Friday, October 31, 2014

No. 29

Before the great wild fire took out the northeastern side of the park, a legend had persisted for nearly forty years. This legend is one that you would find in any town or commonwealth. 

Legends like these pop up just as fast ones that are destroyed by a wildfire or construction.

The legend is not about a who – but a what. And would you believe me if I told you that there was once a haunted picnic table in this area?

It’s kind of corny when you think about it – a haunted picnic table? What does this table do? Does it steal your sandwiches or misplace the ketchup or mayo? Does it cause you to have indigestion? Or will it poison you?

Frankly, the legend has nothing to do with food. But that’s where my mind goes when I think of the word, “picnic.”

I think of red-checkered cloth, and wicker baskets, and a woman in a light blue dress, and her husband wearing a tucked in polo and khaki’s, while Junior plays with Scraps, the family dog.

I think of bliss – I think of America, or what it used to be...not what it’s become.

As much as one would like to laugh at the legend of the picnic table – and probably did, for those of us who worked for the City – it started to gnaw on us. It was much like any other deep rooted problem that gets under your skin after a while.

It wore us down, much like running water on a stone.

Which is why the City Council voted unanimously to develop that side of the park.

A park that was once a reserve for animals - for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts who wished to see that this great metropolitan city of ours retain at least some of its natural preserve.

Everything changes – I get that – but the legend persists – it persists because unlike most stories – which can be considered a retooled fairy tale, this particular one has legs, or rather...teeth.
It persists because it is real.

And how do I know this? Well, I’ll get to that.

Let’s first talk about how the legend of the Haunted Picnic Table at D.W. Griffith’s Park, or as those in the city like to call it – No. 29 came to be.

Number 29 is just one of 417 picnic spots located throughout the park. Considering that the park itself is 4,370 acres, and one of the largest in the United States, the fact that we even know about picnic table number 29 is strange in itself.

Remember, this was all going on before the fire, before the flames eradicated number 29 – along with half of the park.

The legend started because of a tree.

A goddamn big tree.

A sycamore that at one time may have stood as King of all Sycamores.

When I last had eyes on it, the tree was still alive – though growing at a ninety-degree angle. It had wrapped the picnic table up into its branches, as if it were now a part of its ribcage.

It looked like an angry skeleton with a picnic table for a stomach, a stomach that was hungry and always on the lookout for its next meal.

And the last time I was there, I almost became that meal...

I often wonder if it isn’t the tree that was haunted, considering it started the whole damn mess in the first place.

Back in 1976, teenagers were no different than the ones we have now. Except for the fact that those kids wore different clothes and listened, for the most part, to Led Zeppelin and the Doobie Brothers – but the same thing goes for the teenagers of old as it does for today.

The main goal for most teenagers is two-fold: One) They want to get high and Two) They want to get down.

Nothing ever changes – I know that when I was at that age, those were always my goals.
There isn’t much else to say about that.

You see, Rand and Nancy were high-school sweethearts, and they were tackling both goals at picnic table number 29 on a warm Halloween night.

I can imagine that they wanted to get away from their group of friends, who were probably partying it up pretty good somewhere in the Griffith woods.  

I can see Rand pulling on Nancy’s hand, her giggling and him drunkenly leading her along with a can of High Life in his hand.

They stop on occasion to kiss, the heavy petting gets heavier – and before long, they find the picnic table and off go the clothes, and off go the inhibitions as the two do what nature has instructed humans to do for the last million years.

Rand was on top of Nancy and while they’re doing what they know best, a tree toppled over and crushed them both on the table.

I’m sure it was quick – but then again, I wonder if it wasn’t.

There may have been screams and moans until the weight of tree could be endured no more – as everything went silent and gray – and remained that way until a park ranger found the couple the following morning.

In his report, the park ranger describes a scene that seemed at first to be a Halloween prank. But as he got closer, and saw how the flies had already been recruited in mass to feast on the open eyes of the victims...well, that Halloween prank that could have been but never was sent the park ranger into a dead faint.

After he came to – he called the emergency line on his CB, and the cavalry descended upon picnic table 29.

Next of kin were called, reports filed, photographs taken. All because of that goddamn tree. A tree that somehow remains unscathed by the legend.

The police had to request a crane to lift the massive tree off of the victims – but by then, you could have just taken hold of them and pulled they away – there was nothing left of the bodies underneath.

The table itself remained in good condition – albeit the wood slats on the top were broken, and the frame was bent– it had taken the brunt of the weight where Rand and Nance could not.

Once the victims were photographed and bagged, the crane gently released the tree back onto the picnic table with the City’s intention of chopping it down in the next few days.

This freak accident made the papers, but it stayed in the back pages where situations of this type belong – but by that following Wednesday, the story made its way to the front page and the legend was born.

But like all legends, it doesn’t just start in the papers. It starts with word of mouth, and from those who felt number 29’s presence – the story grew until it was a hot topic every year around Halloween.

The City lighting crew was the department that dealt with any tree related issues – and since they were the ones with the proper equipment, those were the guys who were tasked with cutting the tree into bits and hauling it away.

The park planners decided to add a new picnic table – and as a touch of kindness, add a plaque honoring Rand and Nance.

I don’t blame the city lighting crew for feeling spooked about cutting down that tree.

And for Chip Granger, who was a veteran employee of the City Lighting crew, that’s exactly how he felt when he was ordered to get a chainsaw and head up to number 29.

Chip was no weenie – he had seen his fair share of combat in Korea, and except for a bit of a weakness with the drink, was a reliable worker who rarely complained.

So it was a surprise to the supervisor, Dennis Haggen that when Chip returned to the warehouse after a few hours, trembling with a broken chainsaw, that he thought his employee was taking the Mickey out of him.

According to Chip – he headed up to the picnic table around 11 in the morning.
Cutting down that size of sycamore was not a big deal, though it would be a herculean task for one man.

But as Chip saw it – he’d dismantle the tree, and then the other guys would come and pick up the wood.

Chip fired up the saw and got to work on the top end of the tree – which had now extended past the picnic table and was jutting out into the road.

Everything was fine for about an hour.

Then Chip started to hear whispers in his ear – more than that, hot breath along with those whispers – as if someone were standing right next to him, leaning in and giving him the business.

“Get out!” it said.

“Leave us alone,” it said.

“You’re going to die” it continued.

And that’s when Chip stopped the chainsaw.

With such a loud hum, one can hear all sorts of strange things due to the ear becoming adjusted to the whining drone.

But the whispers started up again as soon as he fired up the chainsaw and continued to cut the tree.

The whispers were getting louder now, more urgent, more threatening.

And as Chip progressed, cutting branches off the trunk, and removing the tree bit by bit – as he got closer to the picnic table and edged up to the bent metal and wood...

The whisper became shouts, they became screams – they became moans.

Then the chainsaw jammed into the tree. Having hit a knot, Chip pushed and pulled the chainsaw – and still, he could not get clean sweep through the wood, and instead something pushed him backward.  Chip fell on his ass, as the chain snapped off the saw, and nearly took his ear off.

Chip tried to get up – but a burst of cold wind pushed him down again.

He felt something slap at his arms, and then a scratch ran down from his elbow to his wrists. And it was that same something, that when he tried to roll over and push himself up from his knees that a cold wind struck him down onto the dirt again.

This time, the voice came to him while the chainsaw was in the off position.

“Never come here again,” it said.

Chip got that message loud and clear – and at that moment, he was allowed to get back to his feet, where he ran to his truck and took off as fast as he could.

When Chip told Dennis the story, the man almost choked from hysterical laughter.

“Jiminy Christmas,” Dennis said, “Have I ever heard an excuse like this to get out of work?”

“It’s true,” Chip said.

“Every word?”

“Every single word.”

“That a ghost pushed you?”

“It’s the spirits of those kids...”

“The kids who were fucking on a picnic table...”

“Yes, those are the ones, who else could it be?”

Dennis broke out into laughter again.

“That is the biggest load of BS I have ever heard, Chip. Ever!”

Chip covered his ears and tried his best to drone out the additional catcalls that came from other employees. He was never going to live this down – but he would never be going back up to number 29, either.

He’d quit his job if he had to.  

“Who’s going to cut that tree down?” Dennis asked.

“Why don’t you do it?” Chip said, now red in the face, and fuming.

“That’s a deal.” Dennis said with a smug grin, “I’ll even do it after dark. I’m no chicken.” 

And that was the last time any of them saw Dennis alive.

