One-Hill Prairie

Robert Adams broke down after making his first billion. He broke down again after fifty billion. And again after one hundred billion. His nervous system seemed negatively attuned to fiscal milestones.

As he recovered for the third time, Robert called his staff to him.

“I can’t go on like this,” he said. “A hundred billion is enough, at least for now. I’ve got to get away from this business before I go permanently nuts. Find me a piece of land. One hundred miles on a side. That’s ten thousand square miles. Buy it, clear everybody off it, and fence it in. I need to be alone.”

“Robert,” said his chief assistant, “why not just develop a social life of some sort? You haven’t scheduled one minute of recreation time in a decade. Find a resort you like. Buy it. Spend some time with people you aren’t doing business with.”

“I’m sick of people.”

“You’re sick of manipulating corporate executives and battling fund managers. I’m talking about going out on a date. You’re a brilliant, interesting man. Share that with someone.”

“I’m uncomfortable with small talk. I’d rather have the ten thousand square miles of empty landscape, thank you.”

Once he was up and around again, his staff outfitted him with a pack and supplies and transported him by helicopter to one of the gates to his new empire. He walked through it and down a dirt track into a sea of prairie grass. The gate closed behind him.

There were clouds overhead in a big sky. Robert took off his hat and craned his neck, taking it all in. The clouds ran in streaks, as if spilled over the blue. Wind in the grass caused a whisper that teased Robert with meaning. After years of board rooms, conference rooms, and tiled executive bathrooms, Robert stood in the biggest room of all, the room without walls, God’s room. He took a breath, and another, and started walking. The grass was burred but he wore leather trousers.

It took days for the noise and clutter in his head to dissipate. The clouds merged, thickened, and spread veils of rain over the prairie. Robert walked on, dry in his slicker. The grasses gleamed, wet and heavy. Horned larks and song sparrows chirped and fed, ignoring Robert and the rain. A rainbow materialized, glowed bright on the horizon, and faded away.

Robert found a notebook of instructions in his pack. He learned how to pitch his one-man tent, how to cook a biscuit, how to care for the blisters on his feet. He used a list of coordinates in the book and a tiny GPS device to find water.

Emotions surged through him at random. Anger, fear, grief with tears and sobs, all followed by long periods of quiet. He came to himself once, sitting on the ground, without knowing how long he had been there. He spent time outside himself, up with the hawks and eagles.

He moved north and west. The sun burned him and he had to cover himself until he healed. He sweat and stank for the first time in years. He began to notice the sounds of life in the high grasses around him, began to see snakes and ground squirrels and rodents. Vultures tipped back and forth, patrolling the sky. Rising one morning, he found a pronghorn, unmoving and watchful, close enough to see its nostrils flare and take his scent.

On a hot day with the sun overhead, he noticed a hump on the horizon. As he walked toward it, it resolved into a small hill, rising from the plain. A thread of smoke rose into the sky from its far side. Robert frowned.

He climbed the hill. From its modest height, the plains spread out in a rippling tapestry of earth colors around him. Cloud shadows moved over the land, seeming to Robert like gray warnings of some dark time to come. Down the slope at his feet he saw a rude earthen hut sunk into the side of the hill.

He hiked down and stood at its door, which stood open. Inside sat a man. He was bearded, with hair to his shoulders and plain, patched clothes. A plate of stew steamed on a deal table in front of him.

“What are you doing here?” Robert said. His voice sounded strange to him. Rough and unused.

“I’m about to eat,” the man said. “Care to join me?”

“You’ll have to leave,” Robert said.

The man didn’t move.

Robert found his gun and pulled it out.

“I can make you leave,” he said. “Or shoot you where you sit.”

“You can,” the man said, “and if you don’t, I might do the same to you.”

Robert looked down at his gun and knew that he wasn’t going to shoot anyone.

“I own all this,” he said, gesturing behind him.

“Good for you.”

“One call from me and a helicopter will fly in. My men will load you onto it.”

“You asked me what I’m doing here,” the man said. “Obviously, I live here. What are you doing here?”

Robert started to answer but then stopped to think about it.

“I’m here,” he said, “because I’ve spent my life lying and cheating and bullying people, mentally and physically, and I finally got sick of it. If I’m alone, I can’t hurt anyone but myself.”

“I’m here,” the man said, “because all my life I got lied to and cheated and bullied, mentally and physically, and I finally got sick of it, too.”

