Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Girl WithOUT the Dragon Tattoo

It had been sitting on my bookshelf since last summer, but too many other reading obligations kept me from getting to it. But every time I walked by and caught sight of the brazen yellow cover with the dragon design, my heart raced. "Three more books and I'll get you off that dusty shelf!"  Could it be as good as the Hunger Game series? Harry Potter? The various components of Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy have been dominating book charts for how long now? It was time for me to be swept up by a series once again.

But for as much respect as I have for Mr. Larsson's writing craft (may he rest in peace), I must make this courageous admission. I didn't enjoy the book. Too disturbing for me. Perhaps this writer was too good with his subject matter? 


Undoubtedly, the story was compelling - I had to keep reading to uncover the details of the complicated mystery. (After all, it had been too long since Mom had read it for her to tell me the ending - and that's not my style...) And despite (or perhaps because of) their flaws, main characters Michael and Lisbeth became like next door neighbors to me - a bit scary though. (Once I learned that Daniel Craig will be playing the American version of Michael, the journalist became quite fanstastical...)

There is one observation I learned about myself. I'm not really sure what I truly believe about "vengeance." I thought I was a bit more like Jesus, but perhaps it has its place. That's all I'll say about that. Except I'd never want to cross Lisbeth Salander.

Will I read the sequels? The Girl Who Played with Fire or The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest? Too early to tell. But let's just say I've stood around those Larsson displays in the bookstore and pondered the idea. But I haven't picked them up. Yet. And will I see the movie? Most likely - but did I tell you that Daniel Craig is starring?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Short Story - The Day the Field Blew Up

Wearing duct-taped glasses and whistling Darth Vader’s Imperial March, Leif Emerson Andersen approached home plate as a hush settled in the crowd.
“Eye on the ball, Leif-Blower!” yelled out his coach, chewing gum so ferociously, he bit his cheek.
Leif scanned the bleachers to find his sister - the one with blue streaks of hair, pretending to read a horror novel. Then the batter made a request to the baseball spirit of Roger Maris before stepping up to the plate. As the ball sped toward the scrawny ten-year old, he knew this one would finally be his.
Like a missile targeting the scoreboard, the baseball took flight into left field. And before the boy’s eyes, he watched the baseball explode into pieces.
“I did it,” he whispered to himself. “I blew the insides out.” 
Bits of dirty white leather and crimson stitches suddenly reversed directions and headed straight back to the assailant who was still holding the bat, watching. 
An explosion was taking place, propelling the disassembled ball back to where it came. The town’s new and colossal scoreboard had burst into flames, setting off a chain of explosions with the billboards following suit. Flames engulfed the outfield. Little baseball players ran aimlessly. Mothers frantically screamed for their kids. Pieces of plastic and wood flew through the air. Through a crackling sound system, John Fogarty still sang of centerfielders playing the game.
Only Leif stood staring at the spectacular sight, until his sister grabbed his hand and dragged him away.
***
“OMG, Dude. What in the shit did you do?”
Facing his sister as she drove a ’99 Chevy pickup out of the ballpark, Leif asked, “Dad would’ve been proud of that hit, do you think?” Then he cleaned his glasses. “Is that blue in your hair, Ambrosia?”
“Seriously, Dude? Did you have a baseball wired or something? Cuz like blowing up a baseball field? Major felony!” Ambrosia scanned the radio. “It was only ‘sort of’ awesome. As long as no one got hurt. Or killed.”
Leif peeked back at the ballpark.  “Hey! There’s Mom! She came to my game!” Leif hopped around in his seat. “Let’s go back.”
“No way, Bro,” Ambrosia barked, accelerating out of the park. “We’re getting you outta here ASAP. Mom will totally understand.” Ambrosia glanced at herself in the mirror. “And yes, I just added blue in my hair. You like?”
As the pickup growled into the street and wove in with the rest of the traffic, sirens grew louder. Leif was still staring out the back window, watching the actions of his hysterical mother, still in her scrubs from work.
“Where we going?” Leif asked, slamming his head on the window.
Humming the tune of Green Day, Ambrosia turned to her brother. “Maybe...to find Dad.”
While the thought of seeing his father perked him up, Leif was concerned. “Have you ever driven in Chicago?”
***
Sam Rush, police chief of Woodgrove (population 2,444), had finally shown up after his local police force and the volunteer firemen had cleared the premises of the ballpark. The only injury considered to be serious was a slice to a coach’s head --  a flying piece of fence post was sure to leave a remarkable scar amidst the receding hairline.
