Dear Travel America
I don’t travel. Not to other countries anyway. I prefer to stay local, not just because of the weird food or contaminated water found abroad, although that’s pretty bad. I stay local because I’m terrified of bugs. I know it’s stupid but I was stung by a bee once when I was a little girl and ever since then, I can’t stand even the smallest fly. Everything about bugs is awful. The eerie way they crawl up walls, how the flying ones whip around erratically, swooping within inches of your face, making you do this weird rain dance accompanied by horrific screaming. And forget if you happen to see one while you are using the bathroom or having a shower. There is nothing worse on this Earth than seeing a bug while you’re naked.
Imagine my surprise when I learned one of the world’s most heinous bugs is found right here in America? It’s true. The tarantula hawk, a particularly vicious wasp, lives mostly in South American countries and in India, but they have been sighted as far north as Salt Lake City, Utah!
I know this because I had the unfortunate experience of meeting one. I had traveled out to Salt Lake to visit with my son, Colin, who is doing construction work there while he tries to realize his dream of becoming a world-famous snowboarder. He is very much into nature, so he invited me out on a hike in the mountains nearby. He knows how much I hate bugs so he chose a paved trail for the adventure; maybe you’ve heard of it, the Timpanogos Cave Trail? Supposedly, the trail ends at a wonderful cave that is always about 45 degrees Fahrenheit inside, at least in season, though I never got to feel how cold it was. About three quarters of a mile into our hike, quite a workout, I might add, we were accosted by this terrible tarantula hawk.
It was the largest insect I had ever seen. It must have been two inches long, black, with disgustingly long legs that appear far too large for its body. The thing had giant wings, thick as human skin, and a stinger with a dangerous-looking hook. My son and I had been minding our business talking about when he would marry this girl, Anna he’s been seeing when this atrocity flew out of a tree and landed on my son’s chest. I’ve never been more scared in all my life.
Fortunately, the hell-bug took off when I shrieked. But I was so alarmed by the sight of it that I turned and ran back down the steep trail. In my efforts to get away, I tripped, rolling partway down the mountain, breaking my left arm. The pain was sickening.
Colin managed to get a few young men who were heading down the mountain at the time to help me. They carried me down the rest of the trail, and Colin drove me to the hospital. After the doctors treated my wounds, my ulna, to be exact, and gave me anxiety medication, I flew home, opened my laptop, and learned another terrible thing about the tarantula hawk.
They call it a tarantula hawk because it stings tarantulas, another horrible bug, paralyzing it. Once the spider can’t move, it drags the thing, still alive, back to its nest where it then lays an egg inside the spider’s belly. When you think it can’t get worse, it does. The spider remains alive while the egg hatches and the wasp larvae eat it from the inside out. Pardon my language, but isn’t that fucked up?
You are probably wondering why I am regaling you with this story and the reason is simple: why have you not published an article about this ghastly insect? I’ve been reading Travel America for several years now and never, not ever, did the magazine publish a piece on this insect, or any insect, for that matter. This publication has a responsibility to warn the public about this threat, which, by the way, can deliver one of the most painful stings in the world. According to Wikipedia, this insect is one of only two whose sting ranks a 4.0 on the Schmidt Sting Pain index, second only to the bullet ant. And this thing lives in Salt Lake City.
I doubt that you will print this letter, but please, for the sake of my son Colin, who is forced to live with this atrocious monster, publish an article in your magazine. Together, we can rid the world of the tarantula hawk wasp.
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He smashed his cigarette in the shell-shaped ashtray.
“I could have done great things,” he said.
“Hmm. I’m sure,” she said as she scrubbed the bar with a bar cloth. The cloth was actually a reusable diaper, the great secret of the bar industry. The diapers are far more absorbent than any other cloths, but customers would cringe if they knew.
Her wide-chested customer coughed.
“I would be rich now if they drafted me. I was named MVP of my high school team,” he said, but he wasn’t really talking to her.
