Archive for the ‘randomocity’ Category

A ridiculously handsome brindled dog with a giant head. He looks like James Garner from The Rockford Files.
Bruno, the handsomest dog I ever met

Back in 2020, this magnificent knucklehead was so happy to see me that he ran full speed down the length of the house and body slammed me. All eighty pounds of him–BLAM!–directly into the front of my right knee.

In fact he hit me so hard that my knee locked up in the straightened position for several hours before I could get it to bend. After that, my knee has never been right again. Sadly, Bruno has left us, but I’ll never forget him courtesy of my knee.

In the last three years, I’ve been to various doctors. I’ve done three separate rounds of physical therapy. I’ve done acupuncture and massage therapy. My right knee is still messed up, and as a result, now my left knee is wrecked from picking up the slack.

Maybe the worst part about all this is how completely tedious I find rehab exercises. The only exercising I’ve ever enjoyed in life is walking. I used to walk about ten miles a day. Once my knee was injured, though, I descended into a hell of rehab exercises. Do this exercise. 3 sets of 10 reps on each leg. Repeat for the next exercise and the next and the next. Counting to 10 over and over and over honestly damages my will to live. The last three years have been a joyless montage of 3 sets of 10 reps. Some days it’s nearly impossibly to motivate myself to go do the work. That’s why I feel like I’ve discovered some incredible secret to exercising.

I STOPPED COUNTING. That’s it. Last week, I stopped counting. I don’t count my reps. I don’t count my sets. I don’t use a timer. It’s just vibes. I do an exercise until it feels like I’ve done enough. Then I do it on the other leg. Then I go onto the next exercise and do it until it feels like enough. The way this has completely changed my relationship to rehab exercises is amazing. I just get up in the morning and do them. I don’t make excuses. I don’t have to berate or threaten myself. I don’t dread that hour of my day. (And yes, the vibe method takes the same amount of time as the tedious counting method.)

I don’t know if anybody else is trapped in a counting hell of patellar lifts and hip CARS, but I highly recommend giving up on the counting. And if you’re a physical therapist, have you considered not assigning exercises in a way that’s guaranteed to make them as loathsome as possible?

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Today I was reminded of another winter day almost ten years ago, when I was out walking my dog in the early evening. It was cold and slushy, so I was looking for the clearest route home, which turned out to be the parking lot behind an apartment complex that had been plowed. As we walked through the lot, I saw a cell phone lying on the ground next to an empty parking space. Generally speaking, I believe in good deeds. If I’d lost my phone, I would appreciate someone picking it up and getting it back to me, instead of leaving it to be run over.

I was surprised to find that it didn’t have a passcode, but that made it simpler. I called the number that seemed in heaviest rotation on the phone, figuring that person could help me. A girl answered, and when I explained what had happened, she passed me to her boyfriend, the owner of the phone.Far from being grateful or pleasant, the boyfriend, who hadn’t even noticed his phone was gone, swore at me and accused me of stealing his phone. I asked him why he thought a thief would call him on his phone and repeated that I’d found it in the parking lot.

“What do you want me to do with it?” I said, completely over my good deed at that point. Foolishly, I imagined that he would tell me his apartment number and I would put the phone in his mail box.

“I’m on my way to Kansas City. I’m gonna be at the Applebee’s on Metcalf,” he said.

Okaaaaay. What I really thought was Who the hell drives all the way to Kansas City to eat at Applebee’s? Who drives anywhere to eat at Applebee’s?

“So you need to come over there and turn over my phone or I’ll call the police.”

He really said that! Turn over his phone! I couldn’t help but think of the the saying No good deed goes unpunished. For the first time I thought of why that is, and I had to conclude that unfortunately a lot of people are not prepared for kindness and don’t know how to do gratitude. Why? I’m not sure. My theory about this guy is that he was a terrible person, so he expected everyone else to be terrible too. What a sad way to go through life.

As for me, I opted out of having my good deed punished. I certainly wasn’t driving anywhere to deliver a phone to some jackass. As I stood out in the cold with my dog, there was a temptation to power down the phone and throw it into one of the apartment complex’s trash dumpsters. I’m not inherently an evil person, though. More Chaotic Neutral, really. So I said, “There are three empty lots at the corner of 19th & Tennessee. I’m going to throw your phone in one of them. It probably has enough battery power left that you’ll be able to call and find it, if you get here in the next 2 hours.”