Five of the voluntary firemen, including Fire Chief Andre Wilson and police deputies Chaz Popp and Joe Easterly, gathered around the fire truck to assess the damage. All were quenching their thirst with beer provided by an appreciative community member.
“Gentlemen,” Chief Rush addressed the group as he scanned the field, now black with soot and scattered with pieces of billboard, which still hinted of advertisements from insurance agents, banks and restaurants. In left field, the scoreboard lay disheveled: a robot, now dead, unmoving and not willing to fight.
“It’s a damn shame,” Chaz shouted to the police chief. “You told your wife yet?”
“Christ, you’re an idiot.” Joe slugged his partner. “Holly was at the game, Numskull.  Watching Sammy Jr. play!” Joe addressed his boss. “I made sure they got outta here safely, Sir. You bein’ outta town and all.”
“Out of town?” asked Fire Chief Wilson. “Was wondering why you hadn’t shown up to this disaster.” Easing his way toward Sam, the 6‘5 fireman hoarsely stated, “Just about called the sheriff. Or the FBI.”
“I left Chicago as soon as I got the call. Required training. The sheriff was there too. Shit - he’d come to Woodgrove the day he’d wipe Chaz’s ass.” Sam sighed and looked at the field. “Thank God no one was hurt. Only needed one fire truck, at least.” Sam rubbed his temples. “Who in the hell would do this? And why?”
One of the firemen brought a beer to the police chief and said, “Looks like Holly done all that fundraisin’ for that fancy new scoreboard for nothing. Sucks man.” 
Sam didn’t acknowledge the beer offer.
“Sam,” Andre called out as he he stomped toward the scoreboard on the field. “Come with me.”
Andre and Sam had been friends since junior high. They didn’t currently run in the same social circle, because Andre was still single. But occasionally, they found an excuse to drink a beer together.  And more often than not, their professions brought them together out of necessity.
“Here’s what I know,” Andre explained. “The scoreboard was wired to create a pretty damn nice light show. But was it a professional? These wires are messy.” Andre held up a mesh of colored wires . “It was done fast. And the billboards seemed to be an afterthought. But I can’t figure out the trigger. Must be off-site. If you figure that out - you’ll solve your case.”
The bomb had been planted at the base of the scoreboard. No one noticed or questioned the conglomeration of wires which connected the other wires on the fence line, ready to wreak havoc on Woodgrove’s beloved baseball field.
“So, is it out of the question to think it would be the work of kids?” asked the police chief.
The men stared at the field. The same field where they played ball as kids.
“Apparently that little Andersen kid was up to bat,” explained Andre as he took a drink of his beer. “You know, Davey Andersen’s kid?”
Sam nodded. “That skinny, runt of a kid? Kind of geeky? Not like the old man.”
Andre shrugged. “Apparently he’s not a bad hitter. The story is that little Leif crushed it to left field - straight to the scoreboard when it exploded.”
“Crushed it? What was the score?”
“Score was tied. Bottom of the fifth,” Andre sighed. “Left a kid on third. Woulda meant the win. It was the county tournament, you know.”
Sam had heard much grief about missing the tournament.
Andre finished his beer. “Sam, is Leif in your son’s class?”
“Yeah.”
“Is he smart?”
Sam nodded. “My boy tells me that he’s wicked smart.”
Andre grabbed his old friend on the shoulder, “Chief, I think you have your first suspect then. And he’s a ten-year old boy.”
***
The pickup sputtered to a halt in the secluded the driveway, lined by aged and overlapping pine trees. The white farmhouse didn’t welcome Leif and Ambrose, but it didn’t repel them either.
“Why are we here?” Leif whined to his sister.
Ambrosia snapped her gum while studying her phone. Then she peered at a window on the second floor. “Hold on a sec.” Easing herself out the pickup door, Ambrosia sauntered toward the massive front door. Leif was hoping to take her phone so he could text his mother, but she stuck the device in her pocket.
Eventually, the front door opened and out he came. Pierced nose. Jet-black hair. Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirt. White jeans.
“There’s my fair little lady,” said the boy as he moved closer to cup his hands around her face.
Ambrosia blushed. “Look, Jax. Can you help us? You know I’ve never driven in Chicago.”
Jax looked over to the pickup and waved at Leif, who quickly looked away.
“Sorry,” Ambrosia gulped. “He’s had a tough day.” 
Jax pulled Ambrosia toward him and whispered in her ear,“You are way too cute.”
“So, will you?” she pleaded.
As he kissed her neck, she only heard the birds in the awful trees and knew the answer. Thank God her father kept the GPS in her truck.
“What an effing jerk,” Ambrosia uttered as she spun out of the driveway, hoping the gravel would hit Jax squarely his proclaimed third eye.
