Standoff (a short story)

The Inquisitor

Too much a creature of urban comforts to ever be called a Nature lover, Henry nonetheless considered himself a Nature liker. And yet, as his eyeballs threatened to dry into powdery husks, he also recognized that Nature had a dark side. And today, that dark side came with bright red epaulets.

In an exchange that may only have been minutes, but felt like hours, Henry held the gaze of his ebon Inquisitor, afraid to look away lest the wraith take wing again, strafing him in violent indignation.

Moments earlier, Henry was taking a lovely stroll along the waterfront, leaving the breezes of the beach for the verdant comfort of the giant reeds and a secluded pond.

His soft-soled shoes barely whispered as he wound his way along the wooden deck that cut a swath across the still, algae-laden waters. Instead, his silent steps were accompanied by the cheerful chirrup of so many sparrows and the steady whine of cicadas complaining about the damp heat.

Merging waters

But as he reached the half-way point, he sensed a change even if he couldn’t yet identify it. The breeze died, the sparrows silenced and the cicadas stilled until all that remained was the low throb of his heart.

And as subtly as the stillness formed, it was macheted by an agonized screech that seemed to quite literally part Henry’s hair.

No sooner had Henry arced through his ducking motion than the demon struck again, piercing eardrum and scalp with equal vigour.

Terror’s impulse to flee was tempered by uncertainty’s steely grip as Henry found himself rooted in place. That something wanted to kill him, he was certain; but the complete absence of movement around him suggested it was all in his mind. His tingling scalp, however, said that whatever was happening was on his head, not in it.

Despite the glaring sunlight that baked the path, trickling tangy sweat into Henry’s fresh wounds, his pupils stretched to their anime widest, searching the chaotic tangle for the slightest signs of movement. He had no reason to believe his tormentor had given up, but all he saw was blue sky, brown tree limbs, green reeds and black water.

Yes, these had all taken on an ominous mantel, but nothing looked capable of launching an attack.

Even as Henry contemplated giving up his search, though, the air was pierced once more with an irritated cry. It was everything he had in him not to turtle.

And that’s when he saw it, the beast with the black eyes of death concealed behind a shroud of serrated alder leaves.

Hunkered down

The expressionless face bobbed lower and turned slightly to its left, determined to take in its quarry. Its oil-drop eye blended almost seamlessly with the void its plumage left in the sky, a puncture of midnight in the midday light. The only break in the evil blackness was a splash of blood red atop its shoulder.

“A bird?” Henry questioned silently, a blush threatening to overwhelm his budding sunburn.

Sloughing his tension like a skin, Henry rolled his shoulders to massage them. That was all the demon needed.

With blinding speed, the creature was upon him again. The flapping wings were matched by flailing arms as Henry swung at his attacker to no avail, his body instinctively twisting as the assailant passed.

It didn’t take Henry nearly as long to find the bird now, the monster standing proudly on an exposed limb, cackling his disdain upon his hapless victim.

“What is your problem?” Henry cried to the skies, briefly silencing the bird, which cocked its head a little further as though contemplating the question.

Henry unconsciously mirrored the action when it squawked back.

Annoyed, Henry turned to walk away but his motion was stopped by a shrill pierce. Spreading its wings, the bird quadrupled in size, a Rorschach nightmare.

As Henry relaxed his muscles, the bird drew in its wings. The stare down began.

Redwing on a reed

Unblinking, Henry met the bird’s gaze with his own, his every emotion reflected in that dead pool of emptiness, that glistening eye. A psychic vacuum, the bird seemed to reach into Henry’s body, threatening to engulf his soul.

Mired in a personal La Brea, Henry could feel his will slowly sink into the sulfurous malevolence. Only ego and will kept him from bowing to the inevitable.

“Look, momma,” a child’s voice squeaked through the tension. “Issa red-wing bla’ bird.”

Out of the corner of his eye, which otherwise remained glued to the bird, Henry could see a small boy trundle down the path, pointing wildly with one hand while waving a camera with the other.

More importantly, Henry saw that the bird caught the arrival as well.


