Fighting Amongst the Rubble

“War is little more than a catalogue of mistakes and misfortunes.”  -Winston Churchill

**********

Running his fingers through his thick brown hair, the soldier surveyed the terrain for what seemed like the millionth time.  Removing his hand from his thick curls, he let his eyes wander yet again over his home for the last few weeks.

14153771871721147961sewage-clipart-food-trucksWhat had once been a food truck now served as a modern day pillbox.  The tires had long ago been ripped off, and the ground it sat upon was uneven, but the brown-haired soldier still knew this was a better place to keep guard than most other options.  The smell of beans and grease still permeated the metal walls; a constant reminder of how things had been before the fighting broke out.  He couldn’t remember the last time he worried about salsa staining a white shirt.  Nothing was white anymore.  Not the clouds, not the walls on the now-crumbled houses, and certainly not his uniform.  The blood stains and muck had long ago become standard issue among his outfit.

The brown-haired man wondered how much longer he could hold out as the lone sentinel of his sector.  Relief had not come when it was supposed to, but that was hardly surprising given the state of things.  They certainly were not going to consider worth rushing for a meager soldier like him.  Bridges were destroyed, buildings had fallen, and man power seemed to be dwindling every day.  The soldier could not recall the last body that he had seen.  Well, had seen and had not shot on sight.  Such was the way with war.

He groaned as he reached for another can of tuna.  This is all the Melter’s fault, he thought to himself.

Early in the war, a new weapon had been released, one that attacked the enemy in two different ways.  Melter, as it was quickly labeled by the troops, was in reality, ToxiAlgae Compound No. 43.  It was a substance that reacted quickly with oxygen.  In a vacuum, the compound was quite harmless.  But when exposed, the results were devastating.  One part of the mass set about eating away at whatever was in its path; an acidic substance unlike anything ever seen, more destructive than any scientist had ever thought was possible.

(Galverson, the head scientist of the ToxiAlgae Project, was also the first victim.  Soldiers, not above giving credit where it was due, referred to being eaten by compound, as being “galved”.  Soon, like its pervasive substance, the phrase had grown to cover just about anything bad.)

A second aspect of the substance served to spread the compound even faster.  A nanite-based aspect of the creation, it was programmed to take whatever mass it ate away, use the broken down material, and reconstruct more of the Melter.  It made the acidic matter spread, increasing its destructive path.  There was a flaw in the programming, causing the nanites and their instructions to short out and cease functioning, but not before laying waste to their targets and a large radius of rubble.  Had it not been for that design flaw, most believed that the world would have been melted away to nothing within the initial few months of their skirmish.

Armored plating and concrete walls were disintegrated in seconds.  Nothing was Melter-proof.  When a solider saw another soldier, they somberly commented, “W.A.G.”; short hand for, “We’re All Galved.”  No building more than a story and a half remained.  A small portion placed on a skyscrapers’ foundation was enough to send the entire structure crashing down like a giant tree cut down in a forest.  And in this urban forest, structural engineers were quickly called upon to work the front lines.

stone-rubble-of-ruinOne skyscraper could be felled in such a way that it would take a row of buildings with it.  “Dominoes” was now a phrase uttered in hushed tones.  The children’s game took on a new meaning.  The word amongst the makeshift bunkers and foxholes was that in New York, eighteen blocks had been taken out by a single soldier, a careful plan, and seven grams of Melter.  The brown-haired man did not know if he believed that story, but he felt it was safer to assume such an attack had happened.

He choked down his tuna dinner, gagging at the familiar taste.  Covert agents often snuck onto enemy farms and the food chain with Melter.  They placed one tablet in a water-soluble capsule, dropped it in a feeding trough, and fled.  The mammals never had a chance.  Pre-Melter food had been the diet of choice, but the supply had quickly dwindled.

He tossed the remains of the food in the corner, unwilling to choke down the rest.  If it is like the last batch, I’ll probably throw it up soon enough.  Why add more fuel to the tank?