“Me being me,” Robert said, “and you being you, I guess I could make you leave without using a gun or a helicopter.”

“What makes you think that?”

“You let people take advantage of you.”

“I never said that. Folks lied to me and cheated and bullied me, but my honesty and perseverance and general cussedness got me through every one of their tricks. I never had trouble handling folks like you. Like I said, I just got sick of it.”

He pointed to the empty chair across from him. Robert took off his pack and sat down.

“This stew looks good,” he said. “How do you manage to live alone out here?”

The man laughed.

“I’m far from alone,” he said. “I didn’t come out here to get away from folks. I came out here to get away from folks like you. I visit with others all the time. Why do you think I’m living on this hill? It’s easy for everyone to see, once they’re in the neighborhood.”

Robert took a good look at the fellow. He seemed relaxed but lively behind all the hair on his face.

“Imaginary visitors?” Robert said. “Hallucinations?”

The man shook his head.

“Just because you bought some land and strung a fence around it don’t mean it’s empty. You’ll see that when the buffalo decide to move or the small ranchers around your spread feel like stretching. All sorts of hermits and travelers live on the prairie, as well as mixed Arapaho, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Kiowa groups passing through.”

“I had all those cleaned out,” Robert said.

“You think you did,” the man said, laughing again. “Eat up. Out here, a fence don’t mean anything.”

Later, as they sat outside, looking out over the land to the west, the man said, “I’ll compromise with you.”

“What do you have in mind?”

“I’ll give you this place and I’ll move over to the other side of the hill. We don’t need to talk or visit or anything else. However, if you need help, you can always come over and ask for it.”

“I can’t take your home,” Robert said, “even if it is just a hole in the ground. How will you live?”

“How long have you been out here?” the man said.

“I’m not sure. I haven’t called for a supplies drop yet. I still have food.”

“I’ve seen four winters on this hill. I hunt, I trade, I know which roots and berries I can eat and which I can’t. I’ll dig out a new place over there in no time. I’m Sam, by the way.”

When night fell, Robert was alone again.

Over the weeks that followed, he walked the land around the hill during the daylight hours and slept when it got dark. He followed no routine. His thoughts spread out like a river overflowing its banks, flooding without boundaries, shallow but covering a lot of land, without current but in quiet motion. Opaque but not mysterious. Healing thoughts, like a river silting barren ground.

He met a variety of rough types and natives moving through, who stopped at the hut expecting to spend a little time with Sam. At first, Robert sent them over the hill. Then he began inviting them in for a meal and some conversation.

He called in a delivery of supplies and when the bundle was dropped from the air and he had gone through it, he filled several bags and climbed over to Sam’s new campsite.

“Will you take some supplies from me, Sam?”

“With pleasure,” Sam said, accepting the bags and opening one to poke around inside it.

“It occurred to me,” Robert said, “that this is the weather side of the hill. You can’t live in a hole over here when winter comes.”

“I seriously doubt that you’ll be here when winter comes,” Sam said. “I’ll take my old place back.”

“Why won’t I be here?” Robert said, bristling.

“Because you’re a man on a mission. You just haven’t decided what it is yet.”

The days were long and hot. One evening, with half the sky purple and the rest showing the first stars, as Robert sat in front of his hut, Sam walked out of the dusk.

“Can I give you some dinner?” Robert said.

“Eating together out here means making promises to each other,” Sam said. “I never told you that.”

“You can ask me for anything,” Robert said.

He fancied himself uncomfortable around others, except when negotiating, but he didn’t feel uncomfortable with Sam. Something in him responded to Sam’s frank gaze, his uncompromising stillness. Robert met Sam once, out in the grass, and asked him where he was headed. Sam told him without pretension that he was rarely headed anywhere, because he was usually already there. It could have sounded silly, but when Sam said it, it made sense.

“What about you?” Sam said to him over the meal at sunset. “Where are you headed?”

“I’ve been thinking about turning my money around and sending it back to do some good.”

“If you go as hard as when you made it, you’ll end up back here.”

“I’m hoping to take some of here with me,” Robert said.

The Field

Owen arrived at the front in a clean woolen uniform. His boots and the leather straps on his pack were shined. His pants retained their creases. It started to rain.