Leif turned to his sister, “Never trust a guy in a Steelers shirt. That’s what Dad always says.”
As the Chevy rattled on the highway, Jax dialed 911 to let authorities know the whereabouts of a runaway teenager and her little brother.
***
Natalie Andersen sat at her kitchen table, drinking cold coffee and staring at the text message received from her daughter.
Leif n me OK. B home soon.
But when she tried to call or text Ambrosia, there was no response. That girl’s independence frustrated Natalie beyond all reason. Her only consolation was that she maintained straight A’s, worked a steady job and always took care of Leif. What could Natalie say when she herself typically worked 50-hour work weeks in the ER and couldn’t rely on her workaholic husband to be home before 8:30 every night? 
Something had to change. This was not the family life she dreamed about. Exhausted from the day, her job, her life; she laid her head on the table, and thought about the stories being circulated at the ballpark.
“Leif hit the winning run! And the scoreboard caught on fire!”
“Isn’t he a brainiac? He blew up the ball in midair!”
“Does Leif know quantum physics? Because that genius has somehow ruined our entire field.”
Leif is a lot of things, Natalie thought. But he’s not destructive. She decided to check out his bedroom anyway. On the way to his bedroom, the nurse became aware how tired she felt - how inviting the shower looked. Then the doorbell rang. 
Without checking the peephole to preview her visitor, Natalie swung open the door.
“Chief!” Natalie cried with terror, knees dropping to the floor. Ambrosia. Leif. Gone. Dead. Her worst fear realized. She had wasted her life at the hospital. Now her beloved children were gone. She began to sob.
“Natalie!” Sam stepped in to help her up. “Are you okay? I came to ask if I could speak to your son. Is he here?”
She considered the police chief’s words. Then noticed his dark skin and dark eyes. At this proximity, she could see the Native American blood. “Did you just ask to speak to my son?”
Sam nodded.
Relief swam through her body. The smell of the hospital on herself made her giggle. Then cry. “Oh, Sam. He’s not here. Neither is Ambrosia.” Natalie wiped her nose. “That’s what I thought you came to tell me…something terrible.”
Sam scratched his head, trying to figure out what to say. “I see. Didn’t mean to scare you, but uh...” Sam looked around and tapped his boot. “Do you know where they are?”
Natalie shook her head.
“Look Nat, I know this is hard,” Sam said kneeling down. “But Leif might be in some trouble here. If he blew up the field, he’s looking at juvie. Do you care if I look around?”
“Sam, can I talk to you as a person?” Natalie stared at the chief.
The chief flinched.
“That  kid is not capable of violence. When his hamster died, we held a two hour funeral, eulogy and all. Would you like to see the gravestone we ordered over the Internet?”
“Look, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t investigate. Can I just look around?”
Natalie pushed her greasy, blonde bangs back and reached her hand out. “Help me up. I’ll show you to his not very secret lab. Then maybe you could please help me find my kids?”
***
Deputy Chaz Popp pounded on the newly-constructed home where Sam Rush resided with his wife, Holly and their only son, Sam Jr. 
Even though Sam had assured Chaz his family was fine, the deputy insisted on checking on them “after his shift was over. Really it’s no problem, Sir. It’s on the way home.” In reality, Chaz’s partner, Joe Easterly, had pulled him aside to make the suggestion. “It wouldn’t hurt for you to make some brownie points with the Chief.”
Face scrubbed clean and dressed in her pajamas, Holly opened the door reluctantly.
“A lil’ early to call it a night, don’t you think, Holly?” Chaz joked, inviting himself inside. “Howdy, Sammy! Eatin’ chicken?”
Picking at his TV dinner in the kitchen, Sammy tossed his hand in the air toward Chaz.
“Chief isn’t home yet, Chaz,” Holly stated dryly, staring straight ahead.
Chaz nodded, “Figured. Just checking on ya. Joe thought I should stop by to make sure you’re alright.” Chaz surveyed the house. “Chief’s probably busy piecin’ the whole damn explosion thing together.”
Holly began to sneeze. She sneezed eight times before Sammy got up and went to his bedroom, leaving most of his dinner on the table. 
“Geez! God Bless...” Before Chaz could finish his sentence, the window shattered. Holly screamed. Chaz fell to floor, blood spilling from his right shoulder. 
As Holly stood paralyzed watching Chaz bleed on her Persian rug, Joe Easterly blasted through the front door. Then he pointed his weapon at the crying woman, ready to shoot as her son crouched in the hallway, watching in horror.