The tin can hit the metal wall of the soldier’s shelter and clanged loudly.  He cursed himself.  Seconds later, the reverberations finally ceased.  The brown-haired man poked his head up through the serving window.  The eerie silence returned.  With no electricity, no wildlife, and no fellow troops around, any small noise could be heard for blocks.  Metal hitting metal.  Stupid.  Just stupid.  Great way to broadcast my location.

He closed his eyes, letting his ears survey the site for him.  He let his forehead pull tight so that the tops of his ears rose ever-so slightly.  He tried to open them; taking in whatever noises he could hear with his most important sense.  He could not see an attack coming from behind, but he could listen for one.

He sat there with his eyes closed, concentrating.  Other than a light breeze he heard nothing.  Five minutes passed.  Then ten.  Twenty.  His jaw started to unclench.

Five more minutes, he thought to himself quickly.  If I don’t hear anything in five more minutes than I should be—

A pebble rolled.

The brown-haired soldier, with practiced silence, pulled his rifle closer to his eye.  He opened his right eye, aiming behind the scope while he continued to listen.

He was met with silence.

It could have been nothing.  The winds blew freer now, with no tall buildings to slow them down.  And the brown-haired man knew that buildings that had toppled months ago were still settling.  It could have merely been debris tumbling around.  The environment was only stretching its arms, yawning, and going back to sleep.  It was nothing to worry about.  Just like every other time.  There was never any reason for concern.

Except, when there had been.  He had learned his lesson from those times.

The brown-haired man felt his throat tighten as he tried to gulp down a dry breath.  He could have sworn he heard another shuffling of pebbles.  There, to his left, the sound of rubble being moved.  Is that a boot?  Is this man clomping his way to me?  He took a deep breath, willing his shaking hands to steady themselves.

I can do this.  He’s galved.  Not me.  Him.  You have the advantage.  The shelter.  This is just some pathetic loser waiting to be shot.  He doesn’t know what’s coming.

He could hear what he now knew for sure were footsteps.  Closer they came.  They tried to walk softly, whoever they were, but the boots fumbled on the rocky terrain.  The brown-haired man added slightly more pressure on the trigger.

From the corner of the food-truck’s window, a spray of dirt and rocks flew at the brown-haired man’s face.  He coughed, trying to breathe as he franticly clawed at the dirt that was blocking his vision.  Seconds later, a large rock struck above his right eye.

He fumbled with his weapon, firing blindly and receiving an outraged cry in response.

“Ow!  You galved up my leg you twit!”

“A rock?  You threw a rock at my eye?  That is how you fight a war, by giving out concussions?  That’s your plan?”  The brown-haired man hastened to see as blood began to trickle down his face.  Through his smeared vision, he could just make out a soldier in the other side’s uniform with a torn shirt.

“You judge my methods of engagement?  The Air-Animal Treaty of ’17 specifically states that all weapons are to fire a stunning shot first, and then lethal ammunition.  You are breaking the accord by trying to kill me like that.”  The man with the torn-shirt ripped a section off of his pants and set about wrapping his wound.

“You’re dictating terms of how I kill you?”  The brown-haired man shook his head.  “You guys really are a special kind of breed, aren’t you?”

“Unlike you cretins, Representative Louis would want us to fight with honor!”

“Well unlike you twerps, Representative Winston would want us to succeed.  As in, not getting shot by walking so loud the dead could hear.”

“This coming from the fellow who bangs his drum set to announce his presence.  I almost went down by the river, but you convinced me to pay you a visit.”  The man with the torn-shirt looked up and horror flashed over his face.  “Dear word man, is that gangrene?  How are you still standing?”

“There is no way I fall for that”, the brown-haired man said with a laugh.

“Oh come now.  Look at your arm.”

“You’re embarrassing yourself.  Louis must be getting pretty desperate if he wants you to use, ‘Your shoelace is untied’ as a war tactic”.

“You have the gun.  I am a ways off”, the man with the torn-shirt said.  “Why not look yourself over while aiming at me?  We are a good twenty feet apart.  Here, I will even back up another five feet.”