I hung up without waiting to hear what he would say. I didn’t answer when it rang. My dog and I walked on to the corner of 19th and Tennessee, and just as I said I would, I threw the phone as far as I could into one of the empty lots. Then we walked home.

Later, at bedtime, I took the dog on the same route, out of a sick curiosity. At the corner, I could see two people walking around in one of the empty lots, using a cell phone as a flash light. Reader, it was the wrong empty lot.

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Today, it’s less than two weeks until All the Ugly and Wonderful Things releases into the wild. In the vernacular of my youth, I’m pretty stoked.

I am also starting to fill up my dance card with a lot of events. As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve got events at four Kansas bookstores in the week after the book’s release. More details here.

There are also two giveaways currently in effect. One on Goodreads and the other on Go Fug Yourself. (Please note I pulled the link for that by Googling Go Fug Yourself Bryn Greenwood. Yep.)

So while I’m totally open to ideas about what I should talk about at these events, I’m not very nervous about them. I’ve done a lot of public speaking, much of it involving talking to giggling teenagers about sex. Far more unnerving is the fact that I’ve also got two television appearances scheduled. I used to do some TV spots when I worked for Planned Parenthood, and a few times I made quick talking head appearances when the real PR person wasn’t available. I’ve never actually been asked to talk about my own personal shit on TV, though. Still, I was okay until I read my refresher on TV appearances and was reminded that one should never wear black, white, red, or patterns on television. My closet:

Black like my soul

So, that’s black, black and white, red, black, leopard print, black, and a blue muumuu. After I stared this down for ten minutes, I started to wish that I were going to appear on a German naked newscast. I’m not, though, so pinky swear that I will be on TV, wearing something that isn’t black, white, red, or patterned.

Of course, as soon as I ventured into the world to shop for clothes, these are the things that jumped out at me:

Awww yeah. I love shopping at thrift stores, but aside from reassuring myself that the world is full of truly fantastic prints, I didn’t find anything. Guess that means I’ll have to break the old admonition about avoiding any activity that requires one to buy new clothes.

One thing I do know I’ll be wearing for at least some of these events: these super fantastic Fluevogs.

Fluevog Odettes


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Having opened my closet and divulged my shoe secrets, let me take it one step further. Although it’s fairly straightforward to find practical shoes that will aid me in my daily commute and my dog chaperoning duties, finding cute or sexy shoes is an entirely different concern.

I’ve never been a terribly girly girl, but I do on occasion like to put on a dress and look passingly feminine. Cute or sexy, however, is a tall order when you translate them into a size 11 or 12. The vast majority of shoes simply stop being cute or feminine in my size. The sales floor model is invariably a 6 or 7, and nearly every pair of sandals, pumps, peep-toes, slingbacks, and stilettos look good in a 6 or 7. Those very same shoes in an 11 or 12 … I’m often wearing shoes that would not be out of place on a cross-dressing man. In fact, I am sometimes wearing shoes intended for a cross-dressing man.

With that taken into consideration, I present my year in shoes, the impractical edition:


  1. These shoes are a time-travel contingency plan. If I wake up tomorrow as a 75-year-old woman, I am going to book a cruise, and take salsa lessons with a punishingly younger man, while wearing these shoes. They are unbelievably comfortable, obviously glittery, and they straddle that wonderful line of coquettish and old ladyish.
  2. Hard and fast rule: when you find a pair of Jeffrey Campbell platforms with 5 chrome buckles in your size on sale, you buy them. No questions. No hesitation. You buy them. Worry about where you’ll wear them later. At some point you will need to feel like an Amazonian dominatrix, and when that moment strikes, you’ll have the shoes.
  3. AutumnYou have probably gone off the Halloween costume deep end, when the shoes you’ll wear with it one time cost as much as a pair of shoes you’ll wear a hundred times. These are those shoes. Cute, but not particularly suited to anything by my Autumn costume.

Today, these shoes feel more important than they did when I wrote the practical version of my year in shoes. With David Bowie’s death, I’m reminded that clothes and shoes are more than just the coverings we wear to keep out the cold. They are also what we use to create ourselves, in the way Bowie re-created himself over and over during his career.

