Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"See No Evil" a short story about a regretful vampire - From the Mind of a Writer

See No Evil


Mitchell S. Karnes

            Seventeen year old Antonio Moretti tosses frantically in his bed as he tries to escape his nightmare.  For the past two nights, he has been haunted by a dark shadow that lurks in his dreams.  The shadow has no face to speak of, no name to utter, but it terrifies Antonio with its mere presence.  A chill runs down his spine.  Antonio’s body spasms uncontrollably.  His second story bedroom window rises slowly, making an unnerving screech.  Antonio wakes him from his dream.
            He feels a chilly breeze blowing across his bed and pulls the sheets up around his neck.  He cracks one eye praying to see without being seen.  The curtain moves.  The shadow suddenly appears.  It drifts incorporeally through the cracked window, to the floor of Antonio’s bedroom.  The stranger from his nightmare!  Antonio watches helplessly from the other side of the room, praying it won’t notice him.  He slowly inches the bed sheets upward, pulling them even further toward his face.  The shadowy stranger floats his direction. 
            Antonio realizes the sheets offer no substantial protection from the hideous shadow. He leaps from the bed and rushes to the door.  The bedroom door slams shut and locks itself.  Oh God no!  Antonio tries the door in vain.  He screams and beats on the wooden panel for help.  It’s useless.  His world goes silent…even the pounding of the door makes no noise.  After moments of silent torture, Antonio turns to face the darkened mist.  He is frozen with fear, so terrified of the strange apparition that he cannot move.
            The shadow hovers over him, seemingly fascinated by the boy’s reaction.  The sound of sniffing breaks the silence.  The shadow hovers closer and sniffs him again.  As it descends upon him, it finally takes physical form.  The creature’s mouth opens wide.  Large white fangs appear.  They move closer to Antonio’s neck, and he is paralyzed with fear.  “Not again…please, God, not again.”  Antonio winces as the dagger-like teeth pierce the soft tissue of his neck.  As the blood rushes forth from the wound, the creature bites even harder.  It sucks Antonio’s blood.  All the boy can do is feel.  Blinding pain.  Dizzyness.  Darkness.
            Antonio screams in agony.  He sits up in his bed and looks around the room.  He is alone.  Thank God, it was just a dream.  Antonio wipes his forehead and peels the sheet from his body, slick with sweat.  A cool breeze comes in from the open window.  It feels good on his hot face.  It’s going to be okay.  It was just a dream.  Just a dream.
            Wait a minute.  I know I shut that window before I went to bed.  Antonio scratches his head.  His hand slides down the left side of his neck.  Tentatively, he explores his neck with his fingertips, affirming his fears.  There are two small tender spots.  He examines further with his fingers.  It’s blood.  Antonio’s mind races for a solution other than the obvious.  Nothing else comes to mind.  He’s been bitten.
            He has to know the truth, no matter how horrific.  Antonio forces himself to walk down the long narrow hallway to the bathroom and turns on the light.  At first he sees nothing.  He leans closer and bumps his head against the glass of the mirror.  The only thing he sees is the fog from his breath and the wall behind his head.  He puts his hand to the mirror.  It too has no reflection.  Oh God, it’s true.  I’m already turning.  He falls in despair.  He lies there trembling on the cold, hard tile floor.  Antonio finally forces his body up and walks back down the hall to his bed.  He cries himself asleep.
            The alarm blares.  Antonio jumps up and hits his head on something solid.  He rubs his forehead and wipes his eyes.  For some reason he slept under his bed on the hardwood floor.  He shakes his head, crawls out and reaches for the snooze button. 
            Just as he begins to fall back asleep, the door opens and his mother hollers, “Oh, no you don’t.”  She stomps her foot and puts her hands on her hips.  “You can’t be late for school again.  Antonio Giovanni Moretti, wake up!”  She walks to the window.  “I don’t know how you can stand it so dark.  It’s like a tomb in here.”  She pulls the curtains aside.
            “No!” Antonio screams as he puts his hands over his eyes.  The bright morning sunlight fills the room.  To his surprise, nothing happens.
            “Are you crazy?” she snaps.  “Get up and get goin’.”
            “Thank God, it was a dream.”
            “What was that, Baby?” she asks as she picks clothes up from the floor and puts them in a corner hamper.
            “A…nothing…Momma…what’s for breakfast?       
“By now…cold waffles and eggs.”  She looks at her watch.  “The bus comes in five minutes and I can’t drive you today.”
            “But Momma, I need a shower…I’m all sweaty.”  Antonio smells his armpits, looks at the clock and grabs his body spray.  Throwing on an old t-shirt and his pants, he sprays his entire body with the refreshing fragrance.  “Great.”  He rushes down the stairs, realizes he forgot his backpack and returns to his room to retrieve it.  He notices the open window.  No way.  It’s enough to bring back a sliver of doubt.
            Antonio runs out the front door to catch the bus before it leaves the stop.  He glances up at the sun and smiles.  It wasn’t real.  So what were those little sores?  He touches the two spots on his neck.  The sores are still there.
            The next day, Antonio wakes to the first morning alarm.  He looks out the window at the overcast day and goes to the shower.  He turns the water temperature up as hot as he can stand.  He still can’t shake the cold that has seeped deep into his bones.  He finally turns off the water and dries off with a thick white towel.  He wraps it around his waist and runs hot water in the sink.  He lathers his chin and face with shaving cream.  Antonio lifts the razor to his chin and wipes the foggy mirror with his other hand.  The razor drops to the sink.  It rests under the flow of hot water.  It is true.
            Later that afternoon Antonio hops off the bus, completely famished.  How can I be so hungry?  I ate three helpings at lunch.  He enters his house and rushes to the kitchen to grab a snack.  “Not until you clean your room,” his mother says from the corner of the kitchen.
“But Momma, I’m starving.”
“I don’t care.  Clean your room and then you can eat.”
He rushes up the stairs in a huff.  The room is a mess.  I thought Momma just cleaned this up.  He tosses dirty clothes toward the hamper.  Antonio grabs his aluminum baseball bat by the barrel to put it away.  It crushes under his grip.  What the hell?  What’s happening to me?  He tosses the bat under his bed and picks up the rest of his mess. 
As soon as his room is clean, Antonio bolts down the steps and into the kitchen.  He grabs an entire packet of lunch meat and gnaws on it like a wild animal.  His mother shakes her head and says, “Teenagers.”  She shoos him out of the kitchen.
Even though he ate less than thirty minutes ago, Antonio is still hungry.  He keeps craving meat, and yet it ceases to fill him.  Just as he is about to go back downstairs to get something else to eat, his mother yells from the kitchen, “Supper.”
I could eat a horse.  Antonio rushes down the stairs and jumps the final four steps in one leap.  Instead of landing with a thud like he always has, Antonio’s body floats to the floor.  He lands lightly on his feet.  Oh God no. 
“Come on, Baby.  I made your favorite…lasagna.”
“Thanks, Momma.”  Antonio takes his seat and bows his head.
Momma says, “Bless us, O Lord! And these Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty, through Christ our Lord.” 
They both say, “Amen.”
Antonio begins to feel queasy and covers his mouth as Momma scoops a huge helping of lasagna on his plate.  He is suddenly and violently repelled by the overwhelming odor of the spices.  His nostrils burn as if he had just inhaled fire.  He suddenly excuses himself.  He runs up the steps to the bathroom.  He puts his head under the tub faucet and flushes the sting of the garlic from his nose with cold water.  He gags with the surge of water, but continues to flush the spices from his nose. 
“Antonio, Baby, what’s wrong?” Momma asks from the door of the bathroom door.
He turns the faucet off, grabs a towel and dries his face.  “Nothing, Mamma.  I just got sick to my stomach is all.”  He stands and looks in the mirror.  Nothing but he wall behind his head.  This isn’t happening to me.  This crap only happens in the movies. 
“Oh, Baby, I’m so sorry…and this is your favorite meal.”  She trudges down the stairs and eats supper alone.
As soon as his mother is gone, Antonio puts his hand on the mirror and confirms his fears.  He touches the glass.  He sees the back of his hand but no reflection.  He runs to his room and locks the door.  He locks the window and pulls the curtains to.  He lies down and falls asleep. 
That night, his dreams change.  Antonio opens the window and pulls the curtains aside.  He looks up at the moon and smiles.  As he looks down, he notices the landscape changing…moving underneath him.  He’s flying.  What a rush.  The trees disappear beneath him.  He counts the blocks as he passes over.  Then he quickly descends.  His body lights upon the ground silently.  He sniffs the air and smiles.
“Wasn’t that Superman guy hot?” one teenager asks her friends.  They all giggle.
“Oh, and that one scene,” a second girl adds, “when the fire burns off his shirt.  OMG.”
The three laugh so hard they don’t notice the dark figure behind them. 
The first girl says, “Oh, I’d marry him in a heartbeat.”
“He’s to die for,” the third one adds.  She sees something move in the corner of her eye.  It’s too late.  Antonio engulfs her in darkness and silence.  He covers her mouth with his hand and bends her head to the side.  He bares his fangs.  The razor sharp teeth plunge deep into the soft white flesh of her neck.  He sucks the hot pulsing blood from the holes until there is no more.  Antonio gently sets the limp body down.
“Okay.”  The first girl asks, “Who’s hotter, Orlando Bloom or Superman?”
“OMG it has to be Superman.”  Just as she finishes the sentence, she too is enveloped in darkness.  Antonio drains her body as well.
“Well,” she says as she stops.  “What about you, Lydia?”  The darkness takes her before she can even turn to see it. 
Engorged with blood, Antonio takes flight and returns to his home.
The alarm blares.  He sits up and bangs his head on the bottom of the bed.  Again?  He climbs out and turns off the alarm.  He showers and brushes his teeth.  This time he doesn’t bother to look up.
He heads down to the kitchen.  Momma left a note.  “I have to work a double shift today, so I won’t be home until tomorrow around noon.  There’s food in the fridge.  Call me if you need me.  Love Momma.”