The brown-haired solider saw the other man back up.  He cast a glance down at his shirt.  He rolled his eyes and yelled back, “Oh come on.  That is guacamole.”

“Oh.  Wait, guacamole?  That does not look right.  How long has it been there?”13920445601430208058stain.svg.med

“I dunno, maybe a few weeks.  It doesn’t come out easily after a few days.”

“So that is what the smell is.”

“No”, the brown-haired man replied wryly.  “That’s me.  I have been in here a while.”

“That is…”  The man with the torn-shirt struggled for words.  And air.  “That is nauseating.  Truly.  How can you sleep with that sort of pervasive odor?  Rotting corpses smell better than you.”

“Right.  Insult the guy with the gun pointed at you.  Let us call that first shot my ‘stun’, shall we?  Bye.”

“Wait!”

The brown-haired man put down his gun.  “What?  Just let me shoot you.  Then I can go through your pockets, throw your body on the pile, and get back to my busy day.”

“Winston certainly rallies the finest troops with the highest morals, does he not?”

“Louis apparently rallies troops who walk around with elephant feet and no guns.  So yeah, I think our guy is the winner.  Bye.”

“Wait!”

“I did.  We did this, remember?  Now I shoot you.”

“Do you have no desire to talk at all?”

Talk?  Who is this guy? 

“I have been out here and have not seen anyone for weeks.  You?”

“Months”, the brown-haired man replied.

“Precisely.  So why can we not have the briefest of truces?  Honestly, I think we may be the last two left.”

“That would explain why no one has responded to my calls in the last year.”

“Indeed.  And look at what we have here.  I am bleeding from a major artery, thanks to your garish methods of engagement.  You possibly have a concussion.  Neither of us is in a hurry to get anywhere.  Why not take a moment to heal, engage in the merest of conversation, and then go back to waging the war?”

“On one condition.”

“Yes?”

“Say, ‘Winston is a winner, Louis is a loser’.”

“Come off it.”

“I’m serious.”

“Are you daft?  Ten year-old logic still solves your playground troubles?”

“Hey, I was perfectly happy playing King of the Castle all by myself.  You are the one who kicked sand in my face.”

“It was not sand”, the man with the torn-shirt replied.  “It was dirt.”

“Yeah, but sandboxes have sand.  Playgrounds have sandboxes.”

“What?”

“Nevermind”, the brown-haired man replied.  “Your side could never commit to anything, not even an analogy.”

“You blew up half the nation after we all agreed not to!  Why could you not commit to that simple notion?”

“You got all high and mighty, calling for a stop to the killings.  And then you shot Winston the next day.”

“Only after you shot Louis.”

“Oh please”, the brown-haired man replied.  “I heard all about it in the field.  You guys were always planning to take out Winston.”

“The only thing we were planning to do was fight the good fight.  I was in the field too.  Serving my side!  We would have won that election!”

“Bull”, replied the brown-haired man.  “Winston was for education, the environment, and jobs.  He was good and decent.  And your side went and shot him in front of his supporters.  Bad enough he was trying to talk us out of starting a war.  You had to go and shoot him in public where civilians could have been killed.”

“Balderdash”, the man with the torn-shirt said.  “Louis was the one to support.  If you had not been so pig-headed, you would not have broken up the nation ranting about how blessed and sacred Winston was.  Bad information is your problem.  You should have rallied behind the leader who was for progress, against unreasonable taxes, and supported fair pay for fair work.  And it was Louis who was shot in front of his supporters, not Winston.”

“You don’t know what you are talking about.”

“Look, this is getting us nowhere.  Why not pick another topic?”

“So I can share opinions and notions with you before I blow you away?”

untitled“Ideally, yes”, the man with the torn-shirt replied.  “It is regarded in many circles as bad form to discuss politics upon first meeting a person.  Surely we can be civilized?”

“In a war zone.  As I bleed and watch the blood smear with tuna juice and guacamole stains?”

“Yes.”

“You are galved in the head, pal.”

“Some might offer that we all are, I suppose.”