The squad was ordered to advance into a field. Owen stepped forward and his boots sank up to the laces in mud. He pulled them out, one at a time, with difficulty. The mud was dark brown, almost black. Streaks of gray ran through it, the color of the clouds overhead.

The squad struggled ahead, rifles at the ready, the mud growing softer and wetter the farther they went. Finally, every man stood shin-deep in it, unable to walk. The first bullets began to sing past.

Owen went down flat. He held his face up, grass stubble prodding his cheeks. The mud smelled of sulfur and decay, of putrefaction. Owen’s elbows sank into it. It felt yielding under his body, as if he were sinking into it. The squad was ordered by whistle to advance on hands and knees.

When Owen pressed down, his hands sunk into the mud. His arms were black to the shoulder with sodden clods of it. Owen forgot his fear of the bullets because the mud overwhelmed his senses. He felt it, smelled it, tasted it smeared on his lips, heard the constant squelching of it as he tried to move. He knew that many men had died in this field, that many men were interred in the mud, that the rot he smelled came from fallen comrades.

As they squirmed forward, the squad came to puddles of standing water. The mud in the puddles was thinned, so that their knees sank into it without resistance. Every soldier was black from head to toe, soaked through, slimy. The enemy fire increased. Explosions began to erupt in the field. Men disappeared in a blink, raining back to earth along with chunks of dirt thrown up and dried by the shell blasts.

Owen found himself almost completely submerged in the ooze. He no longer had the strength to pull himself forward. He couldn’t see anyone around him. The squad merged with the slop, those dead and those still alive. Owen’s arms and legs were trapped in the mud. He strained to keep his head up, but his helmet, meant to protect him, ultimately became too heavy to sustain, and Owen, like his mates, became a permanent part of the field.

“Famous Last Words” Contest

My 53 entries and some others.

Adam and Eve

Adam and Eve liveed a quiet life. The climate was mild. They didn’t eat meat. They played a little volleyball and worked on their tans. Life was good.

Adam sat on the porch and watched the world go by without impatience. He kept his agenda clear. He got up every morning without thinking about getting up. He never lay in bed longer than he wanted to or left it sooner than he wanted to.

Adam didn’t worry about the fact that Eve was a whole different animal. He liked her individualistic ways. It was sort of like owning a pet cat.

For Eve, living with Adam was sort of like owning a pet dog. As long as he went out in the morning and collected enough fruit and greens for the day, and made his bed, she let him be. She never complained that he didn’t pick up his socks or underclothes because he didn’t wear any.

Adam was affectionate in a mindless, panting, tongue-lolling sort of way. He obeyed simple commands. He was a handsome creature, although he did have one silly-looking add-on. Still, Eve might have liked a little more intelligence in him, as with a French poodle. Or maybe a little of that pitbull crazy. Anything to liven up the neighborhood.

Then one day a fellow came to the door and sold Eve access to the Internet. She discovered real-estate sites with neighborhoods that interested her. She discovered cooking sites and told Adam to bring home some meat. And of course there was porn. If Adam was a golden retriever, Eve saw a couple of black labs that she liked.

One thing led to another and the couple found themselves throwing wild parties. Soon, the landlord evicted them. Their new home, not so nice, filled up with kids, and Adam had to put on a suit and go to work every day.

Dragon Fluffer

I’ve made a nice living breeding dragons, but it’s tricky.

A female dragon won’t mate with a male unless he kills another dragon while she watches. Artificial insemination doesn’t work because the female’s hormones aren’t right without the dragon battle. On the other hand, we can’t be letting our studs kill each other every time we breed a female. That’s why we need a faux dragon to do battle with our stud, and then die. That’s where I come in.

I operate my dragon machine from the inside. It can fly, breathe fire, and behave like a male dragon with ideas. I “fight” the stud dragon and then, when the dragoness is sufficiently excited, I drop dead.

My biggest challenge so far came when our company got the contract to breed Queen Myar, of the Olar tribe, with our champion stud, Grilloffixx. The eggs from this royal mating would be worth a king’s ransom.

The problem was, Grilloffixx was wise to my faux ways. He had discovered, the last time we fought, that he could grab my right leg and pull back, and I’d flip over, out of action. I had to distract him this time so that he wouldn’t do this, because I hadn’t figured out how to fix my machine and a dragon battle has to last at least ten minutes or the female won’t be ready. No mating, no pay.