The following morning, the same ranger who found the bodies of the teenagers, found Dennis, lying flat on his back, dead – with his arms splayed out and with the most terrified look of horror on his face.

The police cordoned off the area – and though it was ruled a heart attack, even the most seasoned detectives looked at the situation with dread.

The story made the front page of the LA Times, and that was how the legend grew.

Looky-loos would report that for the most part, nothing befell them when they visited picnic table number 29. Someone spray painted a rest-in-peace message to Rand and Nance and it was one of those LA ghost stories that persists, like the girl who jumped from the “H” of the Hollywood Sign, or supposed ghosts who roam the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.

But although the City wanted to remove number 29 from the park map, the tree remained on the picnic table for nearly forty years.

Some say that it was budget issues that kept the tree from being cut down; others say it was left in memory of Dennis – who was a well-liked supervisor for the City Lighting Department.

But I know the truth.

The City made over ten trips up to picnic table number 29 and those ten trips all resulted in the same thing: Broken saws and scared employees.

Nobody ever died – but then again, no one ever fired up the chainsaw when they arrived at the tree.

The whispers would start as soon as they left their truck – they would feel nauseous or overwhelmed. There would be a swarm of bees one day, or a terrible storm the other.

Ten times the City attempted to cut down that sycamore and haul away the table, and ten times it was aborted due to natural causes or supernatural notions.

Nearly forty years later, there was a changing of the guard. Mayor Eric Garcetti took over for Villaraigosa and the City gets a new supervisor in the lighting arena.

And this was a supervisor who didn’t have time for fairy tales and ghost stories. A supervisor who thought he was smarter than he was.

A supervisor, who looking back, should have kept his damn mouth shut.

God help me – I’m not a smart man at times.

I called this one employee of mind, “MacGyver,” on account that he seemed to be able to fix any of our tools with little know-how, and also was able to get some of the more ancient LA lighting back up and running without tearing all the wires out.

It was MacGyver who I asked to finish the job on 29 for once and for all.

And it was MacGyver who later pushed me to try and finish the job myself.

How this all started up again was that I found one of our employees talking at length with a reality television show producer about number 29 and it annoyed me to no end.

One of the reasons I was hired as supervisor was to help improve efficiencies and the bottom line. But when I see one of our people on company time, gabbing with a pretty television producer asking about 29...well, I got steamed.

I let the employee finish the interview with a warning, but I was not going to tolerate any more of this nonsense. Any publicity needs to go through the proper channels.

But when we started to get more calls from other shows, since I gather, their ghost telling well had about run dry – I wanted to put a stop to it all at once. Number 29 needed to go.  

We have a damn tree lying on top of a picnic table, and it’s left untouched for forty years, because of what? A fairy tale?

I called up MacGyver and told him the lay of the land. He nodded his head and smirked, as he felt exactly the same way as I did about the legend.

It was bogus. And it was time for that tree to go bye-bye.

“I’ll handle it, boss.” He said.

And that was that.

We got the emergency call the following morning at 9AM. MacGyver was hurt, and I was one of the first to make my way into the park.

By the time I arrived, the paramedics were loading him up into the ambulance. He looked over to me and shook his head.

“I’m so sorry, boss.” He said to me – and his face was white as a sheet.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Something took hold of the saw...something took hold off it and damn near cut my leg off.”

That’s when I looked down and saw what had happened.

The chainsaw had ripped a ten-inch wide gap into MacGyver’s blood soaked thigh.

I could see marbled fat, the torn tendons, the split open muscle, and his femur cut in half, revealing the marrow as a glob of golden-brown mush.

I had to look away – I was about to become sick.

“Did you lose your grip?” I asked, doing my best to recover and stay even keeled.
He didn’t answer – whatever it was that the paramedics gave MacGyver must have started working, because by then he had become a raving lunatic.

“Stop saying that! I’m leaving, okay?” He said to no one in particular, “I’m leaving and I’ll never come back! Please, quit yelling at me, please, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” he said, over and over, until the whites of his eyes rolled up into his head and he was out.

When the ambulance left, some of the other guys arrived in a truck.

I gave them the low down, and looked at the blood stained chain saw that sat on top of the picnic table.

The blood splatter had covered part of the spray painted message to Rand and Nance.

“I want to cut this goddamn thing down.” I said to the guys.

There were two of them, Bob and Jeff. And they looked at one another as if I said I wanted to call the devil on my cell phone.

“Don’t you think with what happened...” Jeff began to say.

“I don’t give a shit what happened. All I know is what didn’t happen, this goddamn thing is still here. Let’s get it done. No more doing this on our own. We will do this as a team.”

Bob and Jeff looked a bit green, but nodded and went to get their protective gear.

I threw the blood soaked chainsaw into the back of my truck, and grabbed the heavy-duty saw for the most stubborn of trees.

This was my legend to end. I was not going to endure the circus of another injury, of whispers, of ghosts who wanted to make love in peace.

But again, it’s not the picnic table...I know that now.

It’s that goddamn tree.

Instead of trying to cut the part of the tree that had been attempted any number of times, I went behind the picnic table, and go to work on the larger branches.

The chainsaw buzzed through the live sycamore slowly, but sure enough one branch came off, and then another.

The tree shook as if a giant had grabbed it by the roots. It vibrated with such violence that pinecones scattered like coins falling from your upturned pants.

Bob and Jeff who were now wearing their construction helmets, eye goggles, overalls and leather gloves stood by with their mouths agape.

As much as I wanted to retreat, I knew that I would have to keep cutting. Goddamn, this tree was a real live wire.

I buzzed off another branch, and another – and finally – I said to hell with it and attacked the trunk of the tree.

It had nowhere to fall but the picnic table it had already crushed.

And that’s when I heard it – or rather, when I heard them:

“You will burn for this,” a woman screamed in my right ear.

“I’ll kill you now, right now,” a demonic man’s voice said in my left.

“You will die, you will die, you will die,” they said in unison as I buzzed halfway through the tree.

Bob and Jeff continued to stand there, like the stupid goats that they were.

“Come on! Cut it down! We don’t have much time...”

That seemed to kick Bob into gear...but as soon as he stepped forward, he spun around to Jeff.
Bob said something, and Jeff was taken aback.

I hit the kill switch on the saw, and heard: 

“I didn’t call you anything, chill out!” Jeff said.

“The hell you did, you are always talking behind my back!” Bob responded, with spittle flying from his lips.

“Shut the hell up and get to work,” said Jeff, who brushed past him and fitted his ears with the dangling plugs.

As soon as Jeff fired up the chainsaw, he spun around to Bob, who was still shaking his head in anger.

“Don’t you touch me when I’m holding this...” Jeff scolded.

“I didn’t touch you...” Bob said.

“The fuck you did!” Jeff took a giant leap back to Bob.

They were soon bumping their chests – like a couple of rams you watch on National Geographic.

“Cool it, you guys!” I yelled.

But the whispers started up again.

“You will die, you will die...”

I felt a migraine invade my brain and my head throbbed. I looked at the tree trunk and the chunk I had been able to burrow out of it.

“You motherfucker...” Bob called out – and soon fists were flying between the two.

I stepped back – at first I was thinking it was guys just being guys – I’ve seen plenty of jawing in my time and this was just that.

“Cool it! We have work to do!” I bellowed.

Blood flew from Jeff’s nose, and as he stepped back, the sound of a jackknife opened, and I have to tell you, it had happened so fast – and with the migraine and those goddamn whispers....

The way the police report reported it later, was that a dispute broke out between the two men – over what, they’ve never said. But fists were thrown, Jeff had lunged with a knife, and Bob defended himself by using the chainsaw. But then Jeff fired up his own saw and instead of a tree they were cutting – it was each other.

As you can imagine, my adrenaline did a back flip and I was about to charge over. The way I saw it, those two guys were only chasing each other around with the chainsaws – no serious damage had occurred as of yet.

I had to time to shut this down.

But then I saw it.

I saw what that old supervisor, Dennis had seen that night, and quite possibly what others have seen that forced them back into their trucks, or to hightail it and run.

I saw what it was that could terrify you in the middle of the day.

I saw a face open up to me from the inside of the tree – it protruded just above where I had made my major trunk cut.

The face was rippling bark, with eyes that glowed with a sickly light blue. It was a horrible blue – the blue of lightning, the blue of death, the blue of drowning and your last breath.

A mouth under the eyes opened up to me, a mouth with the mashed up innards of blood, guts, pus and boils.

