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By Thom Vines
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2011 Thom Vines
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Chapter OneSomething Great
It had been only four hours since his mom and he had left the prison after the execution of his father for treason. Four hours, that's all. Yet somehow it already seemed like a different lifetime. As if a giant cleaver had swooped down and severed present from past, leaving both parts twitching and shivering in the new reality. Four hours. However, two years ago, when they were all together as a family in freedom for the last time, seemed just like yesterday. But that was before the betrayal. Before their lives all turned to hell. Then a whisper. Who betrayed whom?
Ross McGunter looked up at his mother, her pale face devoid of emotion. A gray slate of a shadow. No pain, no anger, no guilt. Just blank. Nothing. How can that be!? How can she just feel nothing? His eyes dropped to her hands as she quartered the sleeping pill with a steak knife. Three parts for her, one for him. Typical of her view of the world. He looked up at her with a scowl. Is this supposed to help somehow? Make me numb? Were not the events of today enough? Had not the last two years already done that? He frowned, but dutifully stuck his part of the pill in his mouth and chased it with water. It did not go down the first time, and he gagged. A second swig did the job, but it left his face contorted with a grimace from the aftertaste, a medical metaphor for the day.
Ellen McGunter tucked her son in bed without giving him a good night kiss or joining in his bedside prayer. Ross watched her close the door. Must not want anything. From God or me. Ross had long ago learned she only prayed when she needed God to be Santa Claus, and did not give her son a good night kiss unless she wanted something from him. But after all that had happened today, how can she not want to give me a kiss? Is there something the matter with her? Is there something the matter with me? Something I lack that makes her unable to show her only child some minimal affection? After a day like today. It's as if she blames me for what happened.
Ross slid from his bed to his knees, and prayed for his father's soul. He knew he should also pray for his mother, but he just couldn't form that prayer in his mind or heart. Each time he started he would gnash his teeth and stop just after "Dear God ..."
The next morning the headlines of the Washington Post blared the new reality:
"George McGunter Executed for Treason." Just under it a photograph of Ellen and eleven year old Ross McGunter leaving the prison. Ross stared at his mother in the photograph and shook his head in anger. She always wanted to be a movie star. Anything to be famous. Be careful what you ask for ...
The news article also gave their unlisted phone number. Within the hour, the calls began, spewing filth and threats, blaming the victims for the father's treasonous acts. Just like two years ago after the initial arrest. Then the threats had gotten so bad that Ellen had to change their phone number, and finally move them to a different section of the city.
Now the phone rang incessantly again. After two days, Ellen announced they were leaving, which they did that very night. They threw some clothes and a few possessions in the back seat of their '46 Nash and headed west. Three hard days later they pulled into her parents' home in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The next day, Ellen drove to the courthouse and began the process of changing her name back to her maiden St. Cloud. Fame, it seemed, was just another promise that betrayed. Part of the lie that was life itself. Ross, however, was stuck with his now infamous and notorious moniker.
The people of Albuquerque did not leave them alone either. The front door was smeared in chicken blood by even bigger chickens, scrawling with their pathetic fingers the simple word "Red." A rock blasted through the small window of Ross's bedroom, and the front yard was stabbed with a sign that said, "Traitors belong in Moscow."
Welcome to New Mexico. Ross had a hard time praying for them, too, but managed to get out at least a weak prayer asking for God to understand them- and God's help in getting them to understand the plight of his mother and him. If God answered the prayer, Ross figured the answer had to be a big, fat "No." For at school, Ross was Pariah Number One, ostracized immediately and completely for the sins of his father. Ridiculed in the classroom, even by teachers. Teased and taunted on the playground. Bullied in the neighborhood. Ross took it all stoned faced, holding back the tears until he was alone in his room.
Only one classmate befriended him, Glynnis Brody, who hated meanness to her very core. She became so outraged at the cruelty that she stood up in class and told off not only the other students but the teacher, as well. Then she took Ross by hand and moved him into a corner desk at the back next to her. Mature and brave beyond her eleven years, she was a Christian in name, as well as in practice. Besides, the new boy was kind of cute.
Glynnis became Ross's best friend, his only friend. He clung to her like a lost puppy dog- each day walking to school together, sitting next to each other in class, sitting off by themselves at lunch and recess, then walking home side-by-side. Inseparable. Shielded.
However, the shield was bound to be challenged eventually. One day while walking home they were ambushed by four cowards. Swooping in, surrounding their dual prey, yelling, pushing, shoving, they seemed even madder at her than him. After all, it was she that had given cover to the prey. Ross and Glynnis walked on, enduring the taunts and the pushes until one stepped in front and blocked their way. Turn the other cheek, she told herself, though her emotions at the moment ran directly counter. She swallowed and forced herself to do the right thing. She took hold of Ross by the arm and led him around the boy, who quickly side-stepped and blocked their way once more.