Antonio turns the television on and grabs the cereal and milk.  A special news report cuts into his Saturday morning show.  “We interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you this special report.  Early this morning the bodies of three local girls were found at the corner of Sycamore and Elm.  Each girl’s neck was bitten and her body completely drained of blood.  You heard me right, people.  They were discovered bitten on the necks and drained of their blood.”
Oh, God, please no!  You can’t let me be a…
Antonio’s cell rings.  He answers it.  “Hey, Tony, are you watching the news?”
“Isn’t that awesome?” his friend says with excitement.  “It’s like Twilight in the flesh, Tony.”
“Yeah, Drake, just like Twilight.”  Antonio half listens as he focuses on the news report.  Everything is just like his dream.  “Just like Twilight.”  Except I’m the vampire.  “Hey, Drake, I gotta go.  I’m sick.”  Antonio runs up the stairs, just in time to make it to the commode.  He vomits pink liquid.  The second time he vomits it’s all red.
Even though it is only eleven-thirty in the morning, Antonio forces himself to sleep.  He hopes this might just be another dream within a dream.  He hopes he might wake and see that it wasn’t real at all.  But his dreams are wild and dark.  He wakes the next morning feeling even sicker than the day before.  His stomach is bloated and nauseated.  Feeling the sickness coming on, he rushes to the bathroom and vomits until there’s nothing by dry heaves.  Relieved from the pressure and nausea, Antonio wipes his mouth and notices the blood stains on the toilet paper.  He really doesn’t want to, but Antonio looks down into the water…it too is red…red with blood!
Antonio drags himself back to his room and flips on the television.  “Once again tragedy strikes Windy Cove as yet two more young women die at the hands of a mysterious killer.”  Antonio listens to the details.  Another girl’s throat was punctured and her body drained of blood.”
His phone rings.  “Hey, Tony.”
“Not now, Drake.”
“Come on, man.  This happened two blocks down.  This is too creepy, Tony.”
“I know…”  Drake starts to laugh and says something about a Bloody Mary drink.  “It’s not funny.”
They don’t talk long.  Antonio has other things on his mind.  Thank God it’s Sunday!  Antonio stays in his room most of the day, searching the internet about vampires, trying to sort fact from fiction.  It’s all supposed to be fiction, he thinks.  Getting hungry, Antonio goes downstairs to see what Momma is making.  “Momma, what’s for lunch?”  He looks in the kitchen, but she’s not there.  “Momma?”  Just then he sniffs the air and follows his nose around the corner to the counter top near the sink.  Before Antonio realizes it, he is face first in the raw ground beef, licking the blood from the bottom of the Styrofoam tray.
“Sei pazzo?” Momma screams as she enters the kitchen from the back porch.
Antonio stops, looks up, and realizes what he is doing.  “Sorry, Momma.”
“Sorry, Momma?  Sorry, Momma?” she screams.  “Sei pazzo?”
Antonio wipes the blood from his chin and face and runs back upstairs.  His mother says several derogatory things in Italian about teenagers and their craziness.  She throws the meat away.  As she curses Antonio in Italian, Momma takes cold luncheon meat out of the fridge.  She throws it and some bread on the table. 
Antonio is so embarrassed that he stays in his room through lunch, and his mother is so angry she lets him stay there.  For the rest of the day, she doesn’t speak a word in English.  Around seven that night, Susan texts Antonio and asks where he is.  He realizes he was supposed to have been at her house thirty minutes ago to take her to the movie.  He texts that he is on his way and climbs out the window.  Working his way down the trellis with ease, Antonio is surprised that his acrophobia isn’t bothering him in the least.  He runs to Susan’s house, apologizes for being late, and walks her the final two and a half blocks to the movie theater on Main Street.  He’s amazed at how well he can see everything in the dark…and how easily he is able to tell who and what is near simply by the smell.  He feels great!
They enter the theater, get their cokes and popcorn and take seats near the back of the darkened auditorium.  Susan relaxes as soon as she realizes all they missed were commercials and previews.  Antonio smiles, puts his arm around Susan and allows her to snuggle close.  About half way through the movie, Susan turns and kisses his neck.  The hairs on his neck and back stand on end.  She uses her tongue to tickle him, moving it in tiny circles near his ear.  Antonio finds himself getting highly aroused, but not in the way teenage boy would.  He hears her heart beating faster.  He can smell the blood flowing through her veins.  And as he leans over to kiss her neck, he feels the sudden rise and sharpness of teeth…canine teeth!
“I gotta go,” he says and runs to the restroom.
Susan smiles, thinking she’s turned him on.  If she only knew how…
Antonio barges through the men’s restroom door and splashes cold water in his face.  He feels for the teeth, confirming his fears and looks in the mirror.  Nothing.  Of course not.  He says, “Idiot!”
“What’d you say?” a gruff old man asks as he flushes the toilet and staggers out of his stall.  He reeks of alcohol.  His body odor is so strong, it nauseates Antonio.  The man threatens Antonio and comes at him.  Angered and full of fear, Antonio shoves him, knocking the old man into and through the metal stall divider.  It was a simple push.  Yet it was so forceful and destructive.
Antonio rushes out of the bathroom and through the theater lobby, running as far and as fast as his legs will take him.  He suddenly finds himself in the neighboring town, twelve miles away.  What in the name of God is happening to me?
Antonio wakes to the burning bright light sneaking through the cracks of the blinds.  Once again the night’s events are a blur to him.  He rises and thumps his head on the underside of his bed.  He slept under the bed on the cold hardwood floor again.  Why is this happening to me?
He slips out from under the bed, shielding his eyes from the light.  He wipes his mouth with his sleeve.  It is covered with blood.  As Antonio hesitantly looks down, he realizes his shirt is also stained with fresh blood.  He looks at the clock and realizes it’s already after ten.  Thank God it’s Memorial Day.  Reluctantly he grabs the television remote and flips past the multitude of talk shows until he finds the local morning news.  Oh, God, no…not again!
His cell phone rings.  “Yeah,” Antonio half answers, trying desperately to focus on the news report of the sixth victim.
“Tony, did you hear me?  Man, it happened again…this time in Bayville.”
Bayville?  That’s where I ran to last night.  But I don’t remember anything.  Not even a dream.
“Tony, did you hear?”
“Yeah, I heard.”
“Hey, man, you better talk to Susan.  She’s pissed.  You left her hanging at the movies last night.  And with all these strange killings going on, she’s really upset you made her walk home alone.” 
Drake is so busy talking that he doesn’t hear Antonio’s repeated confession.  Finally, Antonio shouts, “Drake, it’s me!”  Antonio pauses for Drake’s reaction, but hears nothing.  “Did you hear me, Drake?”
“I heard, you.  You serious?”
“Yeah, man.  Cross my heart.”  Antonio looks into his wall mirror.  Again no reflection. 
“Seriously man, where where’d you go last night?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, O, it’s me.  You got another girl on the side or something?”  Antonio looks at the call trying to come through and ignores it.  Drake continues, “Susan came by your house and talked to your mom.  They couldn’t find you anywhere.”
“She came here?”  Antonio finally notices the note slid under the bedroom door.  It is from his mother telling him she has gone to work and wants to talk when she gets home.  Suddenly Antonio’s face turns deathly white…his voice becomes a shaky whisper.  “Drake, do me a favor?”
“Anything, man.”  Drake’s phone buzzes.  He puts Antonio on speaker and reads the incoming text.
“Tell Susan I love her.”
“Tell her yourself, man.  She’s heading over to your house now.”
“What?”  She can’t!  “Oh God, Drake, I got to do something before I lose my nerve.”  Antonio turns the chair over on its side.  He grabs the leg and rips it off with ease.  He picks up the wooden chair leg and examines the rounded bottom and the jagged, splintered top.  Perfect!
“What was that, Tony?” 
“Drake, you got to tell her…”
“Tell her what?”
“Tell her I am the vampire…”  After a long moment of silence, Antonio says, “Drake, have you heard a single thing I’ve said?  Man, it’s me.” 
“Don’t be stupid.”  Then it hits Drake.  “Wait, Tony.  Don’t you dare.”
“I have to before I hurt anybody else…especially you or Susan.  Please, Drake, don’t try to stop me.”  He drops the phone, takes the broken leg and heads down the stairs. 
Drake runs as fast as he can to Antonio’s house.  On the way, he passes Susan.  He stops, grabs her by the arm and tells her what Antonio thinks is happening.  They rush to the house.  The door is locked.  Drake kicks on the door.  “It looks so easy in the movies,” he says as his kick does nothing.  He kicks again and again.  It finally splinters open. 
They search desperately for their friend.  “Antonio, baby, where are you?” Susan yells as she rushes up the stairs to his room.  The broken chair lies splintered upon the floor.  The curtains torn from their rod.  The sheets thrown from his bed.  “Antonio!” Susan screams.
Antonio hears the commotion upstairs and knows it is his friends coming to stop him.  He
tries to plunge the stake into his heart, but can’t.  He kneels before the antique full body mirror and cries.  He looks up one more time to confirm once again that he has no reflection. 
“The basement,” Drake says and rushes out of the room.  They pass Antonio’s mother as she is coming up the steps to see if Antonio ever came home.  Susan and Drake jump to the landing, grab the railing knob, and spin around the corner.  Drake runs down the hall to the open basement door.  “Tony, don’t do it, man!” Drake yells as he rattles down the steps.
Susan prays as she follows Drake down the stairs.  “Please, God, don’t let him die like this.” 
Antonio can smell them.  He can hear the pumping of their hearts.  The hunger builds.  He’s torn.  His body hungers for their flesh, but his heart cannot bear to harm them.  He holds the broken leg of the chair in both hands and whispers a prayer.  “God, if You can hear me, forgive me.  Forgive me for killing those girls.  Forgive me for ignoring You.  Please, God, give me the courage and strength to end it now before it’s too late.”
            As Drake hits the bottom step.  He looks left and then right.  He calls out, “Antonio, stop.  You don’t know for sure.  It can’t be you.”  He sees Antonio’s reflection in the mirror as he rounds the end of the stairs and screams, “Stop!”  But he’s too late. 
“Sorry.”  Antonio lowers his head and thrusts the wooden stake deep into his chest.
“No!” Susan cries.  She falls to her knees and whispers, “I love you.”
Drake stops dead in his tracks.  He watches helplessly as the wooden stake erupts through the back of Antonio’s blood stained shirt.  They are too late to stop him.  Antonio Moretti falls to the cold hard cement floor…a wooden stake straight through his heart. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