Synchronized swimmers of the air, man and bird vaulted for the boy, whose mother remained several yards away, blissfully unaware of the horrors awaiting her budding family.

Every wing beat was matched with a stride, every fluttered feather with airfoiled arm hair. And Henry knew his job was twice as difficult as the bird’s.

Not only did he have to stop the bird from harming the child, but he had to do it without knocking the kid into next Tuesday himself. But one thing at a time.

It is said that when the conditions are just right, you can stop the flight of one bullet with a perfectly timed second bullet.

Henry didn’t know if that was true. Nor did he really have the time to contemplate what conditions such a thing might require.


All Henry could tell you for certain was that once airborne, a red-winged blackbird is a thousand times more agile than a middle-aged man. That, and it takes about eight days to get the stench of stagnant pond water out of your nostrils.

He has no idea what happened to the kid.

Showing concern

One of the myriad gulls sharing the local boardwalk

One of the myriad gulls sharing the local boardwalk

There are truly good people yet in the world.

As some of you know, I am going through a bit of a problem with one of my shoulders (a condition with the stupid name frozen shoulder).

While wandering the boardwalk near my apartment earlier today, I absent-mindedly tossed an acorn at a bench (not a euphemism, folks) and immediately doubled up in searing pain, grabbing my arm and shoulder, and plopped on the bench to wait for the pain to subside. It did…it always does.

Ill-named condition involving loss of range of motion

Ill-named condition involving loss of range of motion

But as I was getting up to finish the trip home, two cyclists stopped to make sure I was okay. They had seen me grab my arm and drop to the bench. It probably looked like a heart attack or seizure.

I explained the affliction and that the pain was mostly due to my unthinking idiocy, which seemed to allay their concerns. I thanked them, however, for checking on me and making sure I wasn’t in more serious trouble.

Nice to know that I’m never alone…I only hope I show the same concern should I be presented with something similar.

Loved the mood captured by the street lamp

Loved the mood captured by the street lamp

Male enhancement?


Just saw a male enhancement ad in my spam filter—honest, that’s where I found it—and it suggested you could be hard enough to crack an egg.

Really? An egg? Are they building Kevlar eggs now?

I can’t get a dozen eggs home from the grocery store without cracking at least one. And with the exception of one trip from the grocery store, none of those incidents involved my penis (don’t ask).

Isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for those thinking of having (more) kids, either.

I just picture a penis so hard that the sperm ejaculates at supersonic speed, literally obliterating any unsuspecting ovum it might meet just north of the cervix.

Seriously, you could hurt somebody with that thing.

Remove your tonsils and cauterize the wound at the same time.

And then there’s the controversy over the long-gun registry. Hair triggers. The founding of the National Penis Association with Long Dong Silver as its spokesgenital.

I think I’ll take a pass thanks. For everyone’s safety.

 (No actual eggs were harmed in the telling of this story.)

The word was cat – an exercise


“Cat killer,” Anthony thought to himself, ruefully. He was now going to be forever known as the cat killer of Borden Street.

To be fair, it was an accident. At worst, negligent manslaughter. Catslaughter?

Yes, if Anthony had gotten his car tuned up as he’d been promising himself for weeks, he might have noticed the strange sound emanating from his motor. But a “rowr” sounds an awful lot like a “rawr”, so it was hardly his fault.

Why would a cat crawl on the engine block in the first place? And it’s not like Anthony held its tail against the fan belt.

No. It was a mercy killing. Clearly, living in a house with 17 other cats had taken its toll on Snowball. She had lost the will to live and decided to end her days.

It was Old Lady MacGillvary’s fault. Nobody needs 18…17 cats. A sign of mental defectiveness on a grand scale.

Hell, Anthony was lucky it wasn’t the old woman herself who flung around his engine like a piñata on heroin.

Anthony liked cats. Well, he tolerated them. He’d never killed a cat before. Two dogs, a ferret and a budgerigar, sure, but never a cat.

It was a bad year for pets in his neighbourhood.