The mouth opened wide with razor sharp teeth as if it were about to swallow me whole...
But then Bob caught Jeff – and that’s when the screaming really started...and the face in the tree, it rumbled through the bark and swerved to the opposite side as a captive audience.

The tree laughed.

Bob took the spinning chain and buried it into Jeff’s stomach, but not before Jeff was able to cut off Bob’s leg just below the knee.  

Blood sprayed in every direction – and later, when they found me, with the bodies of Jeff and Bob in dismantled bloody stacks – I was curled into a ball, and mumbling away the whispers. There was a question as to whether or not I was the one who dispatched them both. I was covered in their blood, I was alive, and I was nearly out of my mind.

I think that was the tree’s plan all along.

But luckily DNA evidence, fingerprints, and the trajectory of the saws momentum on each body cleared my name, and frankly, I was happy to spend those few months in that sanitarium while they finished their investigation.

But number 29 remained intact.

The legend only grew.

So when I heard that a fire erupted in that part of the park recently, and the fire had grown beyond saving, and that the fire department had to be content to just let it burn for once and for all, I have to admit that I was able to sleep a full night for the first time in a long while.

It’s a pity – all those acres, now charred to bits, and soon to be developed for housing or stores, or some such stuff.

A loss for the park – but hey, sometimes things just need to be cleaned, they must be purged.
And if someone dropped an open Zippo lighter in a patch of dry tinder near picnic table 29, well then, that’s just life, right?

A Zippo that might had a very special engraving. Something to the effect of:

“For No. 29, Halloween 1976-2014.”

But I’m just guessing of course...

There is no harm in that, is it?

Written by Trevor Boelter

Author's Note on No. 29: This is a work of fiction, and although the story was built off of a very real legend in Griffith Park, it is purely fiction! Except for the photograph below and the "death" picture above (which I'm pretty sure was staged) -- the rest of the photos were taken by me this past weekend - when I ventured with my dog, Fox to Royce Canyon and located Picnic Table 29. Although the story refers to a wildfire at the end, there has not been a wildfire in this area - and I hope there never will. You can visit the picnic table today - though I warn you not to go at night, and definitely do not bring along a saw. Happy Halloween!

Halloween Bonus Round - Crushkillers (by guest contributor Melissa Underwood)

Itch itch itch. 

A driving, maddening poison oak itch on a hot summer afternoon, the sweating guilty priest kind, a sensation that was driving Allison mad with grief. It was not passing or fleeting after being scratched; like the sun fleets during late September. It was a hard, insatiable, maddening itch; one that would cause war in a sleepy pastoral hamlet somewhere, far off in the distant past of romantic times. In times where we have no memory, of times long since lived by generations and generations. And yet, like a phoenix rising in an unsusceptible WalMart-stricken stripmall, the itch was on a vengeful crusade to rise and grow and form overnight in blistering bursts of sick fireworks that scream its presence, as a force to be reckoned with, and more importantly, acknowledged. 

It happened that fast, that furious, that wicked. And it was not going to take no for an answer. It was going to stake its claim as a god-given right to be. To be known in all of its power and petulance. Screaming like a toddler and wailing like a banshee hell bent on revenge. 

Allison was home. She had recently settled down for a well-deserved glass of Pino Grigio after working the role a server in a small upscale restaurant in the quiet oceanside city of Carmel-By-The-Sea. It was not an Oscar worthy role, just a standard run of the mill service industry role that happened many times over and over. It was one everyone in this industry knew about in a rich, affluent town. 

(Snapping fingers) “Bring me wine. No, not that wine. I only drink Napa wine. What, you don't have Napa wine? Are you stupid?”

They never said ‘stupid’ out loud, but with their burning eyes saying stupid. 
Looking up with a tight -lipped frown that screams "I'm miserable" and you are going down tonight because I hate, hate, hate you and your cheap outfit from Target. “Taarje” as those stupid stupid, ordinary workers say. Those stupid Mexican workers, god only knows how they can even afford to exist here…. 

Yet, Allison did not even flinch. Her eyes did not dart away, nor give any sort of conceded glimmer of defeat, as a service worker must look in the eyes of the Napa lady, as she scolded and scowled her hatred towards her. 

Allison was good at her job. She was very, very good. She performed her tasks in the role as a perfect, unshaken waitress with grace and ease. She liked her job, she loved her coworkers and her boss.  She made good money and it was not a bad job. 

They were an unspoken tribe who toasted to life and fun. They hung out on warm summer evenings and listened to records together, and there were no lines between work and play. They had each other's backs and rode the wild wooly craziness of it all, and would begin again, sturdily, mule strong at each sequential, committed shift. Allison would get tired, yes, but that was fine, she could sleep in and smoke pot on her days off and was introduced to amazing delicious food, and had a deep camaraderie with lovely humans - humans who walked the same path, laughed and joked and got it. Life was grand and she lived a struggling, yet beautiful one in a gorgeous dream world where people paid good money to visit. And they did, in throngs. From all of the four corners of the magical earth, bringing with them a caravan of culture and spice, giggles and fleeting happy memories. 

The large majority was this way, friendly, chatty, excited. Excited to be on vacation, on honeymoon, returning home to visit family, or attending a grand wedding. For a film festival, music event, poetry reading with a famous, foreign author. Rub elbows with some twentieth-century master composers and vivaciously chat about the charms of the town. 

Only in Carmel. 

A beautiful, pastoral, god's garden location, teetered next to the swell of the ocean, and the sparkling sun rays dancing on the stationery wine bottles decorating the restaurant's narrow alley at 5pm. On the same grand earth the bucolic and peace loving Coastanoans called home, long before Sebastian Vizcaino or Joaquin de Murrieta or Junipero Serra stepped foot in these eden-like parts. 

The good times at the restaurant were many. Ones that created hours and hours of great story telling over after-shift drinks and brunchie Sundays at the other close related restaurants, where the locals went; the ones who knew. But, like a tough break, a bad poker hand, or a general poor luck shot, the tiny, unavoidable needle of a rotten apple popped up every so often; silly, insignificant, shake-it-off worthy, who-cares-baby-garbage. It was so small, so ridiculous and so transparently obvious. But it hurt and it stung and it festered and it slapped. 

“I only drink Napa wine.” 
Photo from

Allison, being a seasoned server, quickly slid into her well-honed craft and did what was right, for the lady, for the integrity of her job. She was giving what she thought the lady wanted. 

"I apologize, madam.” Allison said, “I understand what you desire and wish we were able to accommodate you. Being a Spanish restaurant, we only serve wines of the Spanish regions. I do highly recommend this lovely Rioja we serve by the glass or bottle, however you'd like. It would be my pleasure."  

"A temp-ro-nil-low?" The customer, with wary eyebrows responded. "Like I said, I only drink Napa wines. Whatever. I'm clearly unhappy. Why don't you have what I want?" 

Allison was caught back a hitch, but only a hitch, and one she carefully hid from the annoying, gaudy woman. Before Allison could respond in genuine help, the woman snapped hastily, "That's fine. Bring me water, lemon, no ice." 

Allison retreated with a smile and wheeled back towards the bar station to grab glasses and lemon wedges which she placed decoratively on a small dish. 

Jesus Christ, save me from this nightmare, she thought, as she returned promptly with the vessel of water, lemons and glasses to the table that had soured her entire evening. 

But that was hours ago, the party had long eaten and left, and she was back home in her cozy cabin with Freckles snoring sleepily as dogs do at the drop of a dime by her side on the oversized couch she bought from a former co-worker a year ago. The wine tasted good. She had stumbled in to her home out of exhaustion from another long, hard and monetarily satisfying night. The flicker of her TV made bluish shadows on the walls behind the tall jungle plants that grew and moved with her - in all seven houses, and cast sublime, numbing light into the late, late evening hours of the fall. 

She had fallen in stride with Freckles, nodding off as the mountain men finally found that evasive Alaskan striped fire-breathing half wolf-half snake creature. The one who somehow managed to break out of the strapping ash wood cage Crusty had built and adorned with laser triggers and elk meat bait. She breathed a shockingly loud and uncomfortable snore that shook her awake with a jolt, a sobering jolt that reminded her that she had to brush and floss her teeth (the proper thing to do) before she ultimately retired in her far away comfortable bed.

But as she gingerly lifted her body, still tingling with prickles in her left thigh because she had reclined in an unnatural cramping couch position, she became increasingly aware of the itch. 