Inspiring Dad and Kids on a New York Subway - From the Strength of a Family

When I first came to New York on my 6 week sabbatical as a pastor needing to refresh, renew, and revitalize, I was looking forward to everything except the subway.  To be honest, I was terrified of the experience.  Everything I knew about the subway was gained from movies I'd seen and tales I had heard.  Most of that was negative.  And my very first subway ride was at night, as I rode 65 blocks to the Manhattan Writers Den.

Well, other than a few isolated incidents in my 6 weeks, the subway has been very tame and very calm.  One strange thing I noticed very early in my subway rides...most people isolate themselves.  They hide behind sunglasses and earbuds/earphones.  Very few interact.  There seems to be an imaginary wall built up for protection.  Few interact...fewer smile.

Yesterday, on our way to the Brooklyn Tabernacle, that all changed.  A father and his four children (pictured above) got on the F train at one of our stops.  The two older girls turned to each other and began a hand clapping game.  They giggled and sang and clapped.  There was such joy in these children that the people seated or standing immediately next to them began to smile.  Suddenly, that smile turned to laughter.  It was infectious.  All the way down that train car, heads began to turn and faces broke smiles.  The children softened the atmosphere and lit up our train car.

But that's not all I want to share.  This family got off with us and walked the block from the subway station to the Brooklyn Tabernacle.  This father was taking his four children to church.  As a pastor, I was inspired, amazed and thrilled.  I can't tell you the number of mothers who bring their children and attend church without the husbands/fathers.  The statistics are astronomical.  But this father was taking a stand...leading his children...showing them that God was important...church was important...they were important.  

