Readings!

tracer discs Check out this pair of wonderful true stories from Big Blue Door’s recent advanced true stories course: Assassin by BK Marcus & Bioluminescence by Melissa Wender. We’ll have more short true stories later in the week. Oh, and why not join us for our next introductory Telling True Stories course on March 26th to start finding and sharing the amazing true stories from your life?!

Assassin
© 2017 BK Marcus

The kids at my small Quaker high school were pretty creative about killing each other. I saw someone in the lunchroom, a fellow freshman, use an eyedropper to sneak lemon juice into another kid’s milk carton. When the kid drank the soured milk, his assassin said, “You’ve been poisoned.” I heard about another kid who opened his textbook in class to find a note inside that said, “KA-BOOM! You’ve been bombed.” Any method the target could confirm — and that grownups couldn’t see — was legitimate.

I was not a creative killer. I stuck to my disc pistol, which I kept fully loaded in the otherwise empty right pocket of my oversized army jacket. While we were getting stuff from our lockers, I asked my friend Dan Levy if he’d heard of the live-action roll-playing game called Assassin. He said, “Yeah, Fred’s my next target. How about you?”

I shot Dan in the chest and said, “Now Fred is my next target.”

Rebecca Fox was the sexiest girl in 9th grade. I could barely bring myself to talk to her, but I watched her from a distance, and when she left school alone and headed toward 3rd Avenue, I followed her. After a quick check to make sure no one was watching, I caught up and said, “Hey, Rebecca.” She turned around and started to smile, but a colorful plastic disc from my spring-loaded pistol bounced off the tee-shirt fabric between her breasts.

“You’re dead,” I said.

I reported back to the ringmaster that our circle of assassins was now one link shorter. Meanwhile, someone — I didn’t know who — was out to kill me. To win, to be the last killer standing, meant more than eliminating your targets; it meant staying alive while you did so.

Few took it seriously enough to survive even the first attempt on their lives. They’d signed up because it sounded fun. That attitude was fatal. The kids who lasted into the final rounds were ever vigilant. Never sit with your back to a door. Always check over your shoulder. Watch everyone’s hands! Don’t let your bag out of your sight. Don’t let your books out of your sight. Don’t let your lunch out of your sight. An assassin could strike outside your apartment building, on the subway, or in the last few blocks’ walk to your first-period class.

Until recently, my shortcut to school took me through the smoking alley, a narrow gap between the Quaker Meeting House and the apartment building next door. In the alley, kids huddled on old wooden benches and shared Marlboros and Salems under iron-grated fire escapes. But now, even if I was late for class, I circled the block to enter school through the main doors, where it was harder to pull off an ambush. If you cared more about your schedule, if you cared more about your schoolwork, or girls, or your friends, if you cared more about anything other than killing and not getting killed, you were going to lose.

Every time I reported in to the ringmaster, the organizer of our lethal circle, he’d pull a folded sheet of loose-leaf paper from his jeans, cross another name off his list, and tell me my next target. But on that final day, my last day as an assassin, he grabbed me by the lobby pay phone to update my assignment. It seems my target had been eliminated during a botched attempt on a senior named Nick. According to the ringmaster, Nick and I had killed everyone else, and it was now down to the two of us. I said, “I don’t know Nick.”

“Oh,” he said, “he’s that unwashed grease ball who sits by himself in the smoking alley.”

So for the rest of the day, between classes, I cased the smoking alley from across the courtyard, scoping out my last target. He had long, greasy dark hair, thick glasses, and a face full of acne. As the ringmaster had indicated, Nick sat by himself, huddled over a cigarette, while the other smokers chatted and flirted with each other, a buffer of a few yards between them and him. He was skinny and tall, the height of a man. Like me, he wore an army jacket, but his fit better. Nothing about him suggested the skill of a killer.

I walked through the courtyard to the alley, hand in my pocket, finger on the trigger. Nick never looked up, just stared down at his cigarette, shoulders rounded, forearms resting on his thighs, utterly still. I pivoted quickly, aimed my pistol — and made a rookie mistake. I wanted him to see me, to watch me kill him, to know he was helpless to stop me. I said, “Hey, Nick,” and as he looked up, I started to pull the trigger.

I never imagined he’d be so fast. He launched himself at me, knocked my gun arm to the side, and tackled me to the ground. He was so much heavier than I’d expected. My nostrils filled with the stench of him, old sweat and stale tobacco, as we rolled among the cigarette butts and grime. His gun was in his hand, aimed straight at my head, but I angled away and heard his discs bounce off the concrete, inches from my ear. I grabbed his gun barrel with my left hand and aimed it away from me. He had his left hand clamped around my right arm, just above the elbow. I still had my gun, but it was pointed down the alley, toward the bemused smokers who watched in silence.

I was able to angle my gun back in his direction and fire into the side of his jacket. I doubt he felt that first shot, or the second or the third, but my pistol was fully loaded, and I kept firing disc after disc, a rainbow of bright plastic circles across his torso until they were shooting past the open folds of his army jacket and hitting him in the chest.