“Do you know how many stories like that I hear a day mister?”
It was no use. He was staring at the knotted wood of the bar, watching his final day on the field play out on the waxed surface.
Her own dreams had died; but she never drank gin or smoked. Her dad beat bad habits out of her young. She liked the bar, “Tahiti Express” most of the time. It reminded her about the things she meant to do later, when this phase was over: travel, marry, have some kids. The booze hounds and broken needed her now, especially Jerry, her boss and boyfriend.
It had started out swell. Tonya, her best friend in high school had introduced them. Jerry was tall, thick-haired, and had these eyelashes that swooped off his face. They always reminded her of ski slopes. He’d grab her by the hand in the hallways, push his lips onto hers, pull away and say “catch ya’ later”. It thrilled her. But time had dragged on. Jerry’s flask changed from a cool-kid status symbol to an extension of his right hand after his father died, leaving him the bar. He got a heavy hand with her the fatter he got.
Her ribs ached. Last night had been rough. At least he never hit her in the face, unlike her prick of a father.
But she wouldn’t see the sun rise on the bar tomorrow. The time to move on was now. She had gathered the materials while Jerry slept, gasoline, glass, matches, and old reusable diapers, all stashed in the bed of her pickup truck. She hoped Molotov cocktails actually worked they way they did on TV. She’d give Jerry a real Tahitian experience.
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She fiddled with the wheat penny, heads, tails, heads, tails, as she waited for the doctor to see her. The neighbors had found her father wandering the street again, this time with no shoes. They had called the police, who arrived with a force large enough to take out half the city, all for a shriveled, thin little man with no hair.
She slipped the penny back into her pocket as two police officers approached.
“He said he was goin’ to Verona Beach to see about a girl, Sylvia,” the taller officer said.
“Did he know he was in Minnesota?” she asked.
“Listen lady, we didn’t ask him. And you need to take better care of him. If you can’t do it, you had better put him in a home or something. If we get another call—”
“Great, thanks uhhh Tom” she said, glancing at the officer’s shiny gold name tag. She watched confusion spread across his face and thought Midwesterners really didn’t understand sarcasm.
She went over to the nurse’s station to get away from Tom, who appeared to be patrolling the waiting area.
Her fingers found their way into her pocket, grabbing the penny. Sweat dripped from her palms over Lincoln’s profile and the penny’s two golden wheat fronds. Her father had given it to her when she was seven; he told her it would be worth something someday.
The doctor approached. She rose to her feet, wiping her hand on the inside of her pocket.
“He is pretty confused right now. We want to keep him for a few nights. That’ll give us enough time to treat the injuries to his feet and get him on some better medication, maybe get him lucid. His injuries aren’t bad though, and we expect him to be ready to come home in 72 hours or so.” He said.
She stuck her hand in her pocket and turned the penny furiously.
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I trembled as I raised my glass. I was never good at addressing crowds. The tacky white Christmas lights stretched across every corner of the white canvas party tent blazed down on me. I felt sweat trickling down the small of my back and was struck with fear at the thought that I might have pit stains.
My captive audience had been lured to this event by the choice of either steak or fish. I don’t eat either, but the lovely people at my table, apparently on a diet, chose the new-age fish, curry, and leek dish. The heavy smell burned my eyes. I wondered if the crowd noticed how fast I was blinking.
“I’ve known Billy s-s-s-s-s-since I was six years old,” I stuttered.
“We used to ride big wheels together,” I said, controlling my breath.
“Once, when we were 11, Billy snuck out of his house and knocked on my window. ‘I want to go on an adventure’ he said. So, I climbed out onto the lawn, and we raced down the street together to a small grove of trees at the base of this hill in town. I’m telling you, it was no more than a few hundred feet tall. ‘We’re gonna’ climb this mountain, and when we get to the top, we’re gonna’ build a fort and stay up there forever’ he said. Of course, I was all for this great plan of Billy’s. I figured we might be able to get a Boy Scout badge for it or something. So, we’re climbing this hill, and everything’s goin’ great. We’re pretending we’re belaying up it, real rock climbing adventurers. We get to the top and flop down on the ground. The sky was cloudy, but the moon would peek out now and again, and as we lay there trying to predict when the clouds would move, I realized Billy would always be my best friend. We stayed up there the whole night talking about school, girls, our families.”