I had to stop and congratulate this man and his family for their gift to me yesterday.  I asked if I could take their picture for my blog, and as you see above, they complied.  Kudos!  Men of the world, stand up, lead your families...teach them not only in word, but in deed.

From the Strength of a Family

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Rapport is the Key - From the Heart of a Teacher

There's a saying I used to have on the walls of my office and our church.  I wish I knew who first said it so I could acknowledge the author, but I don't.  It is the key to teaching and leading.  I'll share it in just a minute.  First, let me pass on the sage advice of a mentor I had when I first started teaching.  Ron told me, "Mitchell, you don't teach English."

Being the hot-shot, rookie know-it-all that I was, I quickly interrupted him and said, "Yes, I do."

He just smiled and said.  "No, you teach students.  You hope, with your best efforts, they will learn the subject of English.  But always remember, you teach people."

It took a year or two for that to really sink in, but it finally did.  Now, many years later, I have taken that advice to heart and wish to pass it on to you.  As teachers we must always remember that we teach individuals.  They don't come to us, open up their skulls and say, please fill me.  No, they walk through our doors and challenge us to make them want to learn.  Especially the middle and high school students that I taught.

That's where the saying I .posted comes into play.  It says, "They don't care how much you know until they know how much you care."  Remember that.  Sometimes we get all hung up in the lesson plan, the content, and the methodology, but we forget the most important part of teaching...human interaction.  Take time to know your students, discover their passions and fears, figure out their learning styles, and realize that this interaction is not a one way street.  We have the opportunity to learn as much from them as they from us.

That's it for today.  Build rapport with your students by building relationships with them.  I'm not telling you to be their friends.  But I am saying care...care about them and they will care about you.  When that happens, they will want to hear what you have to say...even if it is about English.

This past month, as I said in the previous blog, I reconnected with two former 8th grade students.  We had meals and discussions together.  They met my family.  We shared, and they told my daughter, "Your dad was the best teacher I ever had."  I assure you it wasn't because I knew more about literature and grammar than anyone else.  It was because I took the time to connect...sixteen years ago and today.

From the Heart of a Teacher

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Qualifying Credentials - From the Heart of a Teacher

We've all read advice columns and books on teaching.  Some are worth our time...many are not.  What gives the person the right to pass on sage advice?  What makes him or her the expert?  Experience, knowledge, and success.  I'm not so sure I'm the expert, but I do have experience, knowledge and past success as a teacher.  Let me briefly share a synopsis of my credentials and then you can decide whether it's worth your time to continue reading.  If not, no harm done.  If so, I hope a few of my hard-earned nuggets will help you become a better teacher...no matter what the environment.

I said experience was part of what makes a good teacher.  I taught English in the middle and high schools (8th grade - sophomore) for eight years.  I also have over twenty years of ministry experience teaching and working with all ages (preschool, children, youth, young adult, adult, and senior adult).  In addition to that, I have seven children of my own.  Teaching can be done on every front and in many different ways.  This is the "Reader's Digest" version of my experience, but I think it helps to qualify me.

Secondly, I listed knowledge as a key qualifier of teaching.  Now, before I lose you, let me say this.  I have known a lot of knowledgeable people who couldn't teach a single person.  Knowledge in and of itself does not make a teacher, but without it, what could we teach?  Now, back to my qualifications.  I have a BA in English, a MA in Christian Education, a MEd in Education, and a MA in Counseling.  Yes, that makes three masters degrees.  I love to learn.  I agree with my father when he said, "The day I stop learning is the day I die."  I am a committed life-long learner.  I have learned a lot and amassed a wealth of knowledge.  Do I know it all?  No!  Only God knows it all.  In fact, the more I learn, the more I realize I don't know.  But, with that said, I do believe I have learned enough to pass on a few thoughts here and there.

Thirdly, I believe some sort of success should follow a great teacher.  Not that awards are everything...they're not...but in my last two years of teaching English at Battle Ground Academy in Franklin, TN, I was honored with back to back awards.  I received both "The Golden Apple" (for excellence in teaching) and "The Second Mile" (for going above and beyond the call of duty).  Those are measurable successes.  But those aren't the most important measures of success.  I recently reunited with two former students who told my daughter, "Your dad was the best teacher I ever had.  I mean it."  They went on to tell her specific things I did as their eighth grade teacher that have remained in their minds and hearts.  These women are both thirty now.  Sixteen years later and they still remember many of my lessons.  That, to me, is the true measure of a teacher's success.

I believe these three characteristics qualify me to share with and mentor teachers of all ages at all stages of their journey.  If you agree, then I invite you to follow my blog.  Look specifically for those posts that apply to teachers.  You'll note that each has the tag "From the Heart of a Teacher."  Upcoming posts will include such topics as "Building Rapport," "Individualizing the Lesson," and "Grabbing the Student's Attention."  Thanks for reading, and welcome to The Innerside.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

"When Nothing Else Matters" - From the Mind of the Writer

Welcome to the Innerside.  Today I am sharing the first short story I ever published.  I wrote it when I was 20 years of age.  I was supposed to turn in a short story for a fiction writing class, but nothing came to mind.  So, with a blank page and an equally blank mind, I was easily convinced to play basketball with some friends.  In the process of driving for a layup, someone stepped in front of me and hyper-extended my knee.  This was in the day when I was an avid comicbook collector (and reader).  Anyway, I was lying in my dorm room with my knee wrapped and propped up, and I said, "Here I am, twenty years old, and my days as a superhero are over."  I was just kidding, obviously, but my roommate leaned over and said, "Great idea; write it."

Here is the short story that came from that moment.  It's tongue in cheek satire with moments of heart-felt seriousness.  I hope you enjoy.  If you have time afterwards, let me know what you thought and what you might have changed.  Thanks.