***
Once they were within thirty minutes from their father’s office, Ambrosia called her father - only to reach his voice mail, as usual. But he’d be calling her back as soon as he realized they were on their way to the city. Any second now.
“You want to know how I see trees?” Leif asked his sister.
Beads of sweat were forming on Ambrosia’s upper lip as the city’s skyline became more prominent. She knew the route to her father’s building, but she had never actually driven it herself.
“Uh, sure,” Ambrosia said as she considered taking the next exit.
“Searchers, dancers and warriors.” Leif pointed. “See how that tree looks like he’s looking at the ground? He’s a searcher.” Leif watched the tree closely. “Although...he kind of resembles an elephant. Don’t you think? Ambrosia, look at it!”  
Ambrosia cut in front of a semi-truck to get take the exit. I see it, Leif.” She smiled as she felt her shoulders drop and her knuckles lighten off the wheel now that the pickup sputtered on the highway. “You study trees, huh?” Ambrosia’s breath returned to normal. “I prefer to look at the sky.” She tilted her eyes under the visor. “See all swirls right now? It’s as if God couldn’t quite mix the paint into one color. He’s trying to make that one color - not quite blue - not quite purple. What is it?”  
Leif shrugged.
“Uh...periwinkle! Anyway, looks like God finally gave up. And decided to leave the sky a swirly mess.”
Leif laughed. Ambrosia? When I’m out of college, will you hang out with me? Like come over and watch movies and eat Wimmer’s hot dogs?”
Pulling into a diner and messing her little brother’s white hair, she responded, “Sure.” 
Then her cell phone dinged. “Dad’s ring tone.”
“Ambrosia,” Leif whispered. “Look who just pulled up.”
As Ambrosia grabbed her cell, anxious to consult with her Dad, a sudden cramp numbed her legs as a state trooper glared into her glossy eyes.
***
Sam Rush picked up a light saber that lay on an unmade bed.
“You’re probably wondering how I dust this room with all this crap everywhere.” Natalie picked up t-shirts, socks and Star Wars action figures.
“Not really.” Sam tossed the toy of the floor. “Got bigger things on my mind. You talk to your husband yet?”
Natalie nodded, “Look Sam. I know what you’re thinking, but how in the hell do you think my kid could’ve pulled this thing off?”
“Where’s Ambrosia’s room?” Sam asked.
“Brosia? You think it’s a conspiracy now?” Natalie stomped through the hallway. “Come on.” 
As Natalie led the police chief across the house to her daughter’s bedroom, Sam stopped at a window. “Wait - what’s that?” Sam pointed to a tree house near the edge of the backyard.
Creeping back to Sam, the tired nurse began to nod, “The treehouse. That their Dad built…” And when she saw the old baseball scoreboard behind the oak tree, her thoughts suddenly became very unclear.
“Did Leif have the old scoreboard working?” Sam asked.
Natalie stared at the backyard without responding. How could she have completely forgotten? The Andersen’s had taken that old scoreboard - as a  project for Leif. This couldn’t look good.
***
“Ambrosia! What in the hell are you doing?” Dave Andersen scolded his daughter. “Have you any idea how sick you’re making your ma?”
Leif brightly waved at the state trooper while Ambrosia barely registered her father’s words. If the trooper had been suspicious, Leif’s countenance had erased any semblance of it. With a tip of his big hat, the trooper was out of sight and into the diner.
Ambrosia high-fived her brother, “I know. Dad - I’m sorry. But…”
“No “buts”, Brosia,” Dave paused. “I can’t imagine what possessed you to take off to the city.”
“I was only trying to protect Leif.” Leif slumped a little while they talked. He was ten, not five.
“And your mother’s not capable?”
Ambrosia wanted desperately to respond by saying, “Not sure. She’s not around a helluva lot.” But she didn’t want to hurt her brother’s feelings.
“Dad, can you meet us here?” Ambrosia pleaded. “We’re just outside of the city. I’ll text the address.”
Dave Andersen had already shut down his laptop and locked down his file cabinet. “Of course. Stay where you are. Send me the address and I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
***
After Dave hung up with his daughter, he reviewed the report laying on his desk and sealed it in an envelope. Then he called his wife.
“Hey, the kids are safe. Going to meet them right now.”
When Natalie explained that the Police Chief was at their home, investigating the possibility that Leif caused the explosion, Dave requested to speak to the Chief immediately.
“Sam? Give up trying to peg the explosion on my ten-year old kid. Or my daughter.”
Dave paused and listened to the Chief. Then he opened the envelope again to review a certain page of the report.
“Because I know who’s responsible. As a matter of fact, I have the evidence in my hands at this very moment. When a person plans to blow up a scoreboard, they should know better than to call the insurance company to confirm coverage amounts. We log our calls. I’ll bring you the report directly.”
