Thousand Words Project

Find out what a picture is worth.

Last Summer

Mark only looks at the photograph when the air outside has grown cold and it has become difficult to breathe. He keeps it carefully tucked between the pages of a book he’s never read. After all, he was never the one who enjoyed words on a page. The book is one of Charlie’s, and the pages of it are nearly the same color as the photograph masquerading as a bookmark.

Charlie read a great deal in those days, when they would escape to the lake to spend hours drifting across the placid surface of the water. Mark had taken these moments to pretend to fish. In truth he’d never really been focusing on the reel. His eyes, of their own accord, would always shift to Charlie, stretched out on his back, whatever book of the moment resting on his chest. Not often, but occasionally, their eyes would meet across the boat and Charlie would smile, wide and boyish. Mark was never much for smiling either, but alone with the sun in his eyes, the corners of his mouth would lift just slightly. Afterwards he would put the reel aside and leap from the boat into the warm water. It made his skin tingle and he could lose himself for a time while Charlie watched him over the top of his book.

Today, Mark has a job at a factory where they make parts for something that is itself likely just a part for something else. The job is not difficult and merely requires that Mark pull certain levers at the right moments. He finds this relaxing, there being a kind of reassurance mixed in with the monotony. There are only occasional moments when he will feel that unfamiliar twinge that he has no name for. When this happens he will request an extra shift. If there is no room for the extra shift, he will stop by the Beer & Wine shop on the corner for a six pack. He sleeps better after a few, and the buzzing in his brain is something verging on soothing. The twinge goes away nearly always.

It is late November when he starts having the dreams. They start with just a feeling, like waves rocking a boat. He wakes in the night surprised to be in his own bed, chilled and alone. The twinge is alive in his heart.

A week later it becomes something more. He can feel heat beating down on him from a sun high in the sky. A line of sweat works its way down his back leaving a slick trail in its wake. There is the sound of laughing and water. Under his palms he can feel rough wooden planks, slightly moist. When he opens his eyes and only the broken ceiling fan in his bedroom is hanging above him. He experiences disappointment for the first time in many years.

On his walk home from the factory the next day it begins to snow. He has trouble breathing through the cold seeping into his bones. He watches the crystals as they cling to the sleeves of his coat and thinks about the photograph inside the book resting on its shelf. He stops at that Beer & Wine before he goes home. He drinks four of the six from the pack and goes to bed with his mind numb and buzzing.

The dream is different again. There is still the gentle rocking, the rough wood, sounds of water and laughter. He can see now though, leaning back against the motor and smiling, Charlie. He is young as always and his eyes are kind and teasing. The laughter is his and he is pointing at something behind Mark. A soft breeze causes the fabric of his loose fitting shirt to rustle, just a little. He is close enough to touch.

“Turn around Mark”

Charlie’s voice, by shades rough and warm, light like the breeze. Mark turns around.

His head is heavy and his chest tight when he wakes. For a disconcerting moment he can still hear laughter from somewhere.

In a daze half borne of cheap beer and half of sleepiness, he makes his way to the living room. Next to the couch is his humble bookshelf. He fumbles blindly for what he needs, but his hands are true. He never forgets where the book is. In the dim light the streetlight throws into his apartment he opens it and the photograph falls into his lap. The twinge has grown to something nearing unbearable.

Charlie smiles up at Mark, eternally youthful aside from the fading edges of the photograph. There, next to Charlie, is another Mark. This one younger, shirtless and scowling, just a little, at someone on the dock. They are a study in contrasts as they always were. Mark and Charlie, on the lake, during that last summer. He cradles the reminder of this in his palms before smoothing a thumb across the scene as if he could bring it to life or maybe erase it. He is not sure anymore which would be better or easier.

Outside it is still snowing, the flakes swirling in the hazy light before falling to blanket to street in perfect whiteness. Mark closes his eyes and leans his head back against the wall and allows himself just this moment to remember.


“I don’t understand,” said Fluffles. “What’s so special about this place?”

“Hmph! Good question,” said the dark cat behind her.

“Lay off it, Othello,” said another cat. He turned to Fluffles. “This is your first pilgrimage, huh? My name is Poobah. Welcome to the Pipe.”

“Uh, thanks. I’m Fluffles. What’s… going on here?”

Poobah nodded toward another cat, who was stepping away from the group and approaching a large, dark pipe. “Watch. The High Priest will get it started.”