When Nothing Else Matters
Mitchell S Karnes

            Here I am, twenty years old, and my days as a superhero are over.  I’ve just had knee replacement surgery after a horrible fight.  Well, I’m getting a little ahead of myself.  Let me go back to the beginning of my tale.
            I read comics.  I’ve read them ever since I was a kid, and like most kids, I fantasized about becoming a superhero.  I thought life would be easy for a superhero … you know what I mean?
            Was I ever wrong.  At least I was also lucky.  Not to be self-centered or anything, but God blessed me with numerous abilities, and while growing up I tried to use all of them.  I was on the swimming team until I thought gymnastics was more fun.  Gymnastics gave me the illusion of having superpowers, pulling off fantastic stunts while vanquishing my foes.  I know, I know.  Well, I said I read a lot of comics.  Anyway, the vault horse became the wall, separating me from my enemies.  I would charge it fearlessly as it attempted to hide the bad guys.  Then I would dive forward, plant my hands firmly upon the top of the wall, and tuck into a ball, so as to make a smaller target.  I would effortlessly flip over the imaginary wall and open out of my tuck in time to land feet first.  Of course, once I landed, my enemies had no choice but to surrender.
            I stayed with gymnastics for about two years, and then went on to play football, basketball and soccer, “like normal boys,” as my mom would say.  Throughout everything I did, one—well, two things played a big part.  The first was an uncommon dexterity, a catlike agility with a knack of always landing on my feet.  The other was luck.  If you ever wish for any gift, ask for luck – it makes up for everything else.
            I got older, but the desire to become a comic book hero never diminished.  In fact, it only got stronger.  Superheroes never got pushed around.  Well, at least they never let the bad guy get away with it.  Too many people just ignore what happens in the world until it affects them directly; that’s the problem with our society today.  Just the thought of apathy nauseates me.  I knew if I ever became a superhero, I’d make people think twice before committing a crime in my jurisdiction.  The criminals I caught wouldn’t dare attempt their evil deeds again.  I would make it safe to go outside at night.  The people on the side of the law would love me, while those who broke the law would learn to fear me.  I could do it all if I only had super powers.  I was so shallow…so na├»ve.  Of course that’s when I thought the powers made the hero.
            A few weeks before my seventeenth birthday, I rented an old movie about an out-of-work actor who got a job promoting a movie about a superhero.  I think it was called, Hero at Large.  After work one night, while still wearing the outfit, he foiled an attempted robbery.  Once he heard the reaction of the people, about the hope they now had, he decided to continue playing the hero.  That’s what really inspired me!  He was an ordinary guy who cared enough to sacrifice everything, just to give people hope and faith, something to inspire action.  It was then that I realized it was not the powers, but the man who made the hero.
            I began my vigilant workouts, not only for strength, but for agility and balance as well.  Balance and agility are just as important to a superhero in training.  I took a job as a night janitor for the local gymnastics club, so I could have access to all of their equipment.  I focused most of my time on the uneven bars and the vault horse.  I figured they would help the most.  Within a few months, I was an incredible tumbler, even if I do say so myself.  I also spent time in the kick-boxing room, where I practiced my fighting techniques on the heavy bags.  After about six months, I combined both my acrobatics and fighting techniques to become an unstoppable assault machine.  The only weapon I used, besides by body, was a sand-filled, leather blackjack.  I used it only at a distance, mostly on fleeing criminals.
            After nearly a full year of workout and planning, I was ready for action.  For the protection of my friends and family, I created a name and a costume to keep my identity a secret.  My sister, God rest her soul, designed and made my first outfit.  It was a skin tight, yet well insulated, black and blue one-piece costume, especially padded near the more precious areas.  It had enough stretch so as not to hinder my movements.  I know, good guys are supposed to wear white; well, not if they’re smart.  Of course I wore a matching mask.  What dummy can’t see that Clark Kent is really Superman?  I had a cape at first, but quickly learned that was a mistake.  While doing a routine vault, I got tangled up in it and suffered a mild concussion when my head hit the ground.  I also learned, by experience, that successive tumbling in a cape can quickly lead to strangulation, not to mention an abrupt introduction to the first solid object encountered.  So, the cape was out.  By the way, have you ever wondered what the cape was for?  I have.  Anyway, back to my story.  For my name, I began with “The Bruiser,” being black and blue and all, but it didn’t sound much like a hero.  The name carried too many negative connotations.  What was my purpose?  To defend the defenseless, so I naturally called myself, “Captain Defender.”  I know.  Well, I never said I had good taste.
            Unlike most superheroes you read about, I have a tendency to brag, so I wanted to tell a few trusted friends, but for the safety of the others, I told only my sister, Lynn.  You’d be surprised how difficult it is to keep that kind of secret.  Originally, I told my sister the outfit was for a costume party and I had the chance to win fifty bucks.  She had her doubts about the contest, but never questioned me openly.  Lynn taught me to do almost everything when I was little, which is why we were so close.  It was strange.  We shared a special bond; I could always confide in her.  Why didn’t I tell my parents?  My father had too many other things to worry about, and my mother already worried too much as it was.  She had these morbid dreams about my getting seriously hurt or dying in bad accidents. 
            Finally the time came for the much anticipated night patrolling.  Talk about boring, nothing ever happens in Carbondale.  It wasn’t until the end of my third week of patrolling that I finally got my chance to save someone.  At seven o’clock, when I finished supper, I went to my room and put my costume and blackjack in the gym bag.  I told my parents that I was going to work out before I cleaned the gym.  Living in the country made it easier to change into my outfit without being seen.  Parking my car about a mile from town, I changed my clothes and hid the car keys.  I didn’t even need a phone booth; they’re almost impossible to change in anyways…and nearly as impossible to find these days.
            I worked my way through the darker area of town as I headed for the university campus.  I hid behind bushes and in shadows as I patrolled my route.  I was crawling behind this retaining wall with a row of tall hedges in front of it when I heard a scream.  I nearly wet my pants.  But, being the hero I was, I quickly regrouped, scanned the area, and pinpointed the source of the problem.  Some guy had just nabbed this woman’s purse.  Remember what I said about luck?  This time mine was working overtime.  The man was running my way.  He even ran parallel with the hedges in front of me.  I calculated his speed and said a quick prayer.  Running towards the wall at an angle, I planted one foot on top of it and dove over the hedges.  Perfect!
            I landed right on top of my unsuspecting foe, sending us both tumbling to the sidewalk.  I rolled forward and hopped to my feet.  He didn’t get up as quickly.  As he shook his head and looked up to see what had hit him, he said hello to my foot and the world of unconsciousness.  Before I knew it, it was over.  My first attempt as a hero was a success.  What a rush!
            The lady, I think she was a professor, came over to me sheepishly, thanked me, and began to ask a barrage of questions.  I gave her the purse, instructed her to call the police, and told her my hero name.  As soon as I tied the robber’s arms behind his back, I left.
            The next morning the news was streaming over every local radio and television station.  The woman told the entire story – at least she told her version.  Get this:  she said, “A man stole my purse as I was walking to my car.  As he ran away, I screamed for help.  Out of nowhere, a man swooped down from the sky, tackling the thief and knocking him out.  When I went to get my purse,” she continued, “he kissed me and told me his name.  He calls himself the Champion.  He told me to call the police, and then he flew off.” 
            A kissing hero?  The Champion?  So much for “Captain Defender.”  Oh, yeah, and I just learned – I can fly.  People are never satisfied with the truth.  You want to know something else?  There were even some freaks who came forward that night to confess – as the Champion!  That really pissed me off.
            Months passed.  I graduated from high school and continued patrolling through the summer, when I wasn’t working.  I didn’t realize how big of a reputation I had made until I heard a national newscast.  The reporter said, “In the small Southern Illinois town of Carbondale, a superhero’s presence has been alleged.  If there really is such a hero, why doesn’t he go someplace where he’s really needed, like Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles?  The main question is,” the reporter taunted, “is there such a hero or is this another small town’s way of gaining some cheap publicity?  Is this hero for real, or do we have another Area 51, Lochness monster, or Bigfoot?  Champion, if you do exist, why not show yourself to some real competition?”  They couldn’t leave well enough alone.
            Near the end of the summer, Carbondale was introduced to some major league crime…kidnapping.  A rich man’s son was abducted at a crowded restaurant without any opposition.  The three men and their driver all got away without even the slightest challenge.  I decided that I would find them while the police waited for the ransom call.  I relied on every bit of instinct and luck I could muster.
            All of the old gangster movies I had ever seen were coming to mind.  I just prayed they had seen them and knew their prospective roles.  I went around the outskirts of town, checking every abandoned house and barn I could find, until Bingo!  Light was coming from a house on the old coal mine road.  I snuck around, checking everywhere, before I made my plan.  I looked in every window, counting only five people, four men and the boy.  Of the four men, one was watching a portable television, two were playing cards, and the one remaining man was pacing back and forth, checking his watch.  A plan was born.