Tears streamed down my face. Those people must have thought I was a big sap. I tried to speed up the toast, but it made my stutter worse.
“Billy, I w-w-w-w-w-want you to know that no matter what happens, I will n-n-n-n-never forget that night on the mountain. I’ll always be there for you man; I l-l-l-l-love you.”
A gush of air escaped me as I collapsed back into my seat. Billy stood up and thanked me for my kind words. His knowing eyes told me he understood my promise about what happened on that mountain. Now, I just had to keep it.
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“Honey, I’m just gonna’ run and grab some stuff for a salad. Keep an eye on them?” Vanessa said to Mark, pointing a lethargic finger at Topher and Jasper.
“Hmm, I dunno. I think I can.”
“Just watch ‘em, all right? I’ll be right back,” Vanessa said, sucking her teeth as she walked away.
She left him in the cereal aisle with their two sons, the men of the family, fending for themselves in the modern wild. The boxes, reflecting the fluorescent lights, shone down on them from the shelves like a thousand mini-suns. Jasper, the seven-year-old, picked up a bright yellow box and began reading the labels.
“Daddy, what’s cuh-les-tur-all?”
“Uhh, honestly Jasper, I have no idea. I know you have to have it, but if you have too much, it’s bad for you.”
Jasper plopped the cereal back on the shelf, let out a big sigh, and shocked the world with an “I’m bored”.
“I know Jasper, but we can’t leave yet, Mum’s expecting us to be here.”
Mark knew his wife. She’d get distracted by a brilliantly designed box, and spend awhile staring at it before analyzing the nutritional contents. Undoubtedly, the stuff inside the box would be as healthy as the cardboard it was packed in and she’d set it back with its comrades to wait for a less-cautious buyer.
“Ah, you know what? Let’s try to have a little fun while we wait,” he said.
The boys stared up at him with big eyes and slouched shoulders, waiting for the tribe leader to give further instruction.
“Jasper, go over there to that coupon dispenser and pull a bunch of coupons out. I’ll teach you how to build a whole fleet of mini paper airplanes.”
Mark watched Topher’s bleary eyes examine the shelves. The three-year-old had big fat cheeks, fingers, and thighs. He looked like a cherub from those odd paintings.
Mark sat down on the floor and began folding the coupons like a madman, explaining how to make the pieces of paper aerodynamic.
“Try folding the paper down the middle first. Make sure you really press down or the crease won’t be strong enough,” he said.
Topher wound up making paper balls, but Mark and Jasper’s defter fingers moved with ease, making defined creases in the 50-cents-off promises. The three managed to make 30 planes. Jasper wanted to have a paper plane war, but Mark thought it would be too wild, so they decided to line them up in rows and make them have conversations with each other. They even found a use of the little paper balls, as chairs for the planes and launching pads.
In the middle of a heated exchanged between General Planerson and Private McPlane, a stream of liquid appeared, to the dismay and confusion of the tribe. The cereal aisle didn’t have any liquid products in it. After searching for the source of the puddle, Mark realized Topher had had an accident. He was having so much fun in the cereal aisle he couldn’t make it to the bathroom.
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The chair had seen better days. Worn leather cracking around its curves held up his aging frame. She watched her husband bent over the desk scribbling from the doorway. He had insisted the desk be flush against the windows so he could look out over the yard while he worked. The chair creaked, a sound she knew so well after 30 years of watching him from behind. He used that chair for everything.