Our clothes and shoes can be armor against the world, or a billboard or a cry for help or a protest or a celebration. I knew this better when I was sixteen and nearly every outfit I owned was a “costume,” according to my mother. Somewhere along the way, I forgot just how much what I wear affects how I feel. I’m going to try to remember this more in 2016. Preferably while wearing those Jeffrey Campbells.

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I have a love/hate relationship with shoes. I love them, because they keep my feet warm, dry, safe, or a variety of other desirable states, depending on circumstances. On the hate side is the difficulty of finding shoes that fit. My feet are what are known in the footwear industry as “low-volume.” They are long, but incredibly narrow and very flat, so they don’t take up much room inside of a shoe.

Plus, I walk a lot. I didn’t realize just how much I walk until I got talked into a step tracker. Then I discovered that between my twice daily trips to work and back, and walking my dogs four times a day, I cover about eight miles a day. Walking is good on a number of levels, including the fact that it always helps me solve writing problems. Whenever I’m stumped by a plot problem, I just walk it out, but that means my shoes don’t last as long as most people’s shoes. This year was especially fraught with that problem.

I present my year in shoes, the practical edition:


  1. These are only the second pair of Keens that I’ve ever owned, but probably my last. I don’t expect my shoes to survive my walking regimen for very long, but I do ask that the traction strips on the soles not begin to peel away after six months. At first I thought I’d stepped on a particularly insidious clump of gum, and then realized the weird sticky sensation was produced by loose chunks of rubber and glue. Which is too bad, because they were otherwise pretty comfortable. Now they’ve been relegated to junk shoes, to be worn while painting, mowing, etc.
  2. My knights in black armor: Boggs rainboots. I wear these all year-round to the dog park, where there is always mud and often other unpleasant things to step in, as well. It only takes three levels of inserts to make them fit and they’re headed into a third year of keeping my socks and pant cuffs dry.
  3. This year’s splurge: Fluevogs. My sister and I traveled to Chicago in June, and made the trek out to the suburbs to the Fluevog store. Despite a variety of temptations, I went for the practical Derby Swirl 6-eye. They have required some breaking in, but I feel about them the way I once felt about my original made in England Doc Martens. I feel cool and badass while wearing these boots.
  4. The summer juggernauts: Chaco Z1 sandals. They are starting to show their three years of hard service, but are still holding up. I wear these basically every day that I wouldn’t be in danger of losing my toes to frostbite, because the feet need to be free!
  5. The traitors: Dansko Sabrina. First of all, I hate shoe styles with women’s names. Since I was a child that trend has set my teeth on edge. Second of all, $130 shoes, no matter how well they fit one’s awkward feet, should last more than two months. These didn’t. On Monday, after less than 45 days of service, the soles of these shoes started peeling away. The worst part is, I’m not even willing to indignantly demand a replacement pair from the manufacturer, because I wouldn’t wear another pair. Before the soles self-destructed they were stiff and slippery.

And so I entered the new year in need of new shoes. I went back to a trusted friend. Ahnu has long produced reliable waterproof, lug-soled walking and hiking shoes. So today I face the hill in these comfortable but not so attractive canoes:


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When I was a kid, the thing I remember most about the drive from my house to my aunt’s house in Manhattan, KS, was the tree that stood by the side of Kansas Turnpike between the El Dorado exit and the Cassoday exit. It had been struck by lightning, causing one of its largest branches to separate from the main trunk. The branch hadn’t fallen to the ground, though. It toppled over, crown first, and stayed there.

 © Copyright Chris Upson

© Copyright Chris Upson

Two branches embedded in the ground kept the base of the large branch propped against the tree. Over the years, that severed branch lost its bark, and by the time I was making the drive by myself, between my parents’ house and college, it was a bleached white bone.

That white limb, as big as the living tree it leaned against, took on an echo of the lightning strike that severed it. Stark and jagged, it caught the eye. It became a landmark, to let me know how much further I had to go. I marked it every time I passed.

After I’d been away, first to Japan, then to Florida, it greeted me on my return. A quick flash of white, an act of violence frozen in time. It’s amazing that it stood there so long–at least 35 years by my reckoning. It’s not surprising that it fell. The progression of decay. That relentless Plains wind. A series of grazing cattle using it to scratch their rumps.