            The old “draw one outside trick” was my first objective.  I climbed into a nearby sycamore tree, and dropped a big rock by the door.  Boy, were they suckers.  The one who was pacing earlier came out to investigate the noise.  He took a few steps outside, and then turned to walk back.  I jumped.  With both feet landing on his shoulders, I leaned forward and rolled into the house.  Getting up quickly, I let the blackjack fly, hitting a man with a gun right in the bridge of his nose.  I kicked the back of the chair as one of the two remaining men attempted to rise.  The blow knocked him face forward into the edge of the table.  He was out.  One left.
            He had a butterfly knife in his hand, and by the way he was flipping it around, I could tell he knew how to use it.  This was my first real face to face combat, my first true test.  I had lost any element of surprise.  I let him come, standing as confidently as I could, taking a pose of a true superhero with my hands in fists at my hips.  It actually worked.  If anything, I had fear on my side.  I could see it in his eyes.  He finally charged me.  As he did, I spun sideways and fell back, placing my feet on his kneecaps.  SNAP!  I had never heard anything like it.  It was sickening.  He was out of action.  I stood and raised my hands in the air.  Victory!  “Bang!”
            I spun around just in time to see a man falling toward me.  It was the one I had attacked with the blackjack.  I had forgotten all about him.  The kid didn’t; he shot him in the back of his head.  They had just untied boy, allowing him to use the bathroom when I came in.  We were even.
            Together we tied up the men and loaded them in the back of their minivan.  I drove them to the emergency room at the hospital, found the nearest police officer, said goodbye to the kid, and left with their car.  I abandoned it back at the house where I found it and took my own car home.  I called the police with additional details, such as the directions to the hideout.
            Summer was soon over and I was on my way to Nashville.  “Look out crime, here I come,” I thought as I headed down I-24.  I decided to go to an emerging music business school in Nashville, Tennessee to double major in music production and marketing.  This way I could accomplish two goals.  My parents couldn’t argue that Nashville wasn’t the closest place for music and music business, and I could also try The Champion out in a bigger city.  I know Nashville isn’t Chicago, New York or L.A., but to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t ready for those places quite yet.
            Before I tried anything in costume, I walked around, familiarizing myself with the city.  I noticed the flow of the crowds down Second Avenue and the Riverfront areas, as well as Broadway.  I learned the ins and outs of alleyways and where the major streets connected.  Then I spent several nights and weekends watching night court, studying the areas of highest concern.  About the fourth week I was there, I finally took action down on the Riverfront area.  It was a simple attempted mugging, but it was a good start for the Champion.  I quickly overpowered the young man and tied him up for the police.  Nashville wasn’t Carbondale by any stretch of the imagination.  Every night I patrolled after that led to an encounter of some kind.  I didn’t always apprehend all of the criminals I fought, but I always arrived to save the victim in the proverbial nick of time.  I got bruised and cut, but I was a good Champion; no, I was the best.  I fought and I fought hard.  I was getting quicker and stronger and more confident. 
            I lost count of the number of people I put in the hospital…or jail for that matter.  I still hear their taunts.  Some swear they’ll get me, that they’ll get even, but a few have thanked me for opening their eyes before it was too late.  I eventually earned the respect of the citizens of Nashville; they loved me.  If they didn’t, I’d probably be in jail myself.  According to the news reports, I carried an illegal weapon, and am what they call a vigilante.  That means I take the law into my own hands.  Somebody has to!  Anyway, even the press won’t mess with me now that my heroism has been established properly.  Of course you probably know what they say about pride and the fall.  I learned it the hard way.
            One Friday night I had just taken my date home.  It was then that my luck finally ran out.  I was driving back to the dorm when I saw three guys forcing a young dark haired woman into an alley.  I pulled into the next alley and got out.  Great!  I was so preoccupied with my date that I had left my outfit back in the dorm.  There wasn’t any choice.  The woman’s safety had to take precedence over my secret identity.  I thought if I made a head on attack, they would just think I was a concerned citizen, a Champion want-to-be.
            I charged into the alley just as one of the punks slapped her face.  Two held her.  As I gave the battle cry, they grabbed for their weapons.  I ran right through the first one before the echo of my cry faded into the darkness of the alley.  As I did, I racked him with my knee, as hard as I possibly could.  From my left, one charged, and I turned to face him.  He was somewhat surprised that I was ready to deal with him so quickly.  Putting both hands behind his head, I pulled down.  I rolled backwards and used his momentum to launch his body across the alley and into the brick wall.  His back landed flat like a dead fish on a table and he fell limply to the ground.
            As I hopped up to look for the third guy, I felt a sharp pain in my right kidney.  I lunged forward to escape the burning sensation.  I staggered to my feet and searched for the features in his shadowy face.  The light from the street behind me caught the side of his knife blade.  That was all I needed.  I kicked him in the gut and grabbed his wrist.  I brought the arm down to meet my upcoming knee, snapping the joint easily.  I felt pain suddenly fill my skull as a bullet grazed my head.  I spun awkwardly and grabbed my forehead.  “Bang!”  Another bullet hit my right knee, shattering the knee cap instantly.  The hollow point shredded the back of my leg.  I fell back into the alley trash can.  The joint on my right knee was gone, and my leg was useless.  As his friends ran out of the alley, the first one I had attacked, the one with the gun, walked up with a demented grin.  I knew right then he was sizing me up for the kill.  My hand luckily rested on the lid of a metal trash can.  I rolled and let it fly as hard as I could.  It struck him between the eyes, killing him instantly. 
            The woman rolled me over and asked, “Are you okay?”  She was beautiful.  With quivering lips and tear-filled eyes, she attended to my needs, wrapped her sweater around my bloody leg, and called for an ambulance.  “Hang on,” she pleaded.  My face and side were soaked with blood and my leg was bent sideways.  It was strange though; after the battle I felt no pain.  Numbness or shock took over.  I had done it without the outfit, without the persona.  “They’re on their way.  Your going to make it.”
            I smiled and added, “Never felt better.”   I found out later from a school mate that they had considered charging me with homicide, but thanks to the influence of the girl’s father, the charges were dismissed.  Can you believe it?  What a screwy society!
            I had the first surgery on my knee, and I woke to see my family, well, all but my sister.  She was raped and murdered on the same night as my last fight.  Why did I ever leave Carbondale?  I should have been there to save her, instead of wasting my time on perfect strangers, trying to prove I was someone they wanted me to be.
            The only person I was ever really close to was Lynn, and she was taken from me.  It isn’t fair!  Why couldn’t someone else have died instead?  Someone who deserved it?  I would have gladly traded my life for hers.  Why couldn’t I have died instead?  But no, I lay here helpless.  Two months of rehab and multiple surgeries!
            “Easy, Mr. Smith” the nurse said in a gentle voice.  “That’s quite a story.” 
            “It’s true,” I insisted.
            “I believe you,” she said, wiping the sweat from my head.  “Now get some sleep.  You’ll probably go home in the morning.”
            I awoke that next morning to the doctor’s prodding of my leg.  He looked at the screen of his smart pad and examined, once again, the MRI of my knee.  “It looks better this time, Mr. Smith, but you’ve got to give it time to heal.  You can’t walk on it again without support.”
            “But I’ve …”
            “No buts.”  The doctor sat on the side of the bed.  “You’re very lucky to be alive.  The bullet to your head only grazed your temple, and the knife wound to your kidney was clean and mendable.  But this leg.”  He shook his head.  “You won’t be able to walk again without the aid of crutches, a cane, or a walker.  You should feel blessed to have even that.”
            I turned away.  I didn’t want to hear it again.  He had said it all before.  What difference did it make anyway?  “Sure doc.”
            “Are you ready to go?  Miss Stephens has your wheelchair ready, and I believe your roommate is here to take you home.”  He handed me a prescription and patted me on my left leg.  “Now behave this time.”
            When I got back to the dorm, the guys had a party for me.  Even Charlotte, the woman I saved was there.  She was even more beautiful in the light.  After the party, she let me walk, or as I should say “roll,” her home.
            Back at the dorm, I lay on the bed and sorted out the events of the last three years.  I learned that life wasn’t like the movies; the good guys don’t always win.  I pulled a box from my closet and opened it.  There was my black and blue costume, neatly folded and untouched since the night before my date.  In the half lit closet, the outfit seemed to shimmer, to posses some sort of magic.  It made me think of Lynn.  I lump swelled in my throat, so I put it away.
            Several weeks later, after I had progressed to crutches and a cane, I braved the box once more.  It shimmered again, almost as if my sister were calling me to put it on, to trust its magic.  My muscles twitched as if they too needed to feel the fabric once again.  It was strange, once I had it on I felt stronger; even my leg felt better.  I slipped out of the window and down the fire escape.  I was actually walking without the cane!