“Yeah.  W.A.G.”

“W.A.G.”, the man with the torn-shirt nodded in agreement.  “Allow me to suggest a cheerier topic.  What was your wife like?  Pretty?  Homey?  Fashionable?  Do tell.”

“What makes you think I was married?”

“Oh come now.  You are living in the very definition of squalor.  And yet, that ring on your hand is the cleanest thing I have seen in a very long time.  It is obviously important to you, so she was probably more than just a carpooling buddy to you.  Am I wrong?”

The brown-haired man dabbed at his forehead, winced, and wiped the blood onto his pants.  “No, you are not.”

“Well then?  Have a go.”

Why not?  “She was short.  Not comically short, but she probably should have been.  I always thought it was interesting that a person with such a short build could have such high cheek bones.  Her face was beautiful; striking even.  And the fact that her compact frame could still contain so much beauty fascinated me.  I could never stop staring at her.  Never really wanted to.”

“Had a sort of picturesque quality about her, did she?  Sat around and made things prettier?”

The brown-haired man laughed.  “Not hardly.  No, she never had time for sitting still.  She even thrashed about in her sleep.  She was always go go go.  Back then I could not keep track of all the committees and organizations she took a part in.  Planting gardens, painting houses and mowing yards; she was a force to be reckoned with.  I kept asking if she was taking all the energy we would have put into kids and used it to raise our community.  She just rolled her eyes at me and went back to the project.  She set out to make things better, and something about her made others rush to join in.”

“Sounds like a difficult gal to keep up with.”

“I couldn’t keep up with her most days”, the brown-haired man admitted with a shrug.  “No one could.  But she’d always pause long enough in between this and that to check in with me.  She was considerate like that.  In return, I’d listen when someone wasn’t keeping up with their part of the obligation or when a task was starting to get at her nerves.  She looked after everyone and I looked after her.”

“I say, was she Melted?  That is, was she around to see all this mess?  I cannot believe she would have approved.”

“No, she wouldn’t have.  I thank God she wasn’t around to see all her world destroyed by you people.”

“Oh come now, really”, the man with the torn shirt protested.  “Can we not get past that for a bit?”

“What about you”, the brown-haired man said sullenly.  “Where’s your wife?”

“Never got married ol’ chap?”

“Just didn’t see the point?  Too busy hitting on women to get hitched to one?”

“Oh nothing of that sort”, the man with the torn shirt said as he waved off the notion.  “Simply could not get the ol’ gal to cooperate.  We had a go of it.  I thought it was proceeding swimmingly.  Then some other bloke comes along and she takes a fancy to him.  Could not see what the attraction was.  Sure he had striking good looks, quick with a joke, and arms that she could not stop caressing.  Still, why would a gal settle for that when she could have been with me?  Decidedly curious; never did figure that bit out.”

“That’s it?”  The brown-haired man shook his head in disbelief.  “One gal turns you down and you give up?”

“Well it was not as if I was allotted a great deal of free time for romantic endeavors in the last few years.   Been a bit busy, you know.  She was certainly the highlight of all my encounters.  Almost made me willing to adopt a dog.  Almost.  Blasted things always barking and drooling.  I prefer a more sophisticated way of life than the ones canines create.”

“How’s that gunshot wound doing?”

“Bleeding seems to have slowed down.  Not gushing out so profusely, which is nice.  And your head?”

“Peachy”, the brown-haired man answered.  “Vision’s getting better; I now only see three of you instead of four.”

“Terrific”, the man with the torn-shirt replied.  “Say, do you remember that dinner that Representative Louis had before this whole fight started?  He took his wife out and they danced around looking splendid as that comedian fellow ran across the floor with his shirt off?  Caused quite a stir in the papers.”

“Of course I remember it, only it happened to Representative Winston.  He was the one hosting the dinner.  The comedian went on and on about how Winston was the one guaranteed to lead us to new glory.”

“Not to be contradictory sport, but that was Louis.”

“Winston.”