As he recalled, the Great Dane was an automotive accident, his hood still bearing the scars, and the chow was proof that you shouldn’t buy electric garden lamps from a guy in a van on the highway.

The ferret shouldn’t have been loose while he mowed the lawn, and why the bird was anywhere near his barbecue while he was using his leaf blower is anyone’s guess.

It had gotten so bad that Anthony had to beg off a trip to the petting zoo with his nephew for fear of dropping a horse on the kid.

You’d think Anthony’s job as a taxidermist would come in handy here, but apparently a stuffed pet is considered poor compensation for a loss.

The point was moot where Snowball was concerned. All the King’s horse and all the King’s men, you know?

Oh well, Anthony shrugged, no use crying over eviscerated Persian. If he took the highway to work, most of the fur would probably fall out and cooked flesh is so much easier to extract from metal.

Anthony turned the motor over, listening for the familiar “rawr”, and then put the car in reverse.


Success Stories


About 10 years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a science writers’ workshop outside Boston. In one of the sessions, the speaker spoke on the risks of anecdotal evidence using the following example:

Dolphins are highly intelligent mammals, but also seem to have an inherent sense of humanity (for lack of a better word) as evidenced by the number of stories where dolphins have saved the lives of stranded sailors and fishermen by pushing them toward shore.

Unfortunately, there is a problem with this conclusion based on this evidence, which I will address later in this post.


In learning the craft of my arts—whether business/marketing, science writing or screenwriting—I have relied on various authors to teach me the benefits of specific approaches. And one of the most popular ways to describe these benefits is through the use of success stories.

My most recent read was The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson, a quite enjoyable book that ties nicely with my current thinking on my Art. (Nothing like rationalizing your own opinions with support from books you know to agree with you—but that’s another blog post.)

As Malcolm Gladwell so deftly does for business endeavours, Robinson weaves his discussion of the cross-over point between talent and passion with numerous success stories, most of which take the form of:

  • Young person faces adversity when she goes against the norm
  • Struggling to find her way, she is marginalized by the local community and authorities
  • Through personal tenacity and/or the support and guidance of a mentor, she blossoms in her Art
  • She is now worth bajillions of dollars and/or helps gazillions of people/animals

Who is Robinson talking about? Paul McCartney, Arianna Huffington, Richard Branson, and several others less famous.

These stories are inspiring and uplifting. Everybody enjoys an “against all odds” story.

Tell the same anecdote about a farm boy on Tatooine and you have Star Wars. An addled boxer in Philadelphia, you have Rocky. An addled boxer in New York, you have Raging Bull. Another addled boxer in New York, you have Cinderella Man. Anyways…

One thing that bothers me about these stories, however, is that they establish a linear relationship between individuality and success (which I can buy) at a success rate of approximately 100% (where it all falls down).

What about the individuals who followed a parallel process and didn’t become Paul McCartney, Richard Branson or Arianna Huffington? Who bucked the trend, stood up for themselves and were run over by society?

Failure is an option, friends. It shouldn’t be glossed over. You can theoretically do everything right and still not achieve the success you were looking for.

Again, I agree with the theses these (wow, that’s an odd juxtaposition) books describe—that following our individual strengths/talents/passions and relying on inner fortitude rather than simply conforming to society’s will is our best chance at happiness as individuals—but I balk at anything that smacks of guarantees or promotes unrealistic expectations of success.

Where is the balance? Where are the cautionary tales?

I don’t think any of the authors set out to perpetrate a scam. They’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes or sell you snake oil. They’re truly trying to inspire people with feel-good stories, which is commendable. Their audiences, however, are typically so full of hope, so looking for a beacon, that they are apt to see these anecdotes through rouge-hued specs and so mistake proof-of-possibility for proof-of-concept.

It’s a case of reader be aspirational but realistic. Your efforts may not work the first time through, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t keep trying.


And the problem with the dolphin anecdote:

We will almost never hear about the times the dolphins pushed the stranded sea-farers further out to sea rather than to shore, because those people probably drowned. Thus, the anecdotal evidence is skewed in favour of success stories.

(Image is the property of its owner and is used here without permission.)