The High Priest sat under the pipe and turned to face the assemblage. “Fellow followers of the Pipe!” he said. “We gather here, as we do, as we must, to pay tribute and prove our faith. The Pipe shall provide, as it has in the past, in the legends handed down from cat to cat.”

“What a crock,” said Othello. The High Priest ignored him.

“‘Provide?’ What does he mean it will ‘provide’?” Fluffles asked Poobah. Poobah opened his mouth to answer, but the High Priest spoke first.

“Child - the Pipe delivers wonderful gifts to those who serve it. The legends speak of birds and mice, cardboard boxes and balls of yarn, and even - to those whose faith is especially strong - tuna.”

“Legends!” sneered Othello. “Anyone can make up a legend. Have you actually seen any of these gifts?”

The High Priest drew back. “My mentor, High Priest Noodle, told me a story about-”

“A story!” Othello laughed. “Here’s a story for you - I’ve been on three of these ridiculous pilgrimages and not once have I seen this pipe of yours give up any kind of gift but rainwater dripping down the side.”

“Ah, yes,” said the High Priest. “The sacred moisture that replenishes body and spirit. It is a common gift, but a gift nonetheless. And if we only have enough faith, we may receive other gifts as well.”

The High Priest turned to the pipe and placed his front paws on it. Poobah leaned in toward Fluffles and whispered, “I’m hoping for ham. I heard one time it was ham.”

The High Priest took a few deep breaths, eyes closed. There was an eerie silence. Even Othello just watched. Finally, the High Priest threw his head back and shouted.

“Oh great Pipe! Your humble servant, High Priest Snugglepuss, is here to pay respects! And though I am hardly worthy to stand in your presence, I beseech you to reward my faith and that of my fellow cats! And to show any doubters the error of their ways.”

Fluffles glanced at Othello, but he was ignoring the speech, staring fixedly at a point halfway up the nearby stone wall.

“Oh Pipe,” continued the High Priest, “Please accept our demonstrations of faith.” And with that he removed his paws from the pipe and stepped to the side. “Who shall be next?” he asked the other cats.

“I’ll go,” said Poobah. He approached the pipe and placed his front paws upon it.

“Oh Pipe!” he shouted. “You are so very noble and large. I could never be as noble and large as you. And I respect that. I also respect ham. Just letting you know. Thanks for being such a great Pipe! I believe in you and your Pipeness.”

Poobah took his paws off and walked back to Fluffles. “You’re up,” he said.

“Me? But I… I…” stammered Fluffles.

“Have no fear, child,” soothed the High Priest. “You are among friends here. The Pipe is ready to receive your tribute of faith.”

“Go on, kid,” said Othello. “This should be hilarious.”

Slowly, haltingly, Fluffles approached the pipe. She stopped in front of it, took a deep breath, and then placed her paws on it.

“Oh, Pipe,” she said.

“Louder, child!” said the High Priest. “Be not shy! How can you expect the Pipe to reward your faith if you demonstrate it so half-heartedly?”

Fluffles closed her eyes. “Oh Pipe!” she shouted.

“Better,” said the High Priest. Othello chuckled.

Fluffles leaned her head back and faced the sky. “There is no denying that you are a great inspiration to us cats! We who, uh, come to tell you how wonderful you are, in hopes that you will reward us for it. Even the ones who come even though they say they don’t believe and are kind of jerks about the whole thing. You bring us together, and that’s pretty neat.”

Suddenly, the wall next to the pipe opened up, and a huge figure emerged. Fluffles recognized it as a Tall One. She’d seen them before - some cats kept them as servants, and the domesticated ones were reportedly quite useful. But never had she been so close to one. She scrambled back from the pipe - but the other cats weren’t retreating.

“The Keeper of the Pipe!” exclaimed the High Priest. “Our faith is rewarded! Praise the Pipe!”

The Tall One’s mouth opened, and strange not-quite-mewling sounds issued forth. Fluffles realized the Tall One was carrying something - and as the figure bent down and placed it on the ground, she craned her neck to get a better look. It seemed to be a broad, round, shallow bowl, filled with-

“Well, I’ll be a doggie’s uncle,” said Othello.

“Milk!” shouted Poobah. “It’s a miracle! Praise the Pipe!”

The cats raced forward, crashing into each other in their urgent dash to the bowl. Squeezing past one another, they managed to space themselves around it, and lapped up the milk eagerly.

The Keeper of the Pipe watched, gently cooing the indecipherable and meaningless words of the Tall Ones.