“Lou-is.  I say, was your hearing damaged to?”

comedic-face-with-glasses-md“Win-ston you dolt.  They were the ones you are talking about.  It was a nice dinner, everything was going well, then the comedian ran across the stage, started pointing at all his chest hairs, and joked that Lois should be with a real man like him.”

“And then the security guards tackled him”, the man with the torn-shirt joined in.

“Right.  Except one of the guards grabbed at the guy’s pants and accidentally exposed his underwear.”

“Or lack thereof ol’ fellow.  I believe you barbarians refer to it as ‘going commando’.”

“Okay”, the brown-haired man replied.  That part I think you’re right about.  His, ‘state of undress’ as they caused it was what caused the ruckus.”

“Quite so”, the man with the torn shirt said confidently.  “Only you still have the names wrong.  Our press could not believe that Winston invited such a clod.”

“And our media thought it was Louis who should have maintained a more sophisticated atmosphere and not egged the guy on.”

“I cannot understand why you are being so difficult about this.  Lois was there too.  Surely she would not have been there if it had been Winston’s party.”

“Well of course Lois Winston was there—“.

The brown-haired man stopped suddenly.  A look flashed across his face as the confusion quickly gave way to clarity.  “Lois Winston.  Lois and Louis.”

“I say, what is that?”

“I remember now.  Representative Winston was married to a woman named Lois.  Before she died, my wife told me how cute it was that the new political couple was named Louis and Lois Winston.”

“That cannot be right”, the man with the torn shirt replied.

“I’m pretty sure it is”, the brown-haired man said.

“If this is true, if, it would certainly explain why Representative Louis continually asked us to call a cease fire.”

“And why Representative Winston kept saying how we’re all in this together; that we should unite as one.”

“And why Louis, or Winston if you like, called for peace in our time.  That this was all just some big misunderstanding.”

“Huh”, the brown-haired man replied.

“Dear me”, the man with the brown shirt said.  “How do you suppose it all got this bad?”

“Too much action, not enough comprehension?”

“It would seem so.  We were a bit hasty in taking up sides, were we not?”

“Yep.”

“Sort of, created an enemy that was not really there?”

“Looks like”, the brown-haired man agreed.  He looked at the world around him.  He saw the rubble, the demolished landscape, the wasteland that had once been an area of hope and prosperity.  There were no children on swing sets, no joggers taking in the morning air, and no bustling businessmen off to make the next big deal.  There was only destruction and desolation.

E04586The man with the torn shirt made his way towards the brown-haired man.  He picked his way over the larger rocks, wincing as he forced his wounded limb to work.  His rifle hung laboriously from its shoulder strap, clumsily hitting the soldier’s hip with each jarring movement.  The going was slow, but the brown-haired man did nothing to deter him.  In a minute, the man with the torn shirt was within two feet of his supposed enemy.

“I say old fellow”, the man with the torn shirt said as he let his weapon fall to the ground.  “What exactly have we been fighting for?”

A Spouse Never Forgets

Love will draw an elephant through a key-hole.” –Samuel Richardson

**********

“Em, I’m home. Time to hide all your boyfriends.”

“Oh, but they brought me flowers and everything”, came the response from the dining room.

Tyler Cohn kicked his shoes off and rolled his eyes. He found the mail by the door and thumbed through it carelessly. Not seeing anything in the stack of bills and donation requests to catch his eye, he let the stack fall from his hands, most of it landing back on the table. He shrugged at the mess, tossed his keys in the general direction of the mail, and walked towards the living room.

Tyler had not been the most attractive person in high school. His odd skin tone made him stand out in a crowd, but his unruly hair had singled him out even more. It was not until college that he discovered the real him was only a few buzzes away. Coupled with a roommate who introduced Tyler to the joy of working out, and a new version was born. Tyler found that the quick, aggressive, thrilling move of hefting weights was an adrenaline rush that he loved. His muscular physique, olive skin, and shiny dome now all complimented each other. He had lost his childhood nervousness and now approached life with what his wife could only describe as swagger.