            Subconsciously, I made the campus route of my patrol.  I was walking, and then I tried to run.  The pain soared and brought me face first to the ground.  After waiting for the sharp pain to subside, I got up, worked the joint and walked some more of the route.  As I left the campus and ventured off into a darkened neighborhood, I noticed some commotion to my left.  In an alley between two apartment buildings, a girl screamed, but her scream was quickly muffled.  I got there just as they were tearing her shirt.  I couldn’t believe my eyes; she looked just like Lynn.  I made my way to the entrance of the alley and stumbled.  My leg was too weak and gave out.  She tried to scream again as they ripped off her skirt, but one man held her mouth firmly shut.  “I’m coming, Lynn,” I cried.  I leaped from the shadows, hoping I could at least buy her enough time to escape.  

Saturday, July 20, 2013

God is Alive & Well in New York

I must say, having come to New York City from the Bible Belt of Nashville, Tennessee, I expected to be thrust into the heart of Sin City.  And while there have been ample moments of sinful behavior by those in the streets and on the subways of New York, I have also been pleasantly surprised by the presence of God's people.  I wasn't exactly sure what to expect when I answered God's call to come here for a 6 week sabbatical.  I just knew He had opened the door for me to sharpen my writing skills and for my sixteen year old daughter, Lea, to attend the Peridance Summer Intensive during the same time.  That in itself was the first miracle.  Not her making the cut, but the coordination of our trips.

The second obstacle was housing.  What could I afford?  Where could we stay?  Where would we be willing to stay within our budget?  That was the greater question.  Well, I did my share of Googling and Craigsliting (are those even words?) before I came, and I even made a one day trip in December to check out the apartments that interested me.  Good thing!  It's amazing how large they can make these places look on the internet.  You know what the television commercial says (no one can lie on the internet).  Anyway, a local realtor helped me out, an apartment owner made concessions, and we were able to stay the first 10 days in a one bedroom and move to a two bedroom in the same building for the final month.  Thank you God and thank you Anneclaire & Darin.

The third obstacle was gaining approval...not just from the church, but from my wife.  She would stay behind with four of our other children and the dog.  Needless to say, both the church and wife agreed and here we are.  So...other than Lea dancing and me studying to write, what did God have planned for us?  Glad you asked.

My neighbor made a connection with a friend of his named Glen Kleinknect who coordinates the Here's Life Innercity Ministries housed out of Long Island City, Queens (which by the way...according to Glen...is the geographic center of New York City).  His ministry assists churches as a food pantry, among other things.

A college student from my church told me to visit The Graffiti Church in Manhattan while we were here.  She had just assisted them in a missions ministry earlier this year.  So, Lea and I visited the Graffiti Church.  Wow!  What a beautiful church.  No, I'm not talking about their facilities...their people.  After all, the church is a people.  I met with their pastor, Taylor Fields (pictured below).  He too is a pastor and a writer (affirmation for me).  They had a church member use tap dancing as his testimony, telling how God could use his talents for God's Kingdom (affirmation for Lea - also pictured below).  If you're ever in the East Village of New York, make time to visit/attend this church...you won't regret it.  God-hearted people.

Since then, we sat next to a young couple praying over their meal and thanked them for their testimony.  I also witnessed two men on the subway discussing the purpose of the Holy Spirit (one mentoring the other).  In the middle of Grand Central Station a woman sang praise and worship songs.  A youth dance/choir performed in Union Square, sharing creatively their faith in Jesus Christ.  So, instead of spending all of our energy criticizing New Yorkers for their not-so-traditional lifestyles, let us lift in prayer and praise these bold witnesses to God's truth and God's love.  As the man sitting next to me at The Coffee Shop said, "God is alive and well in New York...after all, He's everywhere, isn't He."  Well said.

From the Soul of a Pastor...Amen.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Innerside art selections - Help me choose a picture for the blog

Short Story - "Grampa Charlie's Ring"

                                                         Grampa Charlie’s Ring
                                                             Mitchell S. Karnes