Damn, she thought, but not worried, just damn fleeting, where did that itch come from? 

Allison instinctually flung her right hand to the spot, hidden under her hair she had long since let down, and found the X. And she scratched like any normal human would scratch without thinking, because that is what you do - you satisfy that tickling sensation and then it goes away. A reflexive moment that would come and go while you were conversing with the Queen of England. It would be scratched and it would go away. And yet, as she picked up her tired body from the magnetically comfortable couch, that feeling returned. And it was maddening.

Dorothy Bennington shut off the ignition of her 2013 white Jaguar XJ after it had brought her home to the quiet cypress lined street, one block east of the Pacific surf in her transplanted coastal gingerbread revival abode. 

She fumbled with her key fob in a mildly drunk state as she gathered her belongings and slammed the driver door shut, almost too forcefully for the elegant coach. It made her giggle for a moment as she remembered the way she acquired the car - it was a prized purchase after she slam-dunked that house sale two years ago to some dumb young what-do-you-call-them...techie? He had paid far too much for the 20 acre valley estate complete with miniature vineyard and five horse stable. 

But that wasn't her concern, she was only mindful of her profit that would come from the sale, a few hundred thousand more than the true value, but that wasn't how she spun the property - the next Napa, the next Santa Barbara, the next who gives a shit wine region. A region that would promise mass value in the future for the bank foreclosed homestead cared for by generations of dedicated earth stewards who had fallen behind on some unlucky financial decisions. 

The guy was getting a bargain, she had validated in her mind, and anyway who really wanted to commute twenty five miles to her little town? Better he was that far away from her surroundings. He annoyed her, like that cheap waitress had annoyed her, bringing her plates with greasy fingers and dropping the knife on the floor beside her chair. It clanged so loud on the wood floor she swore that she'd need a chiropractic adjustment to balance her inner ear bones. And there was the slop of her next potential profit cows sitting and eating noisily at her table. 

That woman, she shuddered, thinking, had the gall to blow her nose at dinner. 

Who does that? 

It made Dorothy twitch and shiver and it was all she could do to remind herself that the pigs she was "entertaining"  had enough money to fly to Pluto and back twenty times and still be able to buy five islands off of Greece. So she had to deal with them. They would bring her bread – dough – moola - as long as she could stomach the next two days faking her way through four potential properties. 

As soon as she parted ways with them: "So lovely to meet you fabulous folks," she made a b-line to her favorite lounge owned by that handsome actor-slash-director and rapidly downed two gin martinis.  

But that was an hour ago, and while the piano man was playing some jazzy tunes and the dashing single men who peppered the bar were winking at her...or so she thought. She had decided it was best to get back early to be fresh for the next day's work. 

Leaving her car, Dorothy brushed a strand of not-so-natural-colored hair from the front of her face. It was a mess, she thought, that so-called edgy hairdresser, that green stupid girl who worked on her today instead of darling Sandra who was in the Virgin Islands for a week with her boyfriend. Such a pity. 

As she ascended the curved path to reach her front door, the lavender bushes and wispy dry grasses brushing her ivory capri pants, a shadow fell across her left foot. She stopped instantly, her heart beat a bit faster but then slowed as she realized that must have been the neighbor's cat. 

Stupid cat, always getting in her yard. 

As she turned to look at said cat, swinging her oversized purse and stomping her patent leather pump to drive it away, the blood drained instantly from her face as a large mass of some sort of..what...hovered above her, grotesque and lumpy, with no seeming face or eyes or any sort of discernible features. 

It breathed audibly, somehow, and glimmers of what must only have been drool slid down it's scaly, crusty form and dripped unassuming on the paved stones below it. And quickly, with hummingbird-swift speed, two limbs shot out and crushed her neck in less than one second flat. 

Dorothy had no time to scream, it was over as the crunchy shape forced the light from her beady eyes, squashing and smushing her soft flesh like a crumpled paper napkin.

One week later, the local paper ran a story about the mysterious death of Dorothy Bennington. And Arlene McMarten and Gary Peterson and Jim and Patty Gordon. 

All five subjects had been found, with no trace of footprint or fingerprint, sprawled dead in front of their storybook houses without a seeming motive or clear reason. 
Photo by Joanne DiBona

The Beach Side Killer, the paper had dubbed – the killer, who according to the coroner's report, arrived sometime between three and four am, and done the victims in over three consecutive nights. But why, the paper pressed. These were outstanding citizens of Carmel: 

Arlene ran the Homeowner's Association Club and was successful in fining and shutting down the front yard vegetable gardens that popped up within the neighborhood. 

Gary made it his mission to clean up the derelict liquor joints that were operating, in his opinion, far too late for this proper town, with the music and all. Might as well be in the Tenderloin, he once submitted to the editorial page. 

Jim and Patty spent countless hours hosting garden parties and complaining about the Mexicans and their dirty little children overrunning the peninsula. 

The paper didn't publish their complaints, but referred to them as "champions of the pristine" in their inexhaustible dedication to preservation. 

Preservation of white affluence, some might say. 

They had all died the same way, in front of their homes late at night, with their necks crushed like crackers. And yet there was one small piece of evidence left at each murderous site. One small, seemingly insignificant shred of itty-bitty evidence. But it was evidence that homicide detective Gina Anders found. 

It had caught her eye at Arlene's house first - a small yellowish crumb that stuck out from the dark slate pavers two feet from Arlene's cast off shoe, and as she squatted and eyed the crumbly, dust-dry cornbread looking piece, she decided it was better than not to put it in her evidence bag. And her decision had been a good one. Each subsequent scene had procured more crumbs of a similar look, greasy and fried yellow niblets of…well, that was for the lab to determine. 

After she was done with her shift, Gina had decided to stop in her favorite tapas restaurant. She loved the vibe and the food. Most of the customers looked happy and satiated and there was a pleasant smell of paella wafting about the place. 

She stepped to the bar where a young server was buffing glasses and said hello. 

"Yes, I'd like to order something to go if that's ok," when asked by the server if there was something she'd like. 

"Sure," the girl said pleasantly, "let me get you a menu," and she handed her the list of that night's offerings. 

"I'm Allison, I'll be right back." 

"Allison..." Gina parroted to the girl and smiled as she stepped away to greet a couple that had just arrived. 

The wait was not long, and before Gina knew it, Allison had returned with a bag of to-go containers filled with bravas, croquetas, tortilla and ensalada. 

Allison was cheery and genuine in her delivery and Gina thanked her as she grabbed the bag of food. As she turned one last time to wave goodbye, she noticed Allison was scratching her head. 

It was a small thing, like observing one absently brushing the dirt off the back of a pant leg. 

Gina got to her car and drove the five miles south on Highway One to arrive at her small guest house on the property of a retired Navy widower. 

Gina shut off the outside light and settled in to her sofa clacking the remote to some junk TV show that would take her mind off of the murders. 

She opened a can of root beer and folded back the sides of the paper bag, excited for a snack of tasty tapas

As she unrolled the paper napkin housing the disposable utensils, a crumbly yellow crust spilled out and onto her lap. 

This startled her, and Gina jumped a bit back, popping the crumb up in the air and eyed it as it landed on the thick woven rug under her feet. 

Gina grabbed a flashlight and honed in on the three-inch long shape, which was resting inches from her bare feet. 

"A bag," she thought, and quickly procured one from her back work pants pocket to snatch the coincidental object and get it safely into evidence. 

Gina had lost her appetite and she did not sleep that night.

"It’s a scab," said Fred, a forensics analyst the following morning. "It's human skin, you can see little white blood cells, some bacteria. It’s S-C-A-B. One you might find on your scalp. All four samples are the same, same DNA, same substances.” 

"Scabies?" asked Gina. “You’re telling me its scabies? That's...bizarre."

It was. It was bizarre – but it was also evidence, and it was also consistent at each scene of the crime. 

Gina was dumbfounded. What would a scab be doing rolled in my utensils and at the scenes of the murders? 

Allison was back home with Freckles, and the itch continued. 

She kept scratching the back of her head, right in that spot below the rounded curve of the back of her skull - where it dips inward to meet the top of the neck. 

The itch was giving her a run for her money as one of the most crazy, twisted, most suffering, horrible feelings she had ever experienced. Her nails couldn't make it end. 

Scratching it with the corner of a book or a wooden spoon handle couldn't make it go away. 

Allison was in agony. 

Freckles whined as she popped up off her kitchen stool and raced to the bathroom. There has to be something in here, she thought, her mind searching and eyes scanning the drawer below the sink. 