When did it fall? I don’t even know. Was it there that Friday when I drove by on the way to my dad’s funeral? I couldn’t swear to it, because my mind was elsewhere. When I drove down for my mother’s seventieth birthday on the 4th of July? No. It had fallen by then. Finally become what it was. Not the glinting white echo of a bolt of lightning, but a half-rotted dead tree branch. I slowed as I approached and scanned the field. Craning my neck to see over the grass in the ditch, I located the branch in the muddy edge of the cattle watering hole.

Just like that, one of my landmarks was gone. Really, it was two. Not just the tree, but my pop, too. In the year since then, it has started to dawn on me that this is what life is about. Landmarks aren’t just things, they are people and ideas. They are guideposts that you use to make decisions about your life. You base your decisions on the landmarks around you, but the older you get, the fewer landmarks there are.

I became a secretary, just like my grandmother. She was one of my landmarks, pointing the way for my decision to take that first secretarial job. There were other decisions, though, that pulled me away from her. When I chose not to have children, when I ended my marriage. Those things toppled that landmark. I couldn’t use her as a guidepost for a lot of the decisions I made after that.

The grade school where you learned to read will be torn down. The grocery store where you had your first job will go out of business and become a Family Dollar store. Someone will blow up your favorite café. All the people who made you who you are will die. I’m sorry, but they are going to die. But you will tear down your own landmarks, too. You will walk away from the life that was laid out for you. You will turn your back on relationships. You will make different decisions than your grandparents did.

It’s painful, losing those landmarks, but you’ll find new ones. You’ll make new ones. Those will disappear, too, but you’ll get used to it. You’ll realize the older you get that we’re always at the edge of what each of us knows. We’re always looking at a fork in the road and trying to decide which way to go.

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We all have good behaviors that we try to model. Politeness, respect, kindness, those sorts of blanket ideas about being decent people. Beyond that, though, we have specific good deeds which we are individually tasked with. True mitzvehs in the Yiddish sense of “good deeds” rather than mitzvahs, the commandments from the Torah.

It’s not clear to me how we take on these tasks. Do we choose them based on our personalities? Do the fates (or G*d, if you prefer) confer on us those good deeds we are best able to perform? Or are we given the good deeds that require the most effort from us? A mix of both?

For example, one of my mitzvehs is reuniting dish sets at the Salvation Army. I love china and spent many years in Florida buying and reselling china. I no longer do that, but when I go into the Salvation Army on one of my regular searches for treasure, I often spend an hour in the dish aisles. Not shopping for anything, but finding the sets of dishes that have been separated on accident, either in the donation or the pricing process. The sad fact is that many sets of nice china get separated and lose both their value and their purpose. By bringing the soup bowls and dinner plates and tea cups and saucers back together on the shelves, I’m helping those dishes go to a new home. I’m helping people buy matched sets on which to enjoy their nourishment. It’s a small deed to be sure, but it feels like something I’m meant for. It gives me pleasure and it’s useful.

Two of my other mitzvehs are not well-suited to my personality, and yet they are my good deeds to perform.

I am an introvert. A text book sort of introvert. I will go to great lengths to avoid interacting with people and, although I’m able to do so for short periods of time, I find it exhausting. Meeting new people is a kind of agony for me, which requires significant girding of my loins.

That said, as I walk across campus during the summer months, it’s not unusual for me to see students and their families posing in front of various landmarks for pictures. Of course, it always means one member of the family is left out of the picture. Despite my discomfort, my mitzveh requires me to approach and say, “Would you like your picture taken together?” To date, no one has ever turned the offer down, which is how I know it’s a good deed and not an intrusion.

Friends don't let friends pitch with their zippers down.

Friends don’t let friends pitch with their zippers down.

This business of approaching strangers is not at all suited to my personality, but it does not compare to the final mitzveh that I’ll mention here. XYZ. I am the person who tells you when you forgot to zip your pants. Or your slip is showing. Or your sanitary napkin has leaked through on your khaki pants. If you’ve ever been in an elevator on your way to an important presentation and some stranger said, “Um, your fly is down,” that was me, or one of my people. I once crossed behind a line of presenters on a stage to whisper into the ear of the guy who was about to stand up and speak in front of a thousand people: “When you stand up, turn back toward me like you have something to tell me. Then zip your pants.”