Glynnis fixed her eyes on the boy and said sternly, "Let us go."
"No way, commie lover," he said through a scoff and a laugh, then jabbed Ross in the chest with both hands, sending him staggering back a step.
"Leave us alone," she said louder and took a step to the other side. Again, the boy blocked. Now he was smiling. Glynnis set her jaw and said, "Leave us alone or-"
"Or what!? What are you going to do, commie lover?"
Ross had had enough and certainly was not going to let Glynnis take the brunt of the bullying. He stepped forward and said, "Or I'm going to stop you, that's what."
"Oh, yeah, Ross the Red? Well, I want to see that," giving Ross another shove.
"No more," Ross said, through a growl.
"Ross, just ignore the idiot," Glynnis said.
"No more what?" the boy said and reached to push Ross again, except this time Ross grabbed his hand and flung it away. The boy arched his arm back and stepped at Ross, but Glynnis stepped in front, believing that the boy would not hit a girl. She was wrong. The punch hit her in the stomach. She collapsed to the pavement, her mouth gasping for air like a fish on land. Ross took one look at her and something snapped. All the pent-up rage from the last months and years erupted at once. He lunged at the boy and dug his fingernails into the boy's eyes, and then pulled his fingers down his face, clawing ten sets of tracks as he did. The boy let out a shriek and a scream and fell back in shock. The other three boys jumped Ross from behind and drove him to the pavement. At first, Ross curled into a ball, and tried to protect himself as best as possible, but quickly realized the futility of such strategy. So he grabbed onto one of the arms that hit him, slid down to the hand, jabbed the boy's forefinger into his mouth, and clamped down with his molars. The boy let out a shrill scream. Ross refused to let go, biting down harder than ever, grinding as the boy squealed and tried to jerk his hand away. Glynnis stared in shock at what she was seeing.
The others pounded on Ross, but he would not let go, determined to inflict his measure of pain. Downward he pressed on the finger with as much force as he could muster. Crunching it like a vice. Finally, Ross felt the finger snap under the pressure of his teeth. Ross opened his mouth, and the boy fell backwards, clutching his bloody, broken appendage. The other two turned to inspect their friend, and when they did Ross went after them, teeth first. All four boys scattered like leaves in the wind.
Ross watched them flee, then turned to Glynnis, who still lay on the sidewalk, grasping her stomach. Her eyes flashed wide with surprise. He knelt beside her and said through a moan, "I'm so sorry, Glynnis. I'm so sorry."
She looked at the cuts and abrasions on his face and hands. "... Are you okay?" she said through a cough. "Are you hurt bad?"
He shook his head. She's the one who's hurt, but she is worried about me. "... I'll make it," he assured her. "I'm sorry they hit you."
She smiled back. "Guess you showed them," then giggled. A nervous kind of giggle.
"Here, let me take you home." He helped her up, but she doubled over in pain as she tried to walk. Ross picked her up in his arms and carried her. And though tears welled in his eyes, and every step was a reminder of the bruises forming all over his body, he carried her the rest of the way home. He sat her down on the swing in the front porch and cradled her in his arms. They rocked back and forth in silence for several minutes, then Glynnis reached up and kissed him on the cheek. She giggled again, except this one was more of an infectious type, a happier type, a type that bespoke of an abiding innocence.
Ross chuckled in surprise. Such a pleasant sound amidst such pain. How can she find it to giggle at a time like this? A smile slipped across his face. The first smile in so long. Ross rocked on, the tears of pain now mixed with tears of joy.
They swung slowly and silently for several minutes; then Ross punctured it with a hollow, low voice: "... Why are people so mean?"
She did not open her eyes and answered softly with a hint of resignation, "... Cause their hearts are bad," which she literally meant to be the Devil.
Ross thought some more, then said in a voice that a thought had just now come to him. "Some day I'm going to do something that's going to shut them up."
"I think you already did," then giggled again.
He smiled. He loved her giggle. Then he forced himself to be serious. "... No, you don't understand," he said with a sudden gravity in his voice. "I mean something great. Something so great that they cannot help but notice, and then they'll shut up." Then with a determination in his voice: "I'll show them."
She opened her eyes, reared back, and inspected him. They held each other's gaze, and a slight smile caressed the corner of her mouth. She said with a quiet conviction, "... I believe you will," and giggled again. Then she remembered what her Sunday school teacher said about the dangers of pride. "Just make sure you're doing it for the right reasons."