***
I’m going to die, thought Holly as she closed her eyes. Joe Easterly is going to kill me. And my son will see his mother die.
Joe switched positions and demanded, “Who shot him? Who shot Chaz?”
Now visibly trembling, Holly opened her eyes. But she couldn’t speak. Sammy ran to Holly. The movement caught Joe off guard and he pointed his gun at the young boy.
“NO!” Holly leapt in front of her son.
But Joe didn’t shoot. Instead he ran to Chaz and checked his pulse. 
“Call 911!”
Holly kissed her son’s head and ran to the phone and did what was instructed.
Sammy joined Joe who was attempting to stop the bleeding around Chaz’s shoulder.
“Is he dead?” Sammy asked.
“Not yet,” Joe said, panting.
“I saw the car that drove away,” Sammy whispered. “It was a blue Volkswagon bug. An old, rusty one. I’ve seen it around here before.”
“Sammy!” Holly interrupted. “Get your shoes. I’m taking you to Grandma’s.”
When Sammy left, Holly asked, “Why’d you come here, Joe?”
“Just passing by. When I saw the window blown out, thought I better stop.”
“Chaz said you told him to come.”
Joe shrugged, “My hunch about danger was right.” Joe looked at Holly. “Sorry about your scoreboard.” Then leaning back over his friend, he instructed, “Come on Buddy, I hear you breathing. It’s just a little shoulder wound.”
Then the sirens sounded once again.
***
After turning off his squad car, Sam could do nothing but sit in his driveway, listening to the crickets and occasional toad. It had been a long time from when he left this morning.
A tap on the passenger door interrupted his meditation. “Care if I take off, Boss?” asked Joe who was anxious to get to the hospital. “No sign of the perpetrator since the incident.”
Sam pulled himself out of the car. “Get outta here. Chaz wasn’t making a whole lotta sense when I left. But when does Chaz make a whole lot of sense?” 
Sam studied the broken window, then trudged inside to see his wife scrubbing the Persian rug. What a lonely life I’ve made her lead, he thought, studying her pale white skin and muted red curls. Without a word, he took her hand and led her outside to a swing in the backyard.
“Do you remember our first date?” Sam asked.
“We went fishing.”
Sam nodded. “We haven’t fished in a long time.”
“No.”
“Do you feel safe tonight?”
Holly didn’t respond, but her breathing became louder.
“Was Sammy on third base when you blew up the scoreboard?” he asked.
With her arms covering her head, Holly collapsed to the ground. Between gasps she whispered, “It wasn’t supposed to happen this way...He was only supposed to take out the scoreboard...a small implosion…to make it look like faulty wiring!”
Sam, not typically moved by any criminal’s show of emotion, kneeled down and caressed his wife’s back. “Holly, just tell me why. It doesn’t make sense. All the fundraising.”
Her tear-stricken face shot up. “Because everyone hated it! It’s all I heard. ‘It’s so ugly. Wish we had the old scoreboard back. What a waste of our money.’ So, I thought I’d show them. God, what if Sammy would’ve got hurt?” Her body collapsed again.
“Who did you get to do it?” Sam asked.
“Some kid from Chicago. When I told him that I wouldn’t pay him since he almost killed Sammy, he came by and shot out the window. So, I called him later to say the checks in the mail.” Holly looked at her husband. “I’m so sorry Sam. I didn’t mean to hurt anyone.”
While looking into his wife’s amber eyes, he could blame no one but himself. His inattentive self. 
***
“Try it now, Leif!” hollered Dave from the outfield.
Inside the bleachers, Leif flipped a series of buttons and levers before the flash of the old scoreboard lit up. Cheers from the fans (Ambrosia and Natalie) could be heard throughout the ballpark.
The family went to the field with baseball gloves and an old bat.
“Dad?” Leif twirled the bat.
“Yeah?”
“I don’t want to play baseball anymore. I mean for the Woodgrove Giants.”
Dave took a deep breath while he tossed the ball in the air. “Bud, I don’t blame you.” Then he placed his son’s baseball cap on backwards. Now, let’s have some fun. Okay? Brosia? You’re pitching first.”
“Girls against boys, right Mom?” asked Ambrosia .
“Girls against MEN, right Dad? corrected Leif.
The family played baseball that afternoon. It took hours, because every time a run was made, someone had to race to the top of the bleachers and flip the lever to change the score. But the scoreboard functioned and resided peacefully amidst a charred outfield, which now showed evidence of healing as new growth sprouted in the space where small cleats once roamed. And intended to roam again.