Some cream, something to stop it. Please, good god, help me find something! 

And as the itch grew and grew and grew, and became worse than ever, a sudden silence overcame her mind and for two seconds she could only hear her breathing and heart beat from the inside of her chest. 

The itch was gone, but she was not aware of that, nor of any other normal human sensations. 

Allison’s thinking had stopped, too, and she did not see Freckles, who had followed her into the bathroom and was eyeing her from below. Without further warning, underneath her hair grew a great golden crumbly knot. It twisted and pulsed, gaining girth as a balloon might when filled up by a helium tank. 

It grew and grew and as it flopped and cracked and breathed it's own life – while Allison stood absolutely still as stone. She was in a trance; she was being paused in her life to pose as a frame for this disgusting yellow-gold flaked monster – as it expanded like a foam toy crammed in a capsule that has been tossed in the bath water. 

Within two minutes it had enveloped her head, and within ten minutes her torso and arms, and another eight was all that was needed to completely cover her body, tip to toes. 

No longer was there an Allison, but a hideous misshapen form, looming and breathing and drooling from some unknown source. 

Freckles ran to the bedroom and slid behind the bed. But for Allison, or what was once Allison, paid no mind. Revenge was on its mind, or whatever terrible thinking process this body snatcher possessed. 

But one thing was for sure- IT was going to kill….

Gina tapped her pen on the pad of paper that sat blank on her car's center console. What the hell was the common denominator? She had gone back to the restaurant to see if Allison was working. She was not there, and the owner had provided the servers cell number and house address. 

Gina had called multiple times, only reaching a robotic voicemail message with every call. She then had driven to the cabin; a fifteen minute drive east towards the valley, but there was nobody home, yet a car was in the driveway. 

Gina had left her card wedged in the door asking to be called as soon as possible. 

"This girl has got to have some sort of connection to these murders," she thought, "but where is she?" 

The sun had long since drifted behind the oak studded hills and the neighborhood was quiet. A dog barked in the distance, but there was no human activity around. No cars, no kids on bikes, no late afternoon joggers so prevalent in the area. 

Gina became increasingly aware of the silence and for this hardened detective, even it creeped her out. 

No TV flickers, no muted music, no hushed voices from behind fences or walls. No lights. Anywhere. That was the strangest to her - had the power gone out? 

Gina decided to walk the neighborhood to see if all the surrounding houses were this way - surely somebody was around. It wasn't a holiday, it was past business hours and school time. There wasn't a major game on or some anticipated food festival or band playing at the local saloon. 

It was a Tuesday evening on a generic day in the fall. But as she unlatched her seat belt and cracked open the door to her sedan, she became aware of an enormous presence hovering over her. 

It was immense, and it was not alone. The last thing Gina Anders saw in her life was a group, a group, of crumbling crusty flaky yellow forms shooting out limbs towards her neck.

They had all been snatched at the same time, snatched and manipulated like puppets, more like bones of puppets, for the entities enveloped the outside of the victims. 

No one who lived in the El Pinto Street neighborhood escaped the puppet masters, who had descended two weeks ago from the sky in an invisible ship. 

The ship was not only invisible, it was also quite small, and it shuttled some of the universes most maniacal and controlling creatures. 

These creatures, if they could be called that, bounced from planet to planet, looking for easy hosts to satisfy their hunger to kill. Yet they had no form - they were crumbly, powdery, and could not crush and kill by themselves. They were tossed like dry leaves from their ships to their first victims. They lived in their clothing and hair, they bonded with skin and sent messages to the brain. The beings received information back from the deepest recesses and file cabinets in those minds and started to create an itch. 

The creatures existed with no human morals. But, of course, they weren't human. They thrived with enemy images in their minds; they used what Earthlings called moral judgement. That was how they existed.  And because of their overwhelming need to crush, their evolutionary movement drove them to execute this desire, just like a carnivorous plant growing.

On a far away planet, where the crush killers lived, in what could only be remotely compared to a vat of wild yeast on our planet, a universal thought had grown. 

A thought that in an immense, as far as the eye could see, pulverized wasteland of fine, crumbling golden dust – life could manifest, solely by thought, and that this thought could build a craft that could take them farther than the winds could carry. 

These thoughts built the ships and these thoughts mapped the stars and these thoughts found the planets that had shapes. 

Shapes that could be grown upon and moved into so they could fulfill their own version of Manifest Destiny - through gene modification, expansion and wonderfully delicious yum-yum crushing. 

Written by Melissa Underwood

About the author: I've known Melissa for close to twenty years - she and I used to go on ghost hunting excursions when we both lived in San Luis Obispo. There was one particular night that we explored an abandoned sanitarium that might have been one of the scariest moments of my life. 

A moment from that night sticks out - both of us felt like we were being watched - the feeling was uncanny - and when I pointed my flashlight into one of the broken, open windows - we heard the strangest "woosh" sound you could ever imagine - as if something retreated from the light with incredible speed. 

I will always remember that as my first true ghost encounter - though I would actually see a ghost a few years later (and again, in San Luis Obispo). 

Melissa currently lives in Carmel Valley with her most-excellent husband, Chris. They have two dogs, Yoko and Booker.

They are quite the bohemian couple - as Melissa is a well-known, sought after musician and Chris is an extremely sought after DJ and vinyl record expert. When not making music, or running the family business (Underwood Bass Pickups) -- Melissa enjoys listening to CoastToCoastAM, as well as reading the entire Stephen King canon (she's about to start the Dark Tower series). 

This is Melissa's first published short story and I'm thrilled to have her as the "Halloween bonus" for October Ghosts. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Critical Mass

“Watch it, asshole! You’re going to kill yourself!”

It was another close call, but nothing out of the ordinary for Marco who was flying on two-wheels. It was like he was doorbell-ditching Death every time he rode his 54cm black fixed speed bicycle through the streets of L.A. The bike had only one gear and it was called, “Go.”

Go through the yellow light! Go around those cars! Go up the middle, you pussy, go, go, GO…you’ll make it!

A few weeks back, when Marco’s mother and father, paid a visit to Los Angeles, they witnessed this first hand. Waiting for their son outside a restaurant, they heard a screech of tires as their son blew through an intersection to make their lunch appointment. He had nearly been sideswiped by a late model Volvo, as the driver laid her palm on the horn and didn’t let up.

Marco stopped, but only for a moment, in front of the Volvo and grinned at the driver.

The horn continued to bellow, but he held up his hands with a “Did I do that?” look. Catching that his parents witnessed this near miss, Marco smiled with gap-toothed pride and called out to them, “Welcome to L.A.”

“Get out of the road, you asshole,” the woman yelled from the confines of her luxury automobile.
“Hey lady, that’s my mother over there. Show some respect.”

The driver looked over – Marco’s mother, Martina shook her head and covered her eyes.

“Your son is nuts, lady!” 

Marco moved out of the way, and the Volvo drove off with the driver rolling her eyes in that bemused Los Angeles way.

“Why don’t you get a car, honey? It’s too dangerous.” His mother had asked to Marco as they shared a dish of ice cream.

“And pay for gas?” Marco asked, “Insurance? Have to take it in for an oil change every three months and deal with the crazy traffic? Live half my life on the 405?” Marco pulled the cherry off of the sundae and popped it into his mouth, “I’d rather use that money to buy a new computer.”

Marco’s father, Hector chuckled. He was a bit more “on the level” with his son.

“He wants the adventure,” Hector said, as he lightly nudged his wife. He was a big man, big arms, with an enormous belly. He worshipped his son in the way that any father marvels at their child – knowing that the best of them has passed down to a new generation.

“Look at our boy, he’s in perfect shape, Martina! Those legs of his are steel. He’s doing the world some good. Saving the environment, one pedal at a time, right?”

Hector let out both a gasp and a laugh; he knew that it wasn’t about the environment or saving money. The truth was simple, painful, and clear: Marco was afraid to drive.

Father and son exchanged a knowing a look – a remembrance of Hector teaching Marco how to drive in figure-eights around an empty church parking lot – of the countless attempts to parallel park.

Hector remembered his son weeping with frustration as he knocked over the cone for the twentieth time, never mastering the art of backing up and sweeping in. The tears were something his son never revealed to anyone, let alone his mother. Hector knew that his song was tough and he watched him bite back tears when he fractured his wrist, or feigned that nothing hurt when his brothers roughhousing got downright medieval.