That night Ross prayed for forgiveness, as he always did, except this time he prayed a little harder and longer. The next day they walked home from school in peace. Despite the fact that the boy who was clawed, and the one who was bitten were not at school, word spread of Ross's aggressive self-defense. Ross saw the apprehensive looks out of the corner of their eyes and noticed that there were no more taunts or teases. They did not say anything nice or good, either- but they had never done that. The change was the abstinence of bad, which to Ross was a net plus. He would gladly take it for now. Fear, he found, was one road to respect, albeit begrudging. And he was resolved that in time he would find and travel the other, more positive paths.
When Ross and Glynnis reached her home, this time in peace not pieces, she went inside. "Stay right there. I've got something I want to show you," then giggled again. Ross was not allowed in because her parents feared the public reaction of having the son of an executed traitor invited into their home, although she did not tell Ross that. To her parents, there was a definite limit to Christian charity: when the costs outran the benefits.
Glynnis returned with a large piece of paper. "Here," she said with a soft smile and a short giggle. "I drew it last night." Ross unfurled it, and it was a knight on a horse. "You are my knight in shining armor." She stepped to him, and kissed him right next to his mouth, this giggle belying her uncertainty on how her approach would be met.
Ross moved to meet the kiss, and when he did the front door flung open. "Glynnis Brody!" her mother said through a glare, "you get in here right now."
Glynnis frowned to Ross. "See you tomorrow."
But he didn't. She was gone. Just like that. Glynnis's father sold insurance, and he could not have his daughter consorting and kissing "known communist traitors." When Glynnis refused not to see Ross any more, she was immediately given her exit visa- shipped off to Dallas to live with her aunt. So fast it was mesmerizing.
Then Ross's mother shipped out, as well. Simply did not come home from work one night. She called her parents and told them to take care of Ross. She had found a man, a truck driver, and was going on the road with him. All he had left now was his aging grandparents. His mom had deserted him, his dad had betrayed him, and his Glynnis had been jerked from him, leaving just his grandma and grandpa.
That night he knelt beside his bed to pray and looked up at the small wooden cross his grandma had placed on the wall. What should I pray for? God's blessings? He scoffed. That'll be a short prayer. My mom? Why should I care about her? She doesn't care about me. Glynnis? He thought for a second. Yes, I will pray for her.
He started his prayer, then stopped in mid-sentence. He looked up at the cross again. Suddenly, it seemed bare and forlorn. Nothing is there. At least, no one that is listening. He rose and slipped into bed. I shall not pray again. I shall leave God. Before He leaves me. Like everyone else has left me.
He looked straight up at the ceiling. Leave me alone. I'm on my own.
Chapter TwoBlood Drive
Ross arrived early at Lima Site 85, a meadow amidst the mass of mountainous jungle turned into a make-shift airstrip just miles from the border of North Vietnam.
He was there to rendezvous with the Meo, the native tribesmen. Together they would collect the medical supplies from a Red Cross plane due within the hour, then carry it to their village a few miles away. As a Red Cross worker, Ross had been to Lima 85 several times before. Usually the Meo beat him to the airstrip. But not today.
He climbed the hillside to get a better view of the valley. He found a shade tree in a comparatively level spot halfway up, plopped down against it, and pulled out his book. Every mission he packed something to read. Last mission had been Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground. Before that Voltaire's Candide, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, Sartre's Being and Nothingness, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged (that took several missions), Skinner's Walden Two, and Freud's Moses and Monotheism. Existentialism a flower. Personal freedom. Individual responsibility. Nothing on God's plan. Never ever His love. And always about being alone. Ayn Rand had taught him well: "I live for no man, and expect no man to live for me."
This mission he had brought Camus's The Stranger. However, Camus brought little comfort for the Frenchman had set his searing novel amid the baked sands of the Sahara. So as Ross sat amidst the swelter of Asian jungle, his reading only made him hotter. Sweat dripped from his nose and blotched his book with a grimy perspiration. Maybe I should have brought Call of the Wild.
He took a long drink of water from his canteen, closed his eyes, and took a mind drug. Back to that front porch in Albuquerque. Back to the drawing. To the kiss. He could almost hear her wonderful, infectious giggle. "Glynnis," letting her name tumble from his mouth. Then he scoffed. How ridiculous is this!? I haven't seen her in thirteen years, and she never answered any of my letters after she got shipped away to her aunt in Dallas. Give it up, McGunter. Get a life. He looked at the jungle below him, the humidity rising from the jungle floor like steam from a sizzling pavement after a summer rain. Is that what I have now?
Excerpted from Hope's Ante by Thom Vines Copyright © 2011 by Thom Vines. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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