He did it, in a convulsive gesture of horror, and I could feel the members of the audience who had already noticed it exhale in relief. That is the mystery to me about this particular mitzveh. As uncomfortable as it makes me, I cannot imagine how uneasy I would be to let someone walk around in that state without telling them. Yet I know people who won’t point these things out, because it embarrasses them. As though I’m not embarrassed to say, “Oh, hey, you have a big booger in your mustache.”

I think that’s the nature of these tiny good deeds, though. They find us, or we find them, based on our view of the world. I spend a lot of time not looking people in the eye, so I suppose it’s natural that I should be the one who notices the gaping fly and flash of underwear.

What about you? What are your tiny good deeds? Why is it your mitzveh?

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The Skittle of Opportunity

The Skittle of Opportunity

As I came up the stairs to my office yesterday, I saw a red Skittle lying on the second step from the top. Sometimes, one finds a trail of candies on the stairs, Skittles, M&Ms, and on occasion, like a trap laid for an extraterrestrial, Reese’s Pieces. Usually, the majority of these lost candies have been smashed under the feet of hurried passersby. This is a university, after all, and its inhabitants live primarily on junk food, and they’re too busy on their phones to look at their feet.

Yesterday, however, the Skittle I found was alone. It had not yet met its fate against the worn sole of a Chuck Taylor, but at any moment, the last minute rush of students would scramble up the stairs to get to class on time. There was no time to hesitate.

I picked up the Skittle and checked it for signs of injury, but its candy shell was intact. Without bothering to look around for witnesses, I popped it in my mouth and chewed it.


Red Skittles aren’t even my favorite ones. I prefer the orange ones.

My current eating habits actually militated against consuming a stray candy. I have sworn off all added sugar for the month of September in a bid to kick my staggering sugar habit.

I don’t usually eat stray food. Free-range chicken, yes, but not free-range snack items. Although there was that one time in college, when I was working for the local zoo, and they had 20 lbs of frozen raptor meat that was past its expiration date. Not far past its expiration date, but the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has very strict rules about what food can be served to animals. I’d been instructed to throw it away, rather than feed it to the rehab owls and hawks that I took care of. I was a poor college student, and it was late in the month. I was staring down a week of eating beans and rice.

Reader, I took that 20 lbs of meat home and threw a barbecue for my friends. Or at least, the friends who weren’t afraid to eat slightly expired raptor food. It’s essentially ground beef (or possibly horse or mule) with extra nutrients and finely ground bone meal mixed in. Properly seasoned and formed into quarter-pound patties, it went down pretty well on a hamburger bun.

All of which to say, I have eaten some suspect food items over the years. Now that I’m a professional with a regular paycheck, however, I’m not inclined to scrounge up free food.

This Skittle, though, this one lone red Skittle, it wasn’t about sugar. It wasn’t about free food. It was about being open to possibilities, being receptive to opportunity. After I ate the Skittle, I went into my office and talked to my agent, who is all about opening up opportunities for me. Soon, I’ll have some news on that front.

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Less this kind of tabloid

I used to be embarrassed by my tabloid habit. Why did I love reading schlocky sensationalist stories? A part of me absolutely cringes at the rabidity with which people follow some of the top tabloid stories. And think of how eager vast swaths of America is to watch reality shows about people with truly fucked up lives. We’ve entrenched the phrases “train wreck” and “can’t look away” into our language. The part of me that cringes thinks humans must be ghouls to want to read about children raised in dog kennels and young women locked up in dungeons and families that fall apart around their parents myriad indiscretions. Why do we want to misery and misfortune and suffering as entertainment?

The less cringe-inclined part of me has a ready answer: it’s all part of our story.

All the things that humans do to themselves and to each other in the pursuit of their lives, it’s all part of the human experience. Of course, we’re curious about it. There but for the grace of [insert cosmic intermediary of your choice here] go we. We could be the train wreck tomorrow. We could be the victim whose blood stains the sidewalk on the 10 o’clock news. We could be the confused person covering her head with a jacket as she runs from her lawyer’s car to the courthouse. It could be us, and so we want to prepare ourselves for it. We want to look at the train wreck and imagine how we would handle such things.