Driving was another matter – it was the boy’s weakness. Marco could never grasp that you only used one foot to control the gas and the brake. He wanted to pump with both legs.  Both legs were always twitching, jumping – they were ready for action. He would have been a great drummer. Hector knew this right away and was determined that maybe Marco would gravitate towards a stick shift – maybe that was how he could solve his youngest boy’s driving dilemma. After borrowing a manual drive car from his neighbor, it didn’t solve the issue, but only seemed to exacerbate the problem.

Again, Occam’s Razor was in effect. The simplest answer seemed to confound the most heartfelt of efforts. Marco worked best when both legs were in unison. He could never master the clutch release while adding the gas. It was push and pull, and though it made sense intellectually to Marco, it just didn’t connect. The manual transmission screeched and screamed. Before long, Hector and Marco could smell the fumes of the clutch as it boiled under the pressure.

The neighbor never said anything about the car (or the smell), but he never did return the weed whacker Hector loaned him, when normally the neighbor had always been so prompt to return. 

Hector was willing to part with the weed whacker – knowing how much it would have cost to replace the clutch.

Martina put her foot down on the motorcycle suggestion.

Hector wasn’t sure if Marco could handle a motorbike, but he was blazing and graceful on his ten-speed. The kid was a natural on anything with two wheels. Hector felt that his son would have to eventually own a vehicle of some type.

But Martina vetoed the suggestion as soon as it was presented. Hector often joked that he was merely the CFO of the family, and it was the CEO who was boss.

Martina shot the suggestion down with merely a glance that said, “There was no way in hell my boy is going to ride a Donor Cycle.”  

Hector didn’t know what to do? Unless Marco learned to drive a car, he would be forced to ride his bike into adulthood. He’d be stuck riding a bus or taking cabs, looking like the working class Hector desperately wanted his boy to escape.

Hector had spent the majority of his life waking before dawn and working until dark. He was proud of his work ethic, but never proud of his work. The grease under his fingernails had lasted far too long – and though he had become a well sought after Maintenance Mechanic for over a dozen wineries in the Los Osos Valley, he wanted his children to aspire to be anything they wanted, anything without grease under their fingernails.

A young man needed a car. But Marco…

Even when Hector quietly offered to give Marco money to purchase a vehicle of his choice, Marco bought a road bike, and refused to buy a car.

Hector had to hand it to him. Here he was at twenty-four years of age, working in graphic design at well-known advertising agency, and living (by choice) in the heart of North Hollywood.  He was making do with just two wheels and a metro card to get to downtown LA and back.

“You be careful on that thing,” Hector said to his son, before he and Martina headed back up north.

“Your mother worries,” Hector chided, “That’s her job. But seeing you blow through that intersection just now, you had my heart skipping rope.”

Marco hugged his old man – he loved him all right – he couldn’t have asked for better parents. To worry is to love, he thought. He looked his father straight in the eyes.

 “I’m always careful, I always wear a helmet…” Marco knocked on the hard plastic strapped to his head. It was decorated in stickers with no rhyme or reason. There were stickers with bands he never listened to and slogans he didn’t care to say.

What the stickers hid were the numerous cracks from where his helmet kissed the asphalt. It had saved his brain on many of an occasion – and though it was recommended that you change your helmet after any initial impact – Marco felt it was his good luck charm.

“You mean that potato you stick on your head,” Hector said, as the stickers could only cover so much, and plopped a meaty palm on to the top of Marco’s head. “That’ll save you from a two-ton truck?”

Marco kissed his Dad on the back of his cheek, “I’ll be fine. Now get out of here before you get stuck on the 101.”

“Just look both ways…and obey the law.” His father said.

“Obey the law!” Marco’s mother said with finality before giving her son one more good, long kiss on the side of his eye.

They motored away and Marco sighed with a bit of relief. His eyes narrowed and his vision sharpened. He was back on his own again. Back.

In the streets.

In the land of his control.

He knew this town better than when he was growing up in Gonzalez. He knew it better than the back roads of Los Alamos, where his family moved when he was ten.

Los Angeles was his now– every intersection, every back alley, every short cut, side street and Metrolink wormhole. It was his. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

He had every bit of control on his bike – even when he couldn’t control the millions of other drivers.

Marco had been hit numerous times, but all of them were never more serious then standard close calls. He had the agility to contort and twist his body mid-air. A bit like an acrobat, he could position himself for the safest landing possible.

Marco should have broken his collarbone three different times, snapped both wrists, had his knees replaced, a nose surgically engineered from the fat of his ass – lost eyes, lost teeth, been scalped.

But yet for the mystery of life and save for his ability to either turn in just the right way, or slide effortlessly up and over the roof of the car – Marco had remained mostly unscathed.

Scabs were ever present on his elbows, he knees and ankles. One time, the mirror of a pickup gave him a black eye – but that was his fault for not paying attention.

His friends had asked before they knew better, “Are you insane? That Beemer just totaled your bike…nearly totaled you! And you’re going out for another ride?”

“Why stop?” Marco had asked. “I’m not letting them win.”

But deep down, Marco wondered if his nine lives had already been spent. He had been more than lucky – he had been blessed. But it was starting to gnaw on him now. He’d have to buckle down and get a car. Ugh. It would be selling his soul.

But things were getting serious now that Lucy was in the picture.

Marco met Lucy during LA’s famous Critical Mass bike rally. 

The Critical Mass ride sprang from a close group of cyclists who wanted to brave the nighttime streets of Los Angeles. But being dangerous to ride through the city at night, the only way to beat the streets was to ride with a crowd.

A big crowd - a crowd that had grown into a phenomenon.

On the last Friday of every month, thousands of bicyclists gather at the corner of Western and Wilshire – and without knowing exactly where they are headed – follow a pickup truck with flashing lights and orange vested volunteers – and are lead through maze of LA streets and points of interest. Riding, rolling, hooting and hollering, the mass holds the streets of LA hostage.

And it is fantastic.

Sometimes they roll west and invade Westwood, Santa Monica and Venice Beach. The hundreds of bicycles cruise ocean side, smelling the salt and caramel apples, waving at the teenyboppers and retired couples that tour the Promenade. Eventually the pickup truck leads the group back onto Olympic where they own the boulevard until reaching home at Wilshire and Western.

By this time it will be well past one in the morning – with everyone exhausted, but elated.

It is something special when all of those bicycles take over the streets of LA. As if they are crowned king of the city if only for just that day.

All cars are brought to a standstill, as the Sheriff’s department usually assists at the larger intersections, while people on the street wave at the unending stream of riders.

The bicycles themselves are a sight to behold – covered in colored rights that are wrapped around the spokes, frames and handlebars. Some bicyclists strap a cooler to their back fender, filled with ice and canned Modelo. Music pumps out of speakers from their backpacks or strapped to the frame. 

Anywhere you ride, it is akin to traveling through spectrum of the radio. There is hip-hop here, and if riding ahead, punk rock there. Onto trance, or any jam band you might like.

Marco liked to linger with the reggae, if only for a moment.

The riders are generally dressed in costume or in street clothes, some with or without helmets, they cheer and pump their fists and hop over sidewalk bumps, raising their smart phones over their head to capture video of the event.

Marco lived for the Critical Mass. It was the Burning Man for bicyclists. If hippies could dance, then those like Marco could ride.

This is where Marco first caught eyes with Lucy – and where she coyly mentioned that she liked his bike.

It was the same spray-painted black “fixy” that Marco was riding at the moment – since  the road bike Hector bought him long gone, was demolished under the wheels of a sooped up El Camino.

Lucy asked him if he knew a quicker way to the Coliseum – which was the rest stop for the Critical Mass riders – to which Marco replied, “Yeah, I’ll show you.”

The two broke off from the group and raced down Olympic, dodging cars and blowing through yellow lights. They were racing and Marco was impressed, Lucy knew how to ride. She was good, maybe even better than him. But his vision sharpened and his reflexes quickened – and he was sure he was going to give her a run for her money.

Everything about that night was as if it were predestined – as if it were scripted. As if it were already etched into their memories long before it ever occurred.

Every word spoken, every joke told, every light that turned green was in their favor.

Lucy and Marco were hooked to each other from the start – and when Critical Mass ended for the night – they continued to ride, vowing not to stop until sunrise.

They came close – but Marco couldn’t shake the cramp in his thigh and they stopped on the corner of Rossmore and Clinton Street.