Wednesday Morning Rides

There is a very long list of things Mike does not like. There is a considerably shorter list of things he does. At fifty he feels certain of the truth of the two lists and if asked would be strongly opposed to making any changes at this juncture.

A sampling of things Mike Does Not Like:

1. People
2. Muddy Boots
3. Yard Work
4. Sandals
5. People Who Own Dogs
6. Dogs

It should be duly noted, this is a brief excerpt.

A sampling of things Mike Does Like:

1. His Motorbike
2. Riding His Motorbike
3. Cleaning and Maintaining his Motorbike
4. Kraft Brand Single Slices of Cheese

He also looks favorably on white Wonder Bread, lightly toasted.

The motorbike in question is a Tomos from the mid 1980s. While it is old, Mike is diligent and fastidious about keeping it in prime working condition. The paint is still pristine, the tires always properly inflated, and the gas tank never below 34 of a tank full. Mike takes it out for the following purposes:

1. Monday Afternoon, To Buy Groceries, mostly bread and Kraft Single Slices
2. Wednesday Morning, To Drive Around the Lake
3. Friday Evening, To the Bar
4. Sunday Morning, To Church

When Mike is not involved in one of these activities, he is likely to be found in the garage, tending to the Tomos as other people might tend to a garden or favored pet. This is what he is doing when he hears the strange sound from the bushes lining the front of his little house. The sound is a high pitched little wail. Soft and pleading and, Mike realizes with a shudder, in pain. He studiously ignores it for as long as possible, but the little voice continues and, improbably, seems to get more and more urgent.

Mike doesn’t like this.

With an exaggerated grunt of frustration, he throws the rag he was using to clean the Tomos aside and marches out the door intent on silencing the sound. His face, if there were someone around to see it, would be the very picture of long-suffering. His boots make a vaguely annoying crunching sound as he investigates the bushes, the branches of which catch on the sleeves of his shirt leaving small pills in the fabric as they come loose. Mike notes this as particularly irritating. Somewhere around the third bush the sound seems to have reached a maximum volume. Mike carefully maneuvers himself to peer behind it to see exactly what such a sound could be emanating from.

It is a puppy.

Tiny, shuddering, whining and looking utterly pathetic is a puppy curled up in the safety between a brambly bush and the side of Mike’s house. Mike’s first thought is of his list. He frowns deeply at the puppy who in turn, faces Mike with wide puppy-eyes and whimpers. For a long moment they regard each other, studying and wondering. Mike is certain this is the most inconvenient thing that has happened to him in some years. This thought is furthered when he notes that the puppy’s left leg is bent at something of an unnatural angle. What is necessary becomes clear in an instant, and Mike, with a sigh, reaches for the little animal and lifts him up with a care natural to a man who has practice in caring for something, even if it is a motorbike.

It is a Tuesday morning, which is not a usual day for a ride, but Mike knows that occasionally, adjustments do have to be made. He takes a towel from the garage and carefully wraps the now silent but still shivering puppy up and places the little guy in the basket normally reserved for the weekly groceries. There is only one vet in town that he knows of, and with another plaintive sigh, he swings himself on to the Tomos, and he and the puppy ride off together towards the town.

The vet tells Mike a few things that he does not like.

1. It will cost some money to fix the puppy’s leg.
2. The local animal shelter does not exactly keep dogs for long, if you know what I mean.

Mike leaves with his wallet lighter, and a puppy that he is apparently going to bring home.

That evening he sits at his kitchen table and the puppy sits in front of him. Mike has learned that he is apparently a Pug. Mike wonders is this means he will always look sad.

“What do Pugs eat?” Mike asks the puppy, who merely stares back forlornly with his tongue hanging out.

Eventually, Mike settles on some slices of ham cut up to puppy size. He places them in a small bowl in front of the pug and waits and watches. The puppy sniffs the food, his little broken leg now done up in a bright white cast, gets slightly in the way. A moment passes, and then, the puppy launches himself into the meal with what could only be described as gusto. Mike smiles despite himself.

He would never tell anyone, but he allows the puppy to curl up at the end of his bed that night. He tells himself it is only because the puppy has an injury, that tomorrow he will find a more suitable owner, and that he does not even like dogs or people who own them.

Three weeks later, the puppy is still sleeping at the end of his bed. Mike has not even started to look for a suitable owner. He tells himself this is because he doesn’t like people, particularly people who own dogs.