Some people are inclined to use their vantage point for judgment. Well, that’s what she gets for leaving her toddler alone! Well, that’s what he gets for marrying her. Well, that’s what happens when you live that kind of life.

For me, my interest in these tragedies are all about the question “And what then?” As with any trauma, people have to choose how they deal with the aftermath. That is a thing that never ceases to interest me. And so I find myself reading the Daily Mail, ferreting for details about the young man who was starved and imprisoned in his own home for years, before being put on a bus to California. What becomes of him now? What about the guy in a sham green card marriage who coerced his older, wealthy lover to enter into a sham marriage with his mother to get her a green card? Or the woman in Ohio who learned after her husband’s death that the man she was married to was actually her father, too. Once you get beyond the titillation, you have the opportunity to look right in the face of human experience and wonder, how does a person process this revelation, integrate this knowledge into her psyche, and go on with her life? These are important questions.

More like this kind of tabloid

Not all traumas are as traumatic as that young man’s life. Not all secrets are as shocking as learning you married your father, but when you explore the fallout from that sort of secret, you’re exploring general ways in which people handle these things. (In this case, Ms. Spruill is choosing to go public, to seek out other siblings lost in the turmoil of her mother’s life.)

As a writer, I think that’s why I go on being obsessed with these stories. Possibly I’m just making excuses for my interest, but when I read these stories I believe I’m fueling my understanding of humanity. These things happen to real people and real people must deal with them. So while I have not yet written a story about a woman who marries her father, nor do I particularly plan to, I have definitely written stories about people who uncover secrets they wish they hadn’t.

I don’t think my urge to read tabloids is any different from a writer of murder mysteries researching ways to dispose of a body. It seems morbid and creepifying, but it serves the story. People do commit murder and hide the bodies. People who write about these things need to peer into that dark place. Those of us who write about more tame aspects of human experience, we still need to inquire into the extremity of life’s shocks and surprises.

So I’ll carry on with my tabloid habit, still a little ashamed but convinced it’s research. How about you?

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Today’s teaser, in honor of Valentine’s Day, is from a story I’m working on that was inspired by an infamous Kansas family, the Bloody Benders. It’s a bit longer than the teasers I usually post, because it’s hard to get a read on the situation without a bit more set-up.


Ma Bender

The old woman said a long prayer over the food until it was half cold, and then they all began to eat, with the old woman talking the whole while.  The boy with the silver necklace tried twice to take the meager serving of bread off quiet girl’s plate and when she tried to defend herself, the boy struck her hard on the side of the head and took the bread.

Oliver had never been in a house where it was acceptable to hit women and he felt the seconds passing him by between the twinge of indignation and the moment when he caught the boy’s arm and said, “There’s no call for that.”  For a brief moment he thought the boy would strike him, too, but either the old woman’s look of disapproval or Oliver’s size or Oliver’s pistol decided him against it.  He returned the bread to the quiet girl’s plate.

After the meal was done, Oliver managed to bring the talk back around to his brother, asking whether any of the rest of the family had seen him.  He passed the picture around the room.  The quiet girl stared at it a long time, until the old woman took it out of her hand, saying, “I expected the boys home sooner than this, but surely they’ll be in, before too much later.  I’m sure they’ll be able to help you.  You know, they travel a lot, see a lot more of the country. They might be able to find someone who’s seen your brother.”  Oliver looked up to see the quiet girl looking at him.  She didn’t seem embarrassed, but she looked away.

There was a bit more talk about other things, and then the old woman sent several of the boys out to do chores.  She sent one of the younger boys up into the loft after some extra blankets and then turned to the quiet girl.  “Why don’t you take Mister Oliver out to the barn and help him settle down where they’ll sleep for the night.”

The girl nodded, and when she rose, Oliver and James did likewise.  At that moment, however, the strawberry-haired woman put her hand on James’ arm.  Laying a Bible out on the table, the old woman said, “I wonder if you wouldn’t mind reading us a piece out of the Good Book.”  James blushed and looked to Oliver for approval before sitting back down.  The strawberry-haired woman still had her hand on his arm and was smiling at him.