Leaning against a lamppost from a different era, Marco kneaded his leg and without thinking, kissed Lucy on a whim.

She had been making fun of the sole of his shoe, as it was nearly torn off: “You keeping that together with chewing gum?” She asked.

Marco couldn’t help himself, and neither could she.

And that was their meet-cute and time rolled on.

Tonight, was going to be their tenth Critical Mass.

And Marco was late.

He promised Lucy that after the ride ended, they would roll down to the beach and watch the sun rise.

They had made good on their first promise, and rode through the night a month after they met. It had been unseasonably cold that morning, and wetter than they had anticipated.

That wouldn’t be the case tonight – they were going to be war.

But Marco forgot the blankets at home when he left for work and had to race back to NoHo on the Redline.

He had plenty of time - but then his landlord dropped by and talked at length about repainting the interior, who was not paying their rent, the crazy explosion of money and energy in North Hollywood – and before long it was six-thirty. A mere sixty minutes from show time.  

At seven-thirty, Critical Mass would start the ride with or without him – and he couldn’t’ call Lucy...well…he could – but there was a rule once the ride started: You were to be given no clues. You’d have to find the group on your own.

Marco had taught this rule to Lucy a few months back. She wasn’t pleased, even though he had warned her multiple times – it was the legacy of the ride.

Critical Mass was to be discovered each and every time. Lucy had argued with Marco that night, annoyed that he wouldn’t answer his phone after seven-thirty – and it was the only time in their ten-month courtship that all was not honeysuckle and bumblebees.

Was Marco being bullish about this? Was he being just a tad pig-headed? Sure, he was, but aren’t we all with our own peccadilloes? The argument lasted an hour after she found the Mass, covered in sweat and furious.

But a rule was a rule, and this time, it was up to Marco to discover the group. And with the heavy pack of blankets, and a change of clothes on his back, he needed to make some serious good time.

Marco made a quick excuse to his landlord, and hopped onto his bike with a most serious quest on his mind. He now had forty-five minutes before Critical Mass rolled out.

He could make it if he hopped back on the Redline, and booked it to Vermont/Sunset. From there on, it would all be downhill.

Marco adjusted his pack and tightened his helmet. It’d be close – but Marco loved a challenge when it presented itself on two-wheels. Fitting his feet into the straps around the pedals, Marco kicked up his legs and took off in a blur.

Most people don’t know that Los Angeles has a subway system, and one that is efficient, affordable and for the most part, clean.

Marco skidded to a stop at the intersection of Magnolia and Lankershim, as a couple of LA’s finest waited to turn left – eyeing Marco for a red light ticket.

He’d gotten a couple citations before – and for the amount the city charged, it would mean his meals would consist of ramen and more ramen for the next few months to pay it off.

The clock was ticking, and Marco was already soaking through the Manchester United jersey he wore during Critical Mass. He’d only biked a few blocks, but adrenaline had seized him. Who knows where the ride would go? He could be canvassing the city for hours before he finally caught up with them.

And Lucy...ugh, she would not be pleased.

The LAPD moved on, and so did Marco as soon as they were out of view. He likened this experience to that ancient game, Frogger – where one false move meant, “SPLAT!”

Fortunes smiled on him the rest of the way, as he held his bike over his head as he rolled down the escalator, and caught the train seconds before the doors closed shut.

Coming out into the fading light of the day at Sunset and Vermont, Marco checked his cell phone when it finally grabbed a signal – and he had less than twelve minutes to go.

This was it, he thought, this was his race to lose.

Marco jammed his way west down Sunset, where the strip was no longer glamorous, but downright sketchy. Graffiti was marked on every powerbox, and more buildings were locked down then open for business.

It was all liquor stores, massage parlors and questionable Chinese restaurants with a sun-faded “A” in the window.

Up ahead was his ticket down south – Normandie. A wormhole, much like Western, though less crowded on a Friday night.

Marco took a left while riding with the traffic, ignoring the various honks that plagued him as he grew bold enough to take up a lane – and then it was all downhill. Marco pumped his legs until he reached terminal velocity.

The fixy didn’t have brakes – brakes were cumbersome and heavy – and Marco learned long ago to use his right foot to slow the back tire.

Lucy later learned this was why Marco ran through his soles while his shoes remained relatively new. He was burning rubber on rubber – and as he sped down the hill, Marco kept his right foot limber for immediate action.

Racing through the middle of cars inching through a usual bottleneck coming up on Beverly, Marco caught sight of other riders making their way to the mass.

Marco pulled his cell out of his pocket, and it was 7:29. He wasn’t going to make it; he was at least another two miles from Wilshire.

Lucy was going to be pissed.

Marco summoned every bit of energy he had into his lower core, and used his back and legs, now burning, rubbery and viscous, to crush as much weight into the pedals as he could.

Traffic was easing, and there was more room to breathe.

Marco blew past a gaggle of amateur bikers, with their flashing helmets and fifteen hundred dollar Trek frames.

He was going to make it.

He had to.

The night was his.

Marco owned this city. He knew it better than anyone, he knew it, because he could trace the pulse of Los Angeles and ride the wave.

This was his, all his..

A horn blared, as Marco looked up from his handlebars.

Two things struck him before he flew in the air: 1) That the light he rode into was red and 2) He was on the corner of Normandie and Melrose.

God, he hated Melrose.

On the numerous times when Marco was hit by a car, he could recount the slow down effect to whoever would listen.

“I don’t remember the impact, I don’t feel the impact – all I feel is time slowing down, as if I am suddenly leaping onto a single second, and hanging on for dear life. It’s during this hang time that I can adjust...”

It didn’t matter if a car, truck or police cruise. It didn’t matter the intersection. It didn’t even matter the bike. All that mattered was that Marco stayed alert and alive during the hang time. He could adjust. He would adjust.

Red light. Melrose.

“God, I hate Melrose” raced through his head in a multitude of different languages, as he hung onto that second for dear life.

In the air he traveled, across the sky he wandered, and soon gravity would have him.

He was holding his bike. He was holding it as it rotated with him. He was flying upside down now, as a green vehicle skidded underneath – skidded and smashed into another car.

Broken glass, shattered plastic, twisted metal underneath – the second was closing now, all was coming back into focus. Time was starting up again.

Marco adjusted.

Pushing his weight to the left, Marco brought himself and his bike right side up, and landed at the far end of the intersection.

On two wheels, on two legs, with working limbs, and without a scratch or a dent – a master of miracles – his ninth life had just been spent in full.

The account was empty now – Marco knew that – next time he would be in the red.

Somebody screamed, a horn blasts, now sirens in the distance. Marco knows that if sticks around, he’ll be in deep.

Deeper than he ever has been. Deeper than he can afford.

Marco did something he had never done before – he runs.

Riding his bike down the sidewalk, he dodges people who run towards the scene, and with traffic momentarily stopped, he flies back into the southbound lane and puts his head down.

Soon, he is riding in silence – traffic is back to normal, and he is really moving now. He is graceful and electric on the bike.

The adrenaline has now paid many a dividend. He is going to find the Mass and he is going to kiss Lucy and tell her he is buying a car.

Marco reaches into his pocket for his cell – but it is gone. Long gone. Another sensation jars him, he feels the wind in his hair. Reaching up to his scalp, his fingers are suddenly deep in his sweat-soaked black locks.

The helmet, the cell – shit, he doesn’t have his wallet, or his backpack – all must have been lost in the melee.

He shouldn’t have run – the Po-Po will discover his entire life on the pavement – ID, credit cards, his Peddler's West membership card.

Marco shakes his head in dismay and continues to ride. He won’t turn around - he’s gone too far.

He was lucky to have been spared his life – he can part with the stuff – everything he needs was right there. His health and his bike – and he peddles, and soon he is reaching Wilshire.

Any moment now.

And that’s when Marco met the Sharks.

They come, a bit of rolling thunder of their own accord, the whizzing of wheels, the hard clatter of steel rims over bumps, the clicking change of their gears, and the hoots of men on their mechanical stallions.

“On the left, your left” yelled one of them, as he raced by Marco as if he were standing still. 

“Your right, your right” another one commanded, as he too flew by with a speed that was almost preternatural.

“Behind, behind..."

Marco whipped his around, and saw a tall gangly fellow, with a reddish complexion and hell-raising eyes.

“I’m gonna buzz you...”

The rider buzzed the front wheel against Marco’s back tire.

“Hey, stop it!” Marco called out, suddenly annoyed.

“Your left, your left” as another rider passed and then slowed coming within an elbows distance to Marco.