“For the record, I saw you first”, he countered as he doffed his jacket and let it land on the living room couch. In front of him was the large gray mass. He avoided looking at it, as always, and turned into the dining room. “Where are you?”

“I’m on the other side of it”, Emily called back.

An alarmingly loud trumpeting sound blared three times from the living room. Tyler and Emily both hurried to cover their ears, and by the time the noise had stopped, Tyler was almost in the dining room.

“I swear, The Moustache is going to drive me crazy”, Tyler said as he looked to his wallet and pulled out the receipts that he had collected over the day. “He keeps telling me that his business is going to get sued. I swear, that man thinks his workers are just there to collect on disability. I respond to all his e-mails but he won’t believe that we have his risks all covered. If he gets anymore up my butt, that facial monstrosity of his is going to start tickling my stomach. I wish I could get him out of my haiiiiiiiiir.”

Tyler had looked to Emily for the first time and was shocked at what he saw.

“Hey”, Emily said with a smile as she went towards him.   With her typical elegance and grace, she made every small step look like it had been planned out for months. Her composure had been the first thing that attracted Tyler to her. However, much to his delight, he found that when she went to hug him, her perfectly straight spine curved into him. Her hips ever so slightly leaned into his waist, her shoulders softened, and her long neck listed to the left, finding his nape and taking up residence there. With her normal ballerina-like stance, Emily stood a solid two inches taller than her spouse. But when they were having their quiet moments, he ended up being a bit higher up. She didn’t really care. Many of their best talks had been shared in this position, starting with when her father died. Tyler didn’t worry about being the tallest when they went out and Emily wore high heels, and Emily didn’t worry about her poise when she was alone with Tyler.

However on this night, Tyler found the embrace a little awkward. Normally he would feel her long, wavy chestnut hair against and under his chin. This was not the case tonight.   Instead Tyler felt a soft cushion of hair, then short bristliness, then another tuft of long hair. Had her entire head fit, Tyler would have felt another shaved section. And, to his great horror, sections of the hair were dyed orange and blue.

Is this what it feels like for her to kiss me when I haven’t shaved?

The only long hairs that felt familiar were the ones attached to the tail from the gray mass as it swished and brushed against Tyler’s leg from the living room.

“I got a text from Tess and Burt.”

“Are we supposed to be having them over for dinner? I don’t have enough cooked to feed us and my greedy siblings.”

“Greedy, or filled with a hunger for victory?”

“Greedy, Tyler. Definitely greedy. You play tennis with them, but you never had to share LEGOs with those two. Susan was the worst though. Leave it to the middle child to always cause the problems.”

“Em, there are four of you”, Tyler said as he tried to decide whether he should pull away from this painful dome or if it was best to keep her hair as out of sight as possible. “That makes you a middle child too.”

“Yes, but she was the first middle child”, she replied, pulling slowly out of the embrace. “You only children don’t know what we had to go through.” She kissed him, showing more passion than usual, and went back to the spaghetti on the stove.

“Regardless, your siblings want to know if we would play tennis tonight.”

“Tonight? Tyler, it’s seven p.m.”

“Right. Still daylight out there.”

“Honey, we have dinner to finish. And eat. Then, if we change into gym clothes, play several matches—“

“Then we can still be home by ten. C’mon, it’ll be fun.” Plus, knowing those two, they’ll bring up the haircut so I don’t have to.

Now out of their embrace, Tyler had the full effect. The left quarter of Emily’s hair was shaved off, except for a tiny, bristly layer of what used to be beautiful hair. That prior hair was hinted at by the next fourth, which was neon-orange and flopped around with four inches of length. The third section was the same shaved style as the first. And to finish off the monstrosity of it all was a section of long hair, looking just as it had before, only now filled with blue streaks in abhorrent strands.  

“Tyler, I know you. When we drive to the gym, under the auspices of playing tennis with my siblings, you’ll want to lift. This, as we both know, will require a change of clothes. And you’ll want me to lift with you. Honey, I just don’t have the strength.”