He didn’t let go. He just leaned down into me, trying to pin the rest of me to the ground.

“You’re dead!” I screamed, my voice higher than I wanted. “You’re dead! You’re dead, god damn it! Get the hell off me!” I kept shooting and shooting, and he kept trying to pin me, and it occurred to me that I’d finally found someone more serious, more determined, more obsessed. All I could see was the looming blur of stringy hair, splotchy skin, thick and filthy lenses over lunatic eyes. And the thought came to me that I was in real danger. It didn’t matter that I’d won; Nick was not going to let me walk out of that alley.

And then, just as suddenly, he was off of me. I lay in the filth and stared up at him as he stood, put his pistol back in his pocket, and said, “Yeah, OK, you win.”

Then he sat, lit up a fresh cigarette, and stared back down at the ground between his feet while the other smokers returned to their chatter.

I reported back to the ringmaster that I’d done what he’d asked. He said, “Seriously? Awesome.” And that was it. He didn’t ask for details, and I didn’t offer any. And that turned out to be the last anyone said on the subject, at least to me. As far as I could tell, everyone forgot that any of it had ever happened. The ace students were still known as top of the class; basketball players wore their uniforms in school and received praise or consolation from admirers; even the mathletes got the occasional nod. But no one seemed to know or care that I was the top assassin in the school.

A year later, a new ringmaster invited me to join a new circle of assassins. He showed no awareness of who I was or what I’d once accomplished.

I told him I was retired.


Bioluminescence
© 2017 Melissa Wender

So, my friend Melissa Luce and I went down to Florida this winter. I love the west coast of Florida. I could get a job with Florida Tourism promoting the west coast of Florida. And we did our research, because we are those kind of people. We found the ONE spot on the Gulf Coast that allows primitive camping. Rustic nature experience! It’s called Johnson Beach.

Fact: It is named after Private Rosamond Johnson, Jr. who was killed on July 26, 1950 during the Korean Conflict.

Fact: It is one of the few beaches that were open to African Americans during the Jim Crow era.

Fact: It is now part of the Gulf Island National Seashore.

Johnson Beach is a full four hours east on the panhandle, making for a 13 hour drive in all. But totally worth it to camp where there are no roads, no generators, and quite likely no other people. (It seems most folks don’t want to schlep all their camping gear a mile down the beach for the opportunity to cook and sleep in the sand.)

Very excited. Checked the Gulf Island National Seashore website to confirm all was good. Got a call back from a ranger – message still on my phone reassuring us about the primitive camping and that there were no oil spills or tsunamis that might upset our rustic nature experience. – “Hi this is Bob, at the Gulf Island National Seashore, following up a voice mail asking if primitive camping available the week after Christmas and yes it is open. Perdido Key, Johnson Beach, everything open thank you bye.

We drive up to the check point we have to go through to pay park entry, get the maps, etc. so we can drive to the parking area from which we intend to hike to our campsite. And Melissa Luce is looking at the kiosk and says, “Primitive camping is closed.”

What? Why would you say those words?

But sure enough there is a little sign attached to the kiosk saying, Primitive camping on Johnson beach closed until further notice.

I talk to the ranger, wielding my voice-messaged cell phone to make my case. I casually drop that I too have been a ranger. I have worn the flat hat. I plead so the two of us can do our minimal impact camping trip that we drove 13 hours to get to!! I berate them in a kind, gentle, appealing way for not having this closure listed on their website

But they are having none of it. Their only concession is they let us get out of the car to look at the water without paying the $15 park entrance fee. They did say they’d give us a stay at the Fort Pickens Campground, a two hour drive away and decidedly NOT a rustic nature experience.

Instead we end up at Big Lagoon State Park, having the qualities of being close and having an available campsite. I have a picture series. The first one is on the beach near our would-be campsite: sugar sand, surf, and little shore birds. I love the way they run on the sand. The next is of our actual campsite: #27 out of 134, surrounded by RVs.

We make the best of it, go for a walk, use the picnic table to make our ramen noodles, and come 6:30, I’m pretty bushed. Luce cajoles me into staying up till 7pm and I agree to play three hands of gin rummy before turning in.

And though the lights of the park shine in my tent I fall right asleep.

Somewhat later Luce wakes me. “Melissa, you up? There is the coolest thing. There is a tree not far FULL of bioluminescent bugs!”

Well yes, I get up for bioluminescence! It is on my bucket list and except for fireflies, I have never seen it.

So, I fumble for my hiking boots and we hurry a ways through the campsite past RV1, RV2, RV3 until we get to a tree that is shimmering with blue spots. Luce says she looked under the leaves and found a little bug under each one that creates the light. It’s amazing, the coolest thing I had ever seen. A miracle of nature. And how bizarre that it is just on this one tree and nowhere else! I walk around the tree to admire the phenomena from every angle, and then I see that it’s not just this one tree after all. There beside the tree is an RV also covered with little blue dots.

Then I see that the RV has one of these laser light projectors from WalMart projecting the little blue dots. It’s their holiday decorations.

I still love the Gulf Coast of Florida. The illusion was pretty exciting.

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