the dogs, so he looked for the nearest tree. The first one he saw was a White Oak growing alone in a meadow. It was not a good option, but it was his only one. Its location changed his trajectory so that the dogs actually had less distance to travel to overtake him. With panic shooting through his body, he slowed down as he neared the bottom of the tree. And just as he heard growling and paw beats on the ground beside him, he climbed up and out of reach.
The German Shepherd and the collie stood up against the tree and barked menacingly at Steven. He held on to the tree unable to move further from fear and looked down at them. A black Labrador Retriever joined them and walked around looking for a way up. Steven’s heart raced as he watched the dogs below him trying to figure out how to get to get him.
Long minutes filled with the sounds of menace passed, but Steven was still alive. He became sure the dogs could not reach him. Being less afraid, he was able to move. He found a branch nearby upon which to rest. Once he was on it, his heart began to beat a little slower. The energy from adrenaline retreated from his paws and evaporated from his body. The blood pounding into his head slowed its rhythm, reduced its intensity, and he was able to think.
Steven looked around the perimeter of the tree for a way to escape. He was in the middle of a meadow, and there were no other trees nearby that he could leap to. He searched the ground for holes or abandoned dens he might be able to dash to, but he could not see them if there were any. There were brush and fallen trees that offered cover, but were so far that the collie would most likely catch him halfway to them. The despair that struck him felt all the more intense because he had so much hope for a good life earlier that morning when he had walked out of the den. Steven felt he might never again go home to Lisa.
During a morning last February, Steven dug through snow to exit his den. After his eyes adjusted to the arresting light from the white fields, he saw Lisa for the first time. She was hunting. Her nose and ears were directed downward. She moved gracefully above the ground as lightly as if she were floating. He noticed her fur was mostly gray like his own. There were touches of orange behind her head, along the sides of her belly, and beneath her tail. Her tail had a black stripe along the top like his own.
Lisa froze appearing to hear something beneath the snow. She repositioned her body and put tension in it like a spring. After a moment of calculation, she pounced and poked her face into the snow. By her reaction, she missed her prey. The grace Steven witnessed when Lisa was stalking left. She dug frantically through the snow. As she flung the white powder back, it stuck to her fur like cotton. It also covered her muzzle and gave her the appearance of being rabid.
The vole Lisa hunted made a navigation error during its escape. It popped out of the snow and into plain view. Steven spotted it, but Lisa was too flustered to notice the fur ball in the snow. The vole looked around trying to gain its bearings. While the handful of fur sat in the snow overthinking its next move, Steven sprinted toward it. The vole saw Steven and began to scurry for the cover of a fallen log, but it had reacted too slowly. Steven captured it.
Steven trotted to Lisa with the vole in his snout. He stopped in front of her and offered it, but she did not notice. She continued to dig through the snow to find the same vole. Stephen waited for a minute, then gave a low bark to get her attention. It startled her. She leapt back and glared at him for causing her to jump. As she looked him in the eye, she noticed the wiggling vole in his snout. Her stomach growled loud enough for Steven to hear it.
Steven bowed his head slightly feeling sorry for Lisa, but also amused by her at the same time. He tried to tell her with his facial expression that the vole was for her. She appeared to understand and responded that she would not take it. So, he opened his snout and the vole leapt for the ground. Lisa’s expression changed from pride to panic as she watched it scurry back into the snow. She leapt for it, but it was gone.
Highly irritable from her hunger, she pounced on Steven and bit his shoulder. He yelped at the aggressive bite. Lisa held his body to the ground and waited for him to retaliate, but he did not. After it was clear that he was not going to fight back, she felt badly that she had knocked him to the ground and had bit him. She slowly got off of him and backed away with her head bowed.
Steven stood up and walked out of the impression they had left in the snow. He walked over to Lisa who was not looking him in the eye anymore. When he was next to her face, he shook off the snow that had stuck to him when he was on the ground. She growled, and he ran.
Lisa was disappointed as she looked up and saw him run away from her. He galloped across the field of snow and dove into an evergreen tree. She expected to see a cloud of snow fall as he went into it, but he did not disturb a single needle. A disinterested gray fox would have looked away, but she watched the tree hoping. Then, he jumped out from the upper half of the tree. As he trotted back, she noticed a bird in his snout.
Steven stopped in front of her and told her with his facial expression that the bird was for her. She understood. She stepped forward, took the bird from his snout, and stepped back. She looked at Steven with gratitude. Then, she opened her snout and let the bird fly away.
This is one of the images I was considering for a story I wrote back in March, The Cybernetic . Even though I didn’t use the image, I thought it would be fun to paint it.
I used blue and orange complimentary colors to evoke excitement. The analogous colors in the background are supposed to suggest both an explosion and the forward motion of the character. I omitted the effect of the character’s foot striking the ground, but the pencil marks are slightly visible.