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 Blood is brighter than you think. When it’s still fresh – still warm and wet – it’s cheerfully bright, suitable for a parade. A good luck shade of red.
            Sticky streamers of the stuff unrolled down a water-stained wall. The room buzzed, as if the static light rods were gossiping, catching up on the events that had just transpired in its bluish din.
            Twenty-six, maybe 27, six-foot even, probably 190 to 200 pounds – it was his blood that ribboned so brightly, flowing effortlessly down and around the bits of brain matter, obliterated skull parts, and matted hair webbing that stuck to the lodge wall.

            The Madame sat squatting on her heels next to his now stilled body. She wore a long, flowing skirt that spread out around her small frame like a pastel pink universe.
            With delicate fingers, The Madame closed the man’s gray-green eyes, already glassy from death. Against pale, Caucasian cheeks, his thick, black lashes revealed their remarkable length. In this sleep-like state, he looked beautiful. Like a China doll. It was incongruous on a body that had built up a reputation for merciless violence. The discrepancy between his beauty and brutality made me wonder: Had he had to fight his whole life against those doll-like lashes? How many times did bullies bigger than him corner him, taunt him, tease him because of those lashes? How many times did those cornered confrontations lead to bloodied and broken noses? How many times were those lashes held under toilet water in the boy’s locker room? When he gasped for breath between plunges, did lemon-scented bleach water drip from those long lashes onto a fitted uniform? Or was it murky shit water that clung and coagulated on those lashes, dribbling onto a worn out GI-Joe T-shirt? Was that what drove him to build his body so big? To fight so meanly? A tortured temper that had but one probable path: Drugs, drug-dealing, gangs back in Ireland or England or wherever he was from, and finally an international promotion to run the drug trade, then the sex trade, on the Thai islands. A move that inevitably leads to The Madame. Was that what had happened to this beautiful boy?
            A gecko purred in chirps, breaking my reverie. The gecko cries, they say, when truth has been revealed. I nodded in tacit acknowledgement.

            The Madame rocked back and forth over the stiffening body. She hummed a meditative mantra, her licorice hair swung slowly to and fro, giving her the appearance of a mum lulling a child to sleep. When she turned her walnut eyes back at me, she wore a soft smile on her face. Her plump cherub lips were smeared a slick red. It never ceased to seize my insides at the sight of newly spilt blood glossed on her lips like lipstick. But The Madame and I have never seen eye to eye on death.
            “Don’t be so soft, George,” The Madame purred through a kind-eyed smirk.
            I unscrewed my tight expression and laughed through a closed mouth to break the tension.
           She looked back at the body, wetting her fingers in his darkening blood, then rubbing her fingers together, as if testing a piece of silk.
           “It is time,” she said quietly as she unfolded her body into a standing position. She rummaged through her shoulder bag, which was somehow still exactly where she left it on the bed, and handed me the cleaver.

 

Too Late

02/09/2013

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            “Guten morgen,” a voice chirps from my answering machine. “This message is for Frau Ulrike Stein.”
            At the mention of my mother’s name, I snap to attention.
            “My name is Anna. I’m a volunteer from the Ministry for State Security Museum. We work with people who were affected by the Stasi.”
            It’s been over 30 years since East Germany’s secret police toyed with my family’s lives like lab rats in a sick human experiment. Despite the decades and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the mention of the Stasi sends my pulse into rapid fire fight-or-flight palpitations.
            “I work with the Nuremberg puzzle women,” the voice continues in its perfunctory tone. “The puzzle women piece together the top-secret files that the Stasi shredded before we stormed Leipzig.”
            The voice says “we,” as if the woman on the other end were part of the people’s revolution, but the accent gives her away. The voice is from the other side – the west side of the wall – where ich turns to a sharper icke. I snort in involuntary contempt.
            “My job is to inform families about files that have been pieced together. Let’s see...” Papers shuffle. The voice hums to indicate a moment of reorganization.
            “In your case, Frau Stein, I have a request here to follow up on the file for Alexander Weber—”
            The voice halts suddenly. Hesitantly, it resumes, “According to the notes, you were interested in determining the cause of death...”
            The ensuing silence is louder than the voice that echoed through my apartment seconds before.
            “It says here that Accused Number 1024 died October 24, 1989,” continues the voice. “Cause of death: severe head trauma...”