In their younger years, she had slipped into the office at night to seduce him, slipping her fingers under his collar until he responded in kind. That old leather chair had seen a lot of action. Squeamish at the sight of blood, he sat there waiting for her sister to call him from the hospital and announce the arrival of their daughters, Sara and Michelle. While she writhed in the agony of labor, she pictured him sitting there, hunched over the desk, smoking in silence, every noise setting him on edge. It comforted her. But those years were long gone now.
The chair used to be like her, vibrant and shiny, but time had wrinkled them both, removing the glossy sheen of youth. She wasn’t sure if he loved her still, but she knew he loved the chair. A new chair was out of the question, too expensive, he claimed, when she tried to replace it with a high-backed ergonomic model a few years ago. She held back her laughter thinking of him in a new chair; he was right, it was impractical. He did everything in that chair, read to his daughters, signed his will, and retired from his job as a computer programmer. The chair had become a part of his body.
She slinked up behind him, just as she had done years ago. She pressed the cold metal barrel up against the back of his head and whispered, “you deserve to die here,” as she pulled the trigger, sending bits of his forehead onto the photograph of him with his secretary at an office party from five years earlier, the daughter he fathered by her clinging to his other arm.
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He leaned back in the lounge chair and sighed. You just have to gain their trust. Most people don’t realize how important trust is until their trust has been violated. But the sharks, the competent ones, they know all along. Trust in the market, trust in relationships, the one who succeeds is the one who can manipulate both.
It hadn’t been quick, getting to this lounge chair. But he was aware. He knew to always question whether the chair would hold his weight. You don’t even need to be smart, just conscious.
He tried to picture what his brother, Tom, was doing back home in California. Tearing his hair out, no doubt. Tom was helpless now. It was a good feeling after everything Tom had put him through when they were growing up, stealing his girlfriends, “borrowing” his money, and ratting him out to their folks when he used to get high behind the middle school. He laughed thinking of how Justine must have shaken when she told him they’d lost everything.
Justine was an only child. Her parents knew something about trust. They’d established a beefy one for their anxiety-ridden daughter. But they hadn’t planned on a shark getting to her once she’d been married off to Tom. It had been so easy, the nervous lily shivering under his advances. She certainly had a wild streak Tom never noticed. All he had to do was get her to trust him enough to liberate herself. The affair had lasted two years before he asked her for the first loan.
“I know I could get Tom to give it to me, but it’s really your money, and you should decide where it goes. Plus, you’re a better decision-maker than he is,” he said.
Touched by his recognition of her intellectual prowess, she handed over a $25,000 check for his Internet start-up.
The rest of his plan executed within six months. Once someone trusts you enough to hand over that first check, you can take it all.
Of course, he had to get her to mistrust her husband. Marks must always feel they have been betrayed; it’s the only way for them to get motivated to change their own circumstances. That was the easiest part. A few falsified bank statements and photos of Tom kissing a strange woman was all it took. She had no way of knowing how old the photos were; seeing Tom kissing his old college girlfriend was enough.
“Hey, get me another one of those rum drinks!” He called in the direction of one of the helpless hotel workers.
The Aruban breeze combed through his hair, caressing his scalp. It was a good day to be a shark.
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Sweaty fingers pushed the keys, each digit exacting a slow and quiet key stroke. Thomas glanced over his shoulder at the thin wooden door separating him from the Christmas party his parents were throwing. Soft music and laughter wafted through the cracks between the door and the jamb. His nine-year-old nerves were ablaze. He wasn’t allowed on the computer without his mother watching the screen. Whatever, it was a stupid rule anyway.
Besides, Mrs. Derek told him he needed to research his Dad if he wanted to write about him for the “Who’s Your Hero” assignment. What better place to get obscure information about his Dad than the Internet?
Mrs. Derek was a nice teacher but he missed his old school and his old friends. They had moved in a hurry. Mom had mumbled something about needing a change of scenery, but Thomas heard the hushed urgent whispers between his parents at night, after they’d sent him to bed.
Something was wrong.