On Wednesday mornings, if you are enjoying a pleasant jaunt around the lake just outside of town, you might catch sight of a man on a motorbike. You will probably find it charming that he rides with his little dog sitting in the basket that might normally be used for groceries. The man is probably smiling, though if he were to notice you watching, he might turn away. The dog, the dog will always look happy.

One of Us

I remember the exact moment that Megan, my brother’s girlfriend, became a part of our family. It was the summer after my mother returned from India wanting a divorce, the year Elias’s lacrosse team won Northeast regionals, the year I got braces. It took us fourteen hours to drive to Florida from Washington, DC, in Dad’s two-door Toyota Tercel. Megan sat in the back with Yoshi and me, and Dad and Elias sat in the front, sometimes taking turns driving.

Our drive to Gainesville was punctuated by my hatred for Megan’s childlike fussiness. The D’Aiellos are a family of holder-inners. The dog got a break, but we held everyone else - our travel companions, in particular - up to rigorous family standards of dignity, self-control, and urinary retention. Megan did not pass muster on this. “Holding it gives you a kidney infection,” she’d whine. Or worse: “I’m a small person! I have a small bladder!” Here was a moderately offensive expression of the differences between us. My father, brother, and I are not small people. Megan was an elfish dishwater blonde of Irish descent. The D’Aiellos are big, dark, stoic Greeks. That it was hot as hell, that the Tercel’s air conditioner, radio, and passenger’s side rear window were all broken, that dog hair was clinging itchily to us all, was fine, just fine, thanks, no need to make a Thing out of it. We looked upon all this with Spartan reserve.

It was a classic vacation. We played minigolf, took pictures in groves of banyans, waited for Megan to pee, rented paddleboats, toured the Museum of Natural History, went horseback riding, waited for Megan to pee, played battle-of-the-sexes badminton, went swimming, waited for Megan to pee. If we saw signs for zoos, aquariums, monuments, or county fairs, we stopped to check them out. It was this kind of freewheeling opportunism that led us to the fundraiser for the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Mid-Florida. Dad spotted a banner that said, “Can YOU handle the VERMONSTER CHALLENGE?” And Eli, who was driving at the time, said, “Hey Penny, can you handle the Vermonster Challenge?”

“I’ll challenge your Vermonster all the way to Texas,” I shot back. I don’t really know why said that, and I didn’t know what a Vermonster was, either.

“You’re on, P,” he said. “Wake Megan up.”

We arrived just in time. The Vermonster Challenge turned out to be an eating contest, and the Vermonster itself was a giant sundae in a bucket: twenty scoops of Ben & Jerry’s, four ladles of hot fudge, four bananas, three cookies, two brownies, whipped cream, and four choice toppings. Dad declined on account of his bypassed heart, offering instead to cheer us on from the sidelines. Megan was still shaking the grog out of her nap, flush-faced and puffy-eyed, toeing the line of post-doze crankiness, as she sat down next to Eli. I squinted across the table at her. She can’t eat like us, I thought. No way. I caught myself grinning, because it pleased me to have woken her up to the prospect of bolting some portion of a 15,000-calorie extravaganza.

A few moments later, a Ben & Jerry’s server came over to us, explained the rules of the contest, demonstrated the universal signal for “I am choking,” and then moved on to the other three-person teams. I took my watch off and rolled up my sleeves. Megan didn’t notice, and I didn’t do her the favor of suggesting she do the same. And then, at the swift blast of an airhorn, we dove in.

It was disgusting. Within seconds, the contents of the bucket started looking like the contents of a stomach, everything all mixed together. Our hands plunged into the amorphous mess like the alternating pistons of some grotesque machine. “Banana,” said Megan, full-mouthed. “Use them for scooping toppings!” We grabbed bananas and made tools of them, working at a frantic pace, almost bonking heads a few times.

Elias slowed for a moment, assuming an odd expression - mouth slightly open, slight flaring of the nostrils, eyelids at half mast - wholly given over to staring at Megan. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I bet it was gross. I would’ve elbowed him if I could reach, but Megan beat me to it. “Eat, idiot!” she shouted, holding the last of the banana and part of a cookie in her face with her orchid-pink, French-manicured hands. Then she stopped abruptly, raising herself into the air and whirling around like a startled animal. I thought she was going to hurl, actually, but instead she banged on the table with her fists and announced that our competitors were gaining on us. My hands were cold and sticky and I was starting to have trouble swallowing. Somehow, though, we’d eaten three quarters of the way through the sundae in a matter of minutes, leaving a goopy ooze where the dessert had once been. I could feel ice cream running down my chin, cookie crumbs stuck to my nose, the sweet, stale smell of whipped cream on my breath, my head pounding with brainfreeze. It was almost too much.