“You can always go swimming while we lift. The pool should be pretty empty. Maybe you’d have it all to yourself?” Maybe your new hairstyle will act like a fin that will help you steer in the water. Like a graffiti-obsessed dolphin. Or The Rocketeer on his worst day.

“Why don’t you just come out and admit that you want to see me walking around in a bathing suit?”

“Naturally”, Tyler said as he retrieved a mammoth bag of peanuts from under the kitchen counter. He took one, broke it, and nibbled on the nut while he tossed a handful into the next room. “I will always admit to wanting to see my wife in her element. You are a sexy woman and I appreciate that about you.”

“Uh huh”, she said with a look of disbelief behind her eyes. “I should never have taken you to that first swim meet of mine in college. It set a bad trend. Speaking of which, don’t go filling up on peanuts. Dinner is almost ready.”

“You don’t want me stocked up on protein before the gym? Besides”, he said as he threw another heaping handful into the living room, “how many do you think I’ll get the chance to eat?”

“We both know I’m going to be the one to clean those shells up, one way or the other. Go easy.”

“I will if you go to the gym with us. Please?”

“Fine”, she said with a feigned sigh. “But we are getting home no later than eleven. Got that? I’m still trying to get the payroll system up and running. Also, some of us don’t get to set our own hours. Twerp.”

“What can I say”, Tyler said with a shrug as he stirred the sauce, “it is truly challenging being a highly sought-after risk assessor.”

“Emphasis on ass-essor.”

“You’ll stop making that joke one day.”

“Plates please, Monsieur. And I’ll stop making that joke when it ceases to be funny.”

“Oh, I don’t know, I think you’re already cutting it too close.”

“What?” Em pulled the noodles off the strainer and carried them to the table.

Stupid, Tyler. Stupid, stupid choice of words. “Nothing. I’m only trying to defend myself against your rapier wit. You do love to cut me to the quick.” Again?!?! What is wrong with you? Dig yourself out before you get into a close shave. Tyler had to stop from slapping himself in the face. What is wrong with you? Freak.

They sat down at the table as munching noises became audible from the living room. The two often talked about eating by candlelight, but they knew that the constant threat of methane from the gray mass made that unwise. The whole situation lacked the romance that they yearned for. One day they would seek out a solution, but their everyday lives demanded their attention.

“So are we going to talk about it or what?”

“Talk about what?” Tyler filled his mouth with a forkful of spaghetti so that he would not be expected to respond anytime soon. Unfortunately, he had made the sauce hotter than he realized and was forced to take a swig of water and add it to his already full mouth.

“The hair, you twit. You don’t like it, do you?”

Tyler made a show of chewing and swallowing, trying to think of the proper response.

“All those sitcoms from my childhood and I still don’t know how to handle this”, he half-joked.

“So you hate it”, Emily replied as she set down her fork with purpose. “That’s great. You couldn’t come out and say that?”

“Risk assessor, remember? Not risk creator.”

“Don’t do that again. I’m being serious here.”

“Look, I didn’t lie to you. I just didn’t say anything.”

“Because you don’t like it.”

“Honey, it’s three different lengths and three different colors. Maybe when we were in school, but in our 30’s? I’m amazed you think people will take a human resources person seriously like that.”

As if to accentuate the finality of his argument, a large tooting noise came from the living room.

Emily turned her nose up at the new smell but was not done talking. “That, well that is a load of crap.”

“Cute.”

“Don’t cute me, it’s true. Work didn’t factor into your thoughts. You wanted someone else to tell me it was ugly.”

“Emily, that haircut isn’t you. Why would you do that?”

“Because it isn’t me.”

Tyler leaned away from the table. “Okay, well now you’ve lost me.”

“You don’t think I see how people treat you? You’re the cool one. You’re the one that travels around putting out fires. You work in crises. You get to watch cars get smashed and houses collapse. You think I don’t noticed that my siblings, my own family, they text you more than me. And why wouldn’t they? I sit behind a desk and deal with coworkers that can’t play nice with each other or decide they want to play nice in the bedroom, and then they come to me when it’s over and, guess what, they can’t play nice. You’re exciting, I’m dependable. Why wouldn’t I want a change?”