            I knew very little about my father, except that he died in prison just days before the wall came down when I was 3 years old. My mother said the Stasi arrested him on suspicions of subversion. He had been innocent, my mother insisted. She had been the dissident, the one who had a criminal record for dispersing questionable flyers back when she was a teenager. He had done nothing but fall in love with her.
            My mother always suspected that my father had died at the hands of torture. But when a Stasi officer called that autumn afternoon to instruct her to collect the belongings of deceased Number 1024, the officer had cited heart complications as the cause of death. My mother suspected otherwise when they wouldn’t let her see his body. Even at his funeral, Stasi officers patrolled the grounds, apparently to ensure that the casket stayed closed.
            “Why would they not let me say a proper goodbye unless they were hiding something?” she used to lament through the thick cigarette smoke that finally claimed her life late last year. She had seemed so relieved when the doctors gave her three months to live.

            My memories whirl back to the present moment when the answering machine speaks up again. I didn’t realize the voice was still on the line.
            “Oh my god...” the voice whispers, distractedly. The voice must be going through the file. I wonder if there are photographs. When the voice speaks again, it cracks.
            “Frau Stein, my name is Anna Weber. I’m Alexander’s mother—”
            A body-shuddering sob cuts short the confession. “I lost him the day the wall went up,” she explains through staccato silences, that silent crying perfected by women who have endured a life of heartbreak. “Dear God, my baby...”
            “Wait!” I yell, lunging for the phone. “I’m Alexander’s daughter! My name is Anna!” I exclaim into the receiver.

            There is only dead air.

 
 
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An evening air made itself comfortable as Elizabeth overlooked the long lake that, from her vantage high on a hill in the Catbells, only spanned the length of her forearms. A fascinating trick of the eye for a child of nine. It made the small girl feel powerful, almighty even. 

She smoothed her gown over exposed legs and leaned back on one elbow amidst the weeds and wildflowers; she did not know which was which. Ready. Then, as if on cue, dusk descended.... 
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Story Inspiration: Derwentwater, The Lake District, England.

Real-Life Review: Nestled in the sloping knolls and proper pikes of northwestern England, The Lake District offers an undeniably enchanting environment for the tourist, the outdoor enthusiast, but... [ Read more. ]

 
 
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He sat high at the big oak bar impatiently rapping the bottom of his pint glass -- empty -- against the tarnished wood. Not once did he look up. Rather, he stared unblinkingly down into the cylindrical vacancy.

From the kitchen door, she smiled to herself. He stared so intently that it almost seemed he was attempting something supernatural. One day, she mused, the glass would magically refill itself. 

He furrowed his brow and banged harder. 

Clearly that day would not be today... [ Read more. ]
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Story Inspiration: The Three Daggers, a pub in Edington, England.

Real-Life Review: This quaint pub is so prettily picturesque that it draws on the heartstrings even without an awkward love story... 
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“Do I have snail breath?” He huffed hot air that filled her face. 

Sniff. Pause.

“I’m picking up a salty scent, something like wet cement and soiled sidewalk,” she said. Sarcasm never was her fortée, but she was working on it. She was doing it for him. “So, yeah. Ew.”

“Ew.” He echoed with exaggerated disgust, crinkling his nose in that way that made her laugh. “But at least I don’t have snail antennae between my teeth,” he said smartly. Her toothy grin disappeared... [ Read more. ]
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Story Inspiration: Sa Golleta Restaurante, Palma de Mallorca, Spain

Real-Life Review: Sa Golleta Restaurante sits in the center of Palma de Mallorca on Avinguda d'Argentina, a refreshing distance... [ Read more. ]

 
 
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“Back to your ranks, soldiers!” the General spits, his awards jingle with every step.

“YesSIR!” his troops reply.

I organize my toy soldiers by weapon type. Four crouch on one knee, their identical faces hide behind long machine guns that are supposed to be AK-47s, but my father insists... [ Read more. ] 
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Story Inspiration: The people-watching on China's cross-country trains

Real-Life Review: China's trains transport much of the country's 1.3 billion people, though fortunately not all at the same time... Read more. ] 

 

Yawn

04/07/2012

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The Chinese vocal projection is a practiced achievement idiosyncratic to this otherwise soft-footed culture. From a silent standstill, their vocal chords can vibrate into a visceral roar that shatters stillness and rattles brains. This startling skill seems a show of strength, not unlike lions marking their territories with louder and louder exhibits of teeth, tongue, and tonsils.

Consider the two grandpas. The clack-a-clack of this lumbering locomotive lulled them to a snoring snooze in the early evening, just after the dinner carts rolled on the next car touting their savory, slurpy suppers.
[ Read more. ]
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Story Inspiration: China’s cross-country trains and the cultural phenomenon of sudden and seemingly random vocal projections.

Real-Life Review:  China’s cross-country trains are categorized into three classes: soft-sleeper, hard-sleeper, and seats. Each... Read more. ]