From over my left shoulder, the excited shriek of a prepubescent boy broke the hubbub of consumption: “We’re winning, you guys! We’re gonna win!” This enacted a transformation in Megan. She let loose a battle cry, seized the bucket like a berserker, lifted it to her face, and guzzled the soupy mixture of crumbs, sprinkles, and ice cream in great gasping gulps while Elias and I stared on in awe. It was like watching someone score the game-winning goal in the last seconds of double overtime. The victory was ours, but the glory was all hers. When she’d downed the last of it, she put the upside-down bucket on her head and pumped her fists in the air, blindly drawing me and Elias into a triumphant, sticky hug.

“Megan,” I said to the bucket, “Oh my god. You were awesome.” And I meant it.


She was flying again, she who had slept for so many years at the bottom of the ocean and despaired, in her slow, cold, dreams, of ever seeing the sun again. But now, what glory! This fire in the sky, the open blue air parting and rushing before her. She skimmed up and down along the tops of the undulating waves.

It was unclear to her what had released her, some warmth and rumble that had thrust her slender long body up out of the deep sands where she had lain entombed. She had been shaken out and buoyed upwards on a fountain of bubbles and hot water, feeling her crumpled self expanding, feeling her scales sliding back into a logical arrangement, unfurling her coiled silvery tail. When she broke the surface she had bobbed there, quite breathless in the glittering sunshine, until at last some movement had returned to her frigid limbs.

But then - flying! Dark lines of pelicans peeled off to her right and left as she passed them, bright white seabirds sitting in the waves flashed by below her, and as she peeled higher and higher into the sky she could see the flashing backs and misty breath of some traveling whales. Far, far up ahead she saw a long dark smudge, that didn’t move or grow smaller, that must be land.

At this sight she curved her body back down to the water, snaking her way more slowly into the wind above the the restless ocean. She was hesitant about visiting land, so soon after coming awake. Whatever had befallen her had been muddy, a clotted sunset color, some awful betrayal that wouldn’t have happened had she not strayed from her realms of light and air and water. However - and this made her rise up again - with any luck she could glide unnoticed over the granite mountains and into the deep desert lands, where she could curl up on a rock and really warm her bones.

Coming closer to shore, she whipped her tail and rolled her pale body, pushing herself up into the thin air to gain some altitude and determine a good path to take. Wooded areas would give her trouble, since it was trickier to maneuver and to land; perhaps easier to hide, but harder to make a quick getaway. As she thrust higher the blue curve of the ocean spread out beneath her, breaking to white where it met the brown strip of beach, which then faded into a vast glassy city.

And - what was that? A thin band of color, a swath of dotted blues and greens and oranges, splayed out all along the beach. The bright, wild colors tugged at her heart as the sun had. She found herself inclining downwards, and now she could see people bustling amongst the colors, their bright colorful selves dotting the beach and spilling out into the blue water.

Humans were trouble, there was no doubt to that. But oh, how she longed, after such a lengthy silence, for some hustle of movement, emotions that were not her own. Besides, what harm could these people be, with their bright cheering symbols? Maybe they were trying in some mute worship to call down the sun. They would get her, instead.

She circled once, tilting her neck down to look, and then dove gracefully for a clear spot where the waves flooded onto shore. Pushing her feet deep into the shining sand, she wrapped her tail around herself and turned her huge head to face the humans.

Not a sound. The multicolored crowd drew back, those in the water standing stock still as foam swirled around them. Further back, she could see round faces staring out from the pools of shade they sat in. She gazed back at them at them with her dark, dark eyes, and didn’t move.

Finally, the closest - a little gray boy, brown hair long and sandy - started towards her. She swung her gaze down to meet his, and he paused, but kept coming. As he neared she turned her head again, and his small brown hand reached up to stroke the wide pearly scales on the side of her neck.

She heard some noises from the others, but her whole mind was on his light touch, how his fingers trailed and curled and his palm pressed into her. This was what she had remembered, this goodness of being touched. Of being loved, in some small way.

More humans were moving, coming towards them, and she imagined for one brief second that she would stand there and submit to all their touches, feel all the wonder in their warm smooth hands, see their delight. But it would be wretchedly unsafe to do so. She caught the little boy’s eye and gently rippled her hide, knocking his hand away. He stepped back and put his fingers to his mouth.