Oliver followed the quiet girl out the door.  She carried several blankets that the boy had thrown down to her from the loft.  He offered to carry them, but that seemed to embarrass her, although she finally gave him the small lantern to carry.  As they neared the barn, he finally got the nerve to ask where the outhouse was.  She pointed a little ways around the corner of the barn and offered to wait for him.  Even with the lantern, it was the worst of its kind that he’d found out west—dank and dark and full of spiders.  Outside, he heard voices, the girl, and one of the older boys.  At first, he couldn’t make out their words, and then the fight grew loud enough for him to understand its meaning.

“Does he still have his gun?” the boy said.

“I’m not helping you with him.”

“You will or she’ll sell you to the Comancheros.  You’ll wish you were dead.”

“I won’t do it.”

Oliver heard a scuffle, the girl’s muffled cry.  He struggled to fasten his belt, wrestled with the plank door, and left the lantern.  When he hurried around the corner, he saw in the pool of light from the barn that the boy with the heavy silver necklace had the quiet girl down on the ground.  He kicked at her as she struggled to get back on her feet, striking at him with her hands.  She pulled him off balance and he fell onto her, punched her hard in the side of her neck, just as Oliver reached them and pulled the boy off her.

The boy staggered,  then came up shouting, “Ahora!”.

His hand went to a small hatchet at his belt, and as Oliver thrust the girl behind him, a burning stripe opened across his shoulder.  The boy was already swinging back for another blow with the hatchet.

“La pistola!” the boy shouted.

Before Oliver could get his hand down to his side, he felt the electricity of the girl’s hand sliding against his waist, felt the weight of the Colt lifted out of its holster.  He staggered back to avoid the hatchet, which made a short stroke against his chest.  He felt a terrible emptiness in his stomach: real, final terror.

He knew it was only a matter of moments before the girl passed the gun to her brother or shot her himself.  For all he knew, he was already bleeding to death, and the boy was readying the hatchet again.  Oliver tried to grab the girl’s arm, said a quick prayer: “God—.” and heard the gunshot.

The boy jerked backwards, fell, and Oliver and the girl also fell back, propelled by Oliver’s retreat from the hatchet and the recoil of the Colt.  The girl leapt up, pointing the pistol down at her brother and fired again.  He jerked and was still.

Oliver sat up, looking around in confusion.  The girl pulled on his arm.

“Now,” she said. “You have to hurry.  They’re killing your friend now.”

Oliver lurched to his feet, his arm and chest numb. “Get his axe,” she commanded, pointing down at the boy’s body.  She jerked up the tail of her skirt, ignoring her bared legs and ran hard across the yard.  Oliver followed with his head swimming.

The old woman sat just where she had throughout the meal.  James had been sitting on the bench across from her, a few candles on the table, reading from the Bible.  Now he wore a noose around his neck, his face gone purple.  The rope was slung up over a rafter and on the other end of it, swung the boy who had gone up into the loft for blankets.

“Help him,” the old woman screamed at the strawberry-haired woman, who was laughing as she scrambled to help the boy pull down on the other end of the hanging rope.  The two of them hoisted James a foot off the floor.  Oliver was paralyzed in the seconds it took for him to understand what was happening.

He stared, trying to comprehend, and in those few moments the girl began to shoot.  She was no marksman and made no effort at severing the rope.  She simply shot the boy who held the rope, and then palmed the hammer back and shot him again in the chest.  He dropped from the rope and the woman let go, screaming.  James hit the floor and began clawing at the noose.  With an ease that belied her age, the old woman turned to the hearth behind her and pulled down a shotgun.

Oliver looked down at the axe in his hand.  Before the old woman could even level the shotgun, the girl crossed to the table and shot her from just a step away.  The old woman fell back, almost into the fire as the girl jerked the shotgun away from her.  She turned back to Oliver.  Her eyes were dead black, unreadable.  There were two hectic spots of color in her cheeks and a splatter of blood on her face.  She held out the shotgun.

“Take it and use it,” she said.  “You’ll be dead if you don’t.”  The old woman groaned and the girl turned back to her and shot her again, just as she had done the boy out by the barn.  She pulled the trigger again and they looked at each other at the sound of the dry click.

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