For awhile, he thought they were divorcing. His friends told him that’s how it started for their parents. It was nice to hear them having fun with new friends. They’d been so popular in Illinois.
The screen sent a shocking brilliant white over Thomas’s face while the computer searched, blinding him for a moment as he turned his eyes away from the light. Sweat began dripping down his forehead. The fake wood grain of the particle board desk, scraped in places from the monitor’s base, never appeared as interesting as it did now. He dragged a finger across the deepest gash.
As the results began popping up, Thomas’s eyes flew to the blue hyperlinks. His hand grasped the mouse, caressing the smooth surface as he reviewed the titles of the top websites.
“Michael Hammond, 46, Wanted in Connection with Child Rape Charges,” the first site announced. That couldn’t be his Dad. Thomas sent the cursor to the hyperlink, clicked, and waited for the page to respond.
The headline expanded as the page graphics loaded, and there it was, just under the headline, on the right side of the screen, a photograph of his father in a stark white button-up shirt.
“Douglas County, Illinois. Police are searching for alleged child rapist Michael Hammond after the State’s Attorney’s Office charged him with several felonies this morning, including Predatory Sexual Assault of a Child, following a lengthy investigation.
“We believe Mr. Hammond fled after the alleged victim’s father confronted him about Mr. Hammond’s interactions with his child. The evidence in this case is strong, and we are asking the public to come forward with any information they may have about Mr. Hammond’s whereabouts,” State Attorney Lucas Garrison said outside the Douglas County Courthouse in Tuscola.”
Thomas leaned back against the computer chair. His forehead had stopped sweating, but his stomach churned with unease. His own father, a child rapist? Thomas turned towards the door, jumping as the light shining through the cracks exploded across the room.
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I stomped. My thirst had become overwhelming and the ice block refused to give.
“Can you come over here? I need help with this block of ice.”
Allan lumbered towards me, the distant sun illuminating every muscle fiber and bone in his gaunt face. Allan must have lost fifty pounds. I’m grateful I don’t have a mirror.
We took turns striking the ice block with our worn feet. Weeks of repeating the same action has trained us in the motion. Crunch, Crunch, Crunch, Crunch, neither of us breaks the rhythm to speak.
Allan and I were the last two crewmembers of expedition Juggernaut left alive on the Warren glacier, a frozen hell near the South Pole of Albedo 89. We named the glacier after my girlfriend, Jill Warren. The planet was supposed to be inhabited, but the scientists at home got it wrong. All we found was miles and miles of glacier laced with sulfur, lime, and other impurities. The discovery of the dangerous chemicals in such high amounts came as quite a shock. This was supposed to be a freshwater glacier. Our lives depended on it.
Without the clean ice, we were unable to plant our food seeds. The seeds were an amazing work of science. They needed only one quarter of a cup of soil to produce a plant that could feed us for one week, but they needed a constant supply of clean water, something my crew couldn’t provide. Our water purifiers couldn’t produce enough to grow food; they barely produced enough to drink. MREs had gotten us through the first three months, but those were long gone now, just like Jill.
I shuddered as her dead face came into my mind, forcing me to slam my foot harder into the ice block. I still can’t believe she is gone. Jill and I were the first to copulate on an alien planet. The stress of realizing we would not be able to feed ourselves gave rise to the insatiable need for human contact. I couldn’t resist her.
She had chewed the cyanide tablet each crew member was given just before launch. The antiquated practice gave her an accessible, if unpleasant, way out. Allan found her. The note, clutched in her gloved right hand, informed me that I had impregnated her. She killed herself so we would have more food, only six weeks after we landed.
I struck the ice harder, glancing up at Allan. His face was growing puffy with exertion. I imagined Jill’s face where his actually was, foam bubbling out of her mouth.
Crunch, Crunch, Crunch.
Allan dropped to the ground. But I couldn’t stop myself from working on the ice block. The soothing crunch moved up my spine, driving me to lower my foot again and again.
Crunch, Crunch, Crunch, Crunch.
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