              Austin held the shoebox at his side and stared at the silver casket as it sunk into the hole in the ground.  His family watched on in silence as the shovels crunched into the frozen mound of dirt and tossed large clumps into the hole.  With a great, “Thud” the first shovels full of dirt hit the metal casket.  Austin jumped. 
            Throughout the funeral he expected Grampa Charlie to throw open the top and yell, “Ta da!” as he had at the end of a great feat of magic.  This time it wasn’t a trick.  Austin’s grandfather was dead.  Austin watched as the workers pounded the dirt flat.  His mom took his hand, but he pulled away, walking beside her.  He was too old for hand-holding.  Austin’s little sister was crying and his mom was crying, but Austin and his father walked on in silence.
            Later that afternoon, Austin put the shoebox on his dresser.  He didn’t feel like playing on the trampoline, riding his dirt bike, or skateboarding with his friends.  All Austin wanted to do was lie on his bed and remember Grampa Charlie.
            “Ladies and Gentlemen, silence if you will,” Grampa would say at one of his magic shows.  “What you are about to see will dazzle the mind.  It may frighten you, so please hold the hands of small children.”  Then Grampa would wink over at Austin who stood at stage right.  “Abracadabra,” Grampa said as he clapped his hands.  Suddenly a grizzly bear appeared on stage.  It roared.  Grampa watched with a smile as the audience melted into their seats.
            The bear stood on its hind legs and roared again.  Grampa stepped backwards and said, “There are no trap doors, mirrors, or slight of hand.  What you see is what you get.”  The bear swung at Grampa, and with a clap of his hands, it disappeared from the stage.  “Oooo,” said the crowd as they rose in ovation of the feat.
            Austin marveled at the magic.  He could see first-hand that there were no visible tricks at all.  “How do you do it, Grampa?” Austin asked. 
            “It’s magic, Austin,” Grampa said.  “One day I’ll give the magic to you.”  Grampa promised and promised Austin the magic, but he never gave it up.  He couldn’t.
Whenever Austin mentioned Grampa’s promise to his parents, Austin’s father would say, “It’s nonsense, son.  He’s just filling your head with fantasies, just like he did your mom when she was little.”  Then he and Austin’s mom would get into an argument that usually ended in silence for hours at a time.  Austin’s dad never liked Grampa Charlie.  Grampa thought the same of his son-in-law, but he loved Austin.
            Austin sat up and looked across the room at the shoebox.  Grampa Charlie left everything to his daughter, Austin’s mom, except one little shoebox.  The lawyer was given specific instructions to present the box to Austin and Austin only.  Austin went to his dresser.  He took the box, sat back on the bed, and opened it.
            Inside the box he found Playbills to some of Grampa’s best shows, a couple decks of cards, Grampa’s trick rope, a journal, and a small box.  Austin opened the journal and read a few pages.  It was a letter to Austin.  On page three it read, “Austin, you should find a small ring box with this journal.  Open it and place the ring on your finger.”
            Austin opened the box and studied the ring.  It was gold with a small red gem in its center, but much too large for Austin’s hand.  He was only in seventh grade, and Grampa was a large man over six feet tall.  Austin obeyed anyway.  As soon as he slipped it on, the ring shrunk to the size of his finger.  Surprised and scared, Austin tugged at the ring.  It wouldn’t budge.  No matter how hard he tried, it didn’t move. 
            Austin panicked as he continued to pull at the ring with no luck.  Austin finally gave up and consulted Grampa’s journal.  “I told you one day I would pass the magic on to you.  I guess if you’re wearing the ring that means I’m dead.  I’m sorry Austin, but I’m afraid that’s the only way the ring turns loose.”  Austin read on.  “You see, Austin, it wasn’t so much that I was attached to my magic ring as it was attached to me.  If you’re reading this, then it is probably safe to assume it is now attached to you.  Relax…everything will be okay.”
            That afternoon and that night Austin studied his Grampa’s journal.  The secret of the magic was the power of the ring, and to make it work the wearer had to concentrate on something, imagine the object until he could really see it.  Then suddenly it would appear – like magic!  The journal also gave Austin a warning:  “Be careful what you wish for, Austin; the ring is powerful, and sometimes things are very hard to control.”
            After supper, Austin rushed back to his room to finish Grampa’s journal.  Austin’s mom and dad let him stay in his room alone because they assumed he was still mourning the death of his grandfather.  But Austin couldn’t wait to try out the ring.  He was excited, but at the same time, he was nervous and afraid.  “But the journal always repeated the saying, ‘It’s going to be okay.’”
            “I need to do something simple, first,” he thought.  Austin looked around the room.  “The bookshelf,” he said aloud.  Austin ran to the bookshelf and began tossing books left and right, looking for just the right one.  “Harry Potter!” he exclaimed.  Then, imagining the terrible things that could come out of that book, Austin quickly dropped it to the floor.  Austin looked through book after book, only to decide against each for one reason or another.  Some things were too scary and some things were too big.  Finally, Austin’s eyes wandered over to one of his mom’s childhood books on the back of his bookshelf, The Incredible Journey, a story of three pets, their survival and love.  Austin sat cross-legged and studied the cover picture of the dogs and the cat.  “Achoo!”  Just looking at the cat made him sneeze.  He settled on the retriever.  Austin had always wanted a dog, but his dad wouldn’t hear of it.
            Austin closed his eyes and thought of the retriever.  As he pictured the dog in his mind, something happened.  The ring began to glow.  Austin jumped back as something warm and wet touched his face.  He opened his eyes to marvel that the dog was standing in front of him, licking his face.  “Wow!”  It began barking at him.  Try as he might, Austin could not get the dog to be quiet.
            His dad barged through the doorway to Austin’s room and yelled, “What in the world is that dog doing in here?”  The retriever wagged its tail and licked Austin’s face again.  “So that’s why you rushed back up here.  You’ve been hiding a dog!” his father screamed.
            “No, dad,” Austin began, “it just appeared, like magic.”
            “You take him back this instant,” Austin’s dad yelled.  Suddenly, the retriever barked at Austin’s dad and bolted past him.  It ran down the stairs and bark at Austin’s mother.  She screamed.  Just as the retriever got to the foyer, Austin’s sister opened the front door.  Out it went, running as fast as it could down the street.  Austin’s dad rushed down to chase the dog outside, but it was too late.
            While he was gone, Austin gathered his thoughts and remembered the journal.  He picked up the book.  One of the dogs was missing from the cover.  Austin pictured it back on the cover and clapped his hands.  The ring glowed for a moment and the dog was back in place. 
            As much as he tried to explain it, Austin’s dad wouldn’t believe him.  He heard his mother say something about Grampa and Austin’s sadness.  Like usual, the argument ended in silence.  Austin was grounded to his room for the rest of the night, which was fine with him.  He fell asleep with a smile on his face.
            The next day Austin ‘s teacher sent him to the principal’s office for daydreaming in class.  As he sat in Mr. Johnson’s office and watched the principal pace back and forth, Austin got an idea.  Mr. Johnson went on and on about something important, but Austin wasn’t listening.  Instead, he began to laugh uncontrollably.  There the principal stood in his boxer shorts and undershirt.  Austin couldn’t help but laugh.  That got him into even deeper trouble.  He would be in his room for the rest of the week except for meals, school and chores.
            Quietly, Austin lay on his bed and practiced his magic.  He was getting better at it.  One time he made a character from a video game appear and another time he conjured an actor from one of his favorite movies.  He was getting good, but he was also getting careless.  Austin’s obsession with the ring’s magic kept getting him in trouble at school.  The bullies had strange things happening to them, and Austin was always right there in the middle of it.  In one class, no matter how hard the teacher tried, none of the chalk would write on the board.  And there sat Austin laughing and clapping.  Back to Mr. Johnson’s office he went, and back to his room at home.
            One night, several weeks later, Austin had a great idea.  He lay on his bed and pictured something really special.  “Hello, Austin.”  It was Grampa Charlie.
            “Grampa!”  Austin jumped into his arms. 
            “Whoa there, son,” Grampa said and sat down on the side of his bed.
            “I’ve missed you, Grampa.”
            “I know you have.”  Grampa Charlie patted the side of the bed and signaled for Austin to sit beside him.  “I see you’ve been using my ring.”
            “Yeah, it’s great!” Austin exclaimed.  “It’s so good to have you back, Grampa.”
            “But Austin,” Grampa began.
            “We can play games and talk and you can show me some more . . .”
            Grampa put his finger over Austin’s mouth to silence him.  “I can’t stay, Austin.  In fact, I’m not really here at all.”
            “Sure you can, Grampa.”
            “Austin, listen to me,” Grampa said.  “The ring is only an illusion.  It makes people see what they want to see and can even make them think what you want them to think…for a little while.”
            “But Grampa, the dog, the chalkboard, the bullies, . . .and you?”
            “Just what you wanted to see and what you wanted others to believe.”  Grampa put his arm around Austin’s shoulders.  “I’m flattered that you would use the ring to see me, but you need to let me go, Austin.  We had some good times, but now it’s time for you to live your life.”
            Austin’s eyes began to water and he wiped them.  “But Grampa, I don’t want you to go.”
            “I know, Austin, I love you too.”  Grampa took Austin’s hand in his and looked at the old ring.  “Take good care of it for me, Austin, but I need you to promise me something.”
            Austin looked into his grandfather’s eyes.  “Sure, Grampa, anything.”
            “Use the magic responsibly.  It’s there to entertain and make others happy, not to hurt or make others angry and sad.”  Grampa touched the red gem.  “It’s time for me to go, Austin.”

            Austin didn’t say anything.  He nodded his head and clapped his hands.  That night he had a wonderful dream about Grampa Charlie and his old magic ring.