With Queen Myar tethered and Grilloffixx loose, I entered the mating circle. I had tied extra meat to the throat of my machine. Dragons by instinct go for the throat and I put the tastiest meat I could find there, to distract Grilloffixx temporarily from my front leg.

The big guy was in a real state. When he saw Queen Myar, his lizard eyes bugged out and his tail lashed about so hard he knocked some of the circle’s lumber struts out.

He went for the meat, though.

Then, rather than target his throat, I turned as if to attack his hinder parts. Dragons are very touchy about this and Grilloffixx flew into a rage. His breath got so hot he had to back off until his head cooled down. Meanwhile, I preened, as if competing with the Queen for his affections. This pushed him completely over the edge and he rushed forward, grabbed my leg, and flipped me. But by then, the ten minutes had passed.

Cairo

Mary received the promotion of a lifetime on the first day of the month. She was named manager of the Reuters district office in Cairo. As the youngest head of a major Reuters office, she was due to leave the U.S. as soon as she could. The company was pushing her to hurry. Her mother was happy for her though sorry to see her move so far away.

Mary drove out to her mother’s place from Washington and the two of them went out for a celebratory dinner, Mary’s treat. Her mother was cheerful but didn’t eat much and looked tired and thin.

Mary called her mother two days later.

“I just talked to Doctor Adams,” she said.

“I didn’t want you to worry,” her mother said. “Not now.”

“Worry? I’m not going to Egypt. I’m coming home to take care of you.”

“Nonsense,” her mother said, beginning an argument that Mary finally paused by hanging up, packing, and driving back out to her mother’s home.

“Of course you’re going,” her mother said.

“Of course I’m not.”

They sat staring at each other.

“You’re going to need help,” Mary said. “Practical help and moral support. I’m not leaving you to face this alone.”

“Yes, you are,” her mother said. “Your brother will fly in when I really need him. I’ll hire a nurse when I can’t carry on alone.”

“I’m not going to argue about it,” Mary said.

But they did argue about it, into the night, until Mary’s mother was too tired and ill to continue.

The specialists told Mary that her mother had three months left, tops. At one point Mary’s mother told her that she was going to end it a lot sooner, so that Mary could leave.

“Do you see where this leaves me?” Mary said. “If I go, I feel guilty leaving you just when you need me. If I stay and you do something stupid, then that’s my fault too. Or if I stay and it upsets you instead of comforting you, I’m also wrong.”

“My life is over,” her mother said. “Yours is just beginning.”

“If my job is more important than loving my mother, then my life isn’t worth living,” Mary said.

Her mom thought about that, and what would be best for her daughter. They spent the next three months together.

Convention

“I shouldn’t have another one,” Frank said. “I promised my wife.”

“These are small,” Mandy said. “And they’re weak.”

“They don’t seem weak to me,” Frank said. “The first one is going right to my head.”

A waitress appeared at his elbow with a second drink for each of them.

Frank looked around himself.

“I’ve never been in a bar this dark,” he said.

“It’s not a bar. It’s a cocktail lounge,” Mandy said.

“How do you know all this?” Frank said. “You look younger than my daughter. You look so innocent.”

“I am innocent,” Mandy said.

The two of them were wearing their convention badges.

“I feel innocent,” Frank said, but he wasn’t having innocent thoughts. “This is my first convention.”

“The boys tell you about the hundred-mile rule?”

“My goodness,” Frank said. “You don’t know about that, do you?”

Mandy smiled.

“It’s my  first convention too,” she said, leaning forward.

Frank tried to keep his eyes up. She didn’t look so innocent, leaning forward.

“It’s a nice hotel,” Frank said. He put his glass down, glanced at it, and was amazed to see it almost empty. The waitress returned.

“It is a nice hotel,” Mandy said. “I love my room…”

“Look, Mandy,” Frank said. Suddenly he was sweating. “Would you like to, do you want to… Listen, you have to be careful, you know, a kid like you.”

Mandy smiled.

“You remind me of my first husband,” she said. “He was such a country mouse.”

“Your first husband?”

“He never had a clue, if you know what I mean. My second husband, he knew. He knew and he hated it. Now when my boyfriend gets nosy, I tell him to mind his own business. I told him that before I came down here. Artie, I said, I’m going to Indianapolis by myself. It’s my first company convention. What I do there is my business. Like it or lump it.”

A third drink appeared in front of Frank.

“Drink up,” Mandy said. “We’re here to have fun.”