From across the table, Tyler could see Emily’s eyes tearing up. She picked up her napkin and dabbed her eyes with it. Tyler backed his chair away from the table, stood up, and slowly made his way to the other chair. He knelt down in front of his wife and put his arms on her legs.

“Because you are perfect.”

Another tooting sound came from the living room. No no, you’re timing’s perfect. Please, keep it up.

“More crap”, Emily replied sadly.

“What I’m saying is not crap. Do you know that half of the time I’m talking to Tess and Burt, I’m bragging about you? They’re the only ones who get it. They’re the ones who love you as much as I do and can’t stop being blown away.

“You? You spend forty-plus hours a week taking care of people, making sure that they get paid. In addition to all you do for me. On top of that, you make time for your church committees. It’s all I can do to get to church each week. Yet you somehow find the patience and the energy to tend to others. That is amazing to me. Why are you trying to be more like me when I’m trying to be more like you?”

“If you’re just saying this to get yourself out of the doghouse…”

“I’m not. You have this inner peace about you. I try to find little doses, little spurts of that in me. For you, it just happens. You define grace for me. I see all these people that have lost things, all these homes that have been wrecked, and while I’m trying to comfort them my brain is screaming that I should get back home to you right that second. Learning in the field is great; being away from you is not.”

“But people still like you more”, Emily said through small sniffles.

“I don’t think that’s true. They certainly love you more. Not a Sunday goes by when someone doesn’t pull me aside and sing your accolades. Even strangers, visitors to church; they talk to you for brief moments and then they meet me and tell me how blessed I am to be with you. They like both of us, sure, but they’re in awe of you.”

“Really? ‘cause this is stuff you could be telling me.”

“And I probably should. I’m sorry.”

“While we’re at it”, Emily said as the color in her cheeks, if not her hair, returned to normal. “You could also hang up your jacket when you come home instead of lazily throwing it on the couch.”

“People have been commenting on the straw odor.”

“It would also make your wife happier”, she said with a smile.

“What if I offered to shave your head? Would that help this situation or should I leave you be?”

“You know, that was what I was tempted to do”, Emily replied. “But the hairstylist said this would be less extreme.”

“I’m sorry… what?”

“She thought I might want to ease my want into this.”

“That’s ridiculous. Shaving your head is much less traumatic. I mean, you’re already halfway there, for corn sakes.”

“I said that, but she got so worked up about it”, Emily said.

“Okay, let’s try this. Do you like it? Not me, not the hairdresser; you.”

“Maybe if they had used hair dye colors that were found in nature. But as is? Notsomuch.”

“Will you let me shave it then?”

“You think you have enough expertise? I’d need someone who was used to having their hair short.”

“I think I can manage to figure it out”, Tyler said with a grin.

“All right, let’s do it. The sooner it’s over, the sooner my hair will grow back.”

“You know, I’ve never seen you with short hair. That could be cute.”

“Well, you’re going to find out. And we’re skipping the tennis and gym tonight. Now I really am too tired. And you have to help me.”

“Yes ma’am. I’ll send them a note after we finish dinner. Then you’ll get your head all shorn.”

“Where do you think we should do it, over the sink?”

“I was actually thinking the shower”, Tyler said as his smile grew. “That way, you know, we wouldn’t make such a mess.”

“I should probably take my blouse off too. It will keep the hair from getting everywhere.”

“That is an excellent point. Less clothes, less mess. And I know how you hate messes.”

“First thing’s first”, Emily said with a look in her eye. “You have some business to take care of.”

“Oh”, Tyler said as he adopted his “come-hither” voice. “Do I?”

“Yeah”, she said plainly. “Dumbo over there. He needs to be tidied up.”

“Yes ma’am”, he said with a chuckle.

“Trust me”, Emily said as she brushed her long strand away from her right eye and winced at the blue dye. “Things will all be better after we’ve dealt with the elephant in the room.”

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