This was one was African-American and wears a shirt with a silver Tomahawk – the weapon, not the plane.

“You headed to the Mass, aren’t you...” asks the African-American, and Marco’s bike tire is buzzed again.

“I told you to cut that out,” Marco directed at the guy behind.

“Aw, come on, man. We’re just playing.”

The reddish-complexion rider pulled up to the right, and now the three of them were hogging the right lane on Wilshire.

“What’s your name, son?” Asked the reddish rider.

“Let me guess,” said the African-American, “It’s Jose.”

Red laughed, “Naw, it’s Luis.”

“No way is he a Luis,” the African-American said, “It’s Joe-say. Am I right?”

Marco shook his head, “Enough with the Mexican jokes.”

“Well, aren’t you?” Asked the African American, and Marco rolled his eyes.

“It’s Marco."

The guys laughed.

Red asked, “Are you sure it isn’t Mako?”

“Nice,” the African American said. “We need a Mako,” he followed up.

“Marco,” Marco said again, more than annoyed, but now a bit frightened. These guys were being aggressive.

“We’re the Sharks,” Red said, and they were – as a pack of them, different guys; various sizes, ethnicities, makes and models – on bikes of from old to new – they surround Marco, now their own Critical Mass owning one side of the streets on Wilshire.

“I’m Hammerhead,” said Red – and so he is.

“I’m Thresher,” said the African-American, followed up by Whitey, Bull, and an assortment of other sharks.

Sharks that ride the streets of LA in a pack, or better yet, a school.

“But we don’t have a Mako,” said Hammerhead, “Why don’t you join up with us?”

The offer was sincere, and the threat seemed relatively low.

“You headed to the Mass?” Marco asked.

“Something like that,” said Hammerhead, “Follow us, Mako.”

The sharks turned down a side street into an urban neighborhood with craftsman style homes, once a splendor to behold, but now run down, with windows protected by steel bars.

“This was ground zero during the riots,” said Thresher, “I don’t think it has ever recovered.”

“Look at Thresher, running for Mayor, huh?” Catcalls Whitey, “I’ll vote for you.”

Thresher shot Whitey a look, “Shut your mouth.”

Whitey grins – showing two immaculate rows of teeth. “The better to chew on you, my dear,” he said, but Thresher pedals ahead, leaving them all in the dust.

“You guys ride often?” Marco asked, and the guys responded with laughter, hoots and hollers.

“Oh we ride,” Hammerhead said, “We ride and ride.”

Through the neighborhood, the riders wait at a light and Marco spies the Mass up ahead.

“There it is.”

Marco kicks his wheels, and speeds down the street.

“Follow the leader,” screamed Hammerhead, and the school of sharks take off in pursuit.

Lucy was decorated in LED Lights. Her helmet, the bike frame, the wheels – in a rainbow of colors that swirl in and out, in a crowd of this size, she was still hard to miss.

She checked her phone and sees that Marco hasn’t called.

That damn legacy, she thought.

She wanted to call him – but he will then think he cheated.

Lucy placed the cell back in her pocket and looked around. A feeling of desperation overwhelms her – a feeling that she’ll never find him. That she’s lost him.

She continues the slow roll with the other riders, staying near the back, to allow him time to catch up.
Marco spots her from quarter a mile behind, and relief floods his system. He has his health, his bike, and his love. At the moment there is nothing better than that.

She is wearing the LED’s he helped her design. They waste batteries – but in this moment, he has never been happier to spot her from this distance.

“You’re really moving, now. You got someone up there?” Asked Thresher, as he paces Marco, with his hands on his hips, letting the handlebars go untouched.

Thresher maintained the speed that Marco worked so hard for, as effortless as holding letting the wind push you.

“Goddamn, you’re fast,” Marco said in return.

“Thanks,” responded Thresher, “So who is she?”

“My girlfriend,” Marco said, and Thresher threw him a look, an uncanny look of dismay.

“He’s got a girlfriend up there,” Thresher calls out to the pack behind.

More hoots, more hollers, but nothing more.

Lucy’s LED’s are growing now – she must be really taking it easy.

“Good girl,” Marco said, “Thank you, thank you,” he said to no one in particular.

Marco and the Sharks gain on the Mass, and soon, they are speeding through the slowest riders, as Marco approaches Lucy.

Marco thinks about scaring her, but knows that wouldn’t be welcomed. Instead, he plans on calling her name.

“Lucy,” he said, softly – but when she doesn’t hear him, he calls out louder.

He reaches for her.

But a firm hand catches his wrist – it’s Hammerhead.

“Let’s ride, Sharks!”

Hammerhead won’t let go, and Marco is pulled past Lucy.

“Lucy!” Marco calls out, but Hammerhead laughs.

Marco turns to see Lucy looking around – she must have heard his voice, but this band of lunatics has taken him hostage.

“Faster, Sharks! Faster!” Hammerhead calls out, and removing his hand from Marco’s wrist, he grips the handlebars – and they blaze past the crowd of Critical Mass, and speed south from the Coliseum where everyone else is headed to rest.

“What the hell are you doing?” Marco screams, but Hammerhead and the sharks contiue to ride.


And they roll – as if going downhill in San Francisco – the wheels hum with a life of their own, and Marco is moving at a speed he has never experienced.

The group is pushing each other.

The Sharks scream out, “Ride, ride, ride!”

Hammerhead lets go of the handlebars, “Don’t ever stop, Mako, you can’t stop!”

“The hell with this!”

Marco reaches his right foot to his back tire and burns rubber on rubber, skidding to a stop. The school of Sharks fly past him as Marco hangs onto the handlebars to keep himself from toppling over.

The Sharks are in the distance now – that speed, Marco thinks, how in the world can they go so fast?

And it is in the blink of an eye, that light flood Marco’s senses.

Turning to his right, a truck (a two-ton, his Father would have said) plows through the intersection and right into Marco.

Where it passes right through him.

And suddenly Marco is filled with dread.

At first thought, Marco thought he hallucinated, but as he watched the truck lumber on up the street, and another car rolled through him without leaving a mark – dread turned to terror.

The sound of a lone bicycle invaded the eerie silence – as Hammerhead approached, with a mournful seriousness.

“I’m sorry, Mako. You’re a shark now. We ride and we never stop.”

Tears cornered the bits of Marco’s eyes, and they stung. He could feel the salt water burning.

“But how? I feel. I’m hungry, thirsty, aching and tired.”

“It’ll pass, with time,” Hammerhead said, “But you have to ride.”


“You don’t want to know why.” Hammerhead returned, and this time, a flicker of fear edged into his hard demeanor.

“We’ve had a few sharks that pulled off from our group. We argued for them to stay. But they didn’t and we never see them again. But we do hear them on occasion. We hear them scream. It’s not pretty, and it’s undeserving for a rider like you.”

A shudder erupted through Marco’s body.

Could this be happening?

“Quit asking why. It’ll make sense eventually.”

“What about my girlfriend?” Marco asked, and the tears fell from his eyes and cascaded down his cheeks.

“Don’t you worry,” Hammerhead said, “She’ll catch up. They all do, eventually.”

Marco nodded, this was happening. He hadn’t just lost his helmet, cell and wallet – he had...
“Nine lives in the red,” Marco said.

Hammerhead nodded, as if he got what Marco meant – even though there was no way that he could.

“We have to go. Now!” Hammerhead urged, he twisted the handlebars and clicked the bike gears back to one.

Kicking his feet into a spin, Hammerhead brought the bike upright on his back wheel and rode the wheelie like a stallion, waving his right hand up in the air as if he were holding a saber.

“Let’s ride, Mako!”

For the first time that evening, the nickname they gave Marco, gave him a feeling of hope. All he had to do was ride. Marco felt the terror begin to wash away

Watching Hammerhead disappear into the mists of the mid-evening fog, Marco turned his head and looked at the street behind him.

An unsteady air clouded his thoughts, as if something was there, but you couldn’t tell what it was – it was somebody, and they were indeed on their way – somebody dark and ominous, with fingernails that scraped grooves into the street, and had teeth that chattered with a ferocious appetite.

“Wait up!” Marco yelled.

Lucy, Marco thought, oh Lucy.

“Don’t you worry about her,” Hammerhead yelled from somewhere far up ahead, “She’ll catch up. They always do.”

Marco gripped his handlebars and kicked up his legs.

He took off through the changing stoplights in a blur.

Written by Trevor Boelter