She turned her back and flung herself up into the air, rising like a column of white steam from the beach. As she rose she could see the dark mass of people, surging down the sand to press against the waves. When she was high up enough that the crowd was no more than a bright tiny smear between the ocean and the city, she coiled herself up and shot away from the sun’s slow descent, far away from the cool of the ocean, heading deep into the red stony heart of the land.

The Greater Good

Jake rested a foot on the log, pensively pushing it back and forth. The log rolled slightly.

Jerry wasn’t letting up. “Look, all I’m saying is women love that stuff. You just sprinkle a bit of that into a conversation, you’ll be rolling in it in no time.”

“Easy for you to say,” muttered Jake.

“What? Speak up, bro,” said Jerry.

Jake cleared his throat. “You’re married. You can dish out whatever advice you want. It’s not like you have to follow it. You’ve already got Sheila.”

Sheila, hearing her name, glanced over from the picnic table. Jerry gave her a smile and a wave and she smiled and nodded back before turning back to her own conversation.

Jerry leaned in toward Jake. “How do you think I got Sheila?” he asked, a grin spreading across his face.

Jake stopped rolling the log and stared at Jerry. “You didn’t.”

Jerry straightened out of his lean and waggled his eyebrows.

“Jerry, come on. Your demasking was an accident, right?”

Jerry shrugged theatrically. “Well, I’m certainly not the one who tore off my mask in front of her. But when I was taunting Doctor Dark while he had me tied up, I may have said things like, ‘Whatever you do, don’t take off my mask, I’m begging you - I need my secret identity, and revealing it to your hostage would ruin me, blah blah blah, wahh wahh.'”

Jake kept staring. “I… I can’t believe this, Jerry. I thought you were joking before. You really violated one of our sacred rules just to impress a girl?”

“Hey, now,” Jerry said, putting up a hand. “It wasn’t me, right? It was Doctor Dark. And I specifically told him not to!”

Jake looked down at the log and shook his head. He rolled the log back and forth a bit more. Suddenly, he froze. He looked up at Jerry. He cast a quick glance at Ripper Island and then stared daggers at Jerry.

“And when you took her to our secret island fortress? You said it was the only place she’d be safe from Doctor Dark, but that wasn’t the real reason, was it?”

Jerry tried to shrug nonchalantly, but his smile gave everything away. “Doctor Dark had already forgotten about her. She was just a one-shot hostage to him. I couldn’t forget her, though.”

He looked over at Sheila and watched her a moment. She was saying something that was getting a pretty good laugh out of Ellen.

Jerry turned back to Jake. “Sometimes, you just know… you know? So I had to see her again. I used the Justice Computer to track her down, flew to her apartment in full costume and knocked on her eighth-story window. I told her Doctor Dark had been spotted in the area but I knew where she could be safe. It took a bit of convincing, but she let me fly her to the fortress.”

Jake’s jaw dropped. “You… I can’t believe how irresponsible… and you call yourself a Justice Ripper…”

Jerry didn’t hear him. “When we got there… I showed her around. I let her get a look at the Justice Computer, but not too close up - just wanted to impress her, not show her how I’d kinda stalked her. I took her the trophy room, let her try out Ursa Minor’s claw-gun, and the Rainmaker’s umbrella. I took her to the Danger Chamber, and showed off with a training routine. Then we went to the Observation Dome, and under the stars… we sealed the deal.” He smiled, looking off into the distance.

The log snapped in two under Jake’s foot.

Sheila, Ellen, and Eileen looked over, startled at the sound, Ellen and Eileen automatically shifting their weight subtly into a battle-ready stance.

“Dude, we’re in public,” Jerry whispered, scanning the area to see if any civilians had noticed. “Keep a lid on the super-strength, all right?”

Jake opened his mouth to apologize, then closed it again. He laughed darkly. He smiled sheepishly at his sisters, who warily relaxed their stance.

“What a fine bunch we are,” Jake said.

“Hey, now,” said Jerry. “We do the world a great service. We have to make sure our needs get taken care of too, so we don’t snap. It’s for the greater good.”

“Right. The greater good,” said Jake, looking off toward Ripper Island.

“Just… think about it, okay?” Jerry said. “I’m not telling you to shout from the rooftops that you’re the Red Ripper. But women love being in on a secret. And the world sure didn’t end when Sheila found out who I was. I just want you to be happy, bro. Happy like I am.”

Jake put his foot on one of the log halves. He rolled it back and forth.

“Anyway,” said Jerry. “Let’s grill up those burgers, huh? I’m starved.”