Saturday, July 24, 2021

My Personal Guide to New Orleans

Heading to New Orleans to attend Bouchercon?  Leave your Midwestern sensibilities at home and prepare yourself for America's most remarkable city.

New Orleans is a rich gumbo of cultures, food, sounds, music, history and life. It is the Crescent City, the City that Care Forgot, the Big Easy. It  gave birth to Jazz, Louis Armstong and Dr. John. It is a place where piano players are called Professor, and the greatest of all was Professor Longhair.

New Orleans is where there really is a Streetcar named Desire. It was home to Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams, who both lived for a time in the historic Monteleone Hotel. William Faulkner began his career writing character sketches for various New Orleans newspapers in the 1920s, and there is a small bookstore on Pirate’s Alley that bears his name and is worth a visit. 

New Orleans literary heritage includes characters as diverse as Walker Percy's Moviegoer and James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux. It was home for Kate Chopin and her Awakening, and John Kennedy Toole, whose personal story is as compelling and more tragic than his unforgettable character Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces. And of course, only New Orleans could have given birth to the Vampire Lestat, dark hero of the Vampire Chronicles created by Anne Rice, that forever changed the vampire legend.

I first fell under the spell of New Orleans in 1987. I've been back more than thirty times, attending conferences, Jazz Fest, Mardi Gras, researching -- and just enjoying the city. I've gotten there by car, on my motorcycle, by plane and by riding the famed CIty of New Orleans train.

 I've ridden the St. Charles Streetcar, walked Bourbon Street at 4 a.m., danced with the prettiest girl in New Orleans, watched a lunar eclipse from the Moon Walk (named for a former mayor, not the earth’s satellite), thrown beads, eaten crawfish, drank from to-go cups, and walked through the Quarter watching the City wake up on an early Sunday morning. With my son, I worked on houses and served food to victims in the wake of Katrina. And I've written about this city that I've grown to love.

To really appreciate New Orleans, you have to know something of its history. So, here's just a quick history of the city and a bit of wisdom about the City I've picked up over the years. But New Orleans is a town you explore and discover for yourself. Bring your most comfortable shoes and plan to walk around.

THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT NEW ORLEANS — A BIT OF HISTORY

Nouvelle Orléans was founded by Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville in 1718  on the first high ground north of the mouth of the Mississippi. Yes, it is high ground. As the city expanded, it had to grow into areas below sea level -- hence the canals and giant pumps that keep the city (mostly) dry. 

Pierre’s brother was Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, who founded Mobile, the first capital of the Louisiana Colony. This explains the names of two of the most prominent streets in the French Quarter —Iberville and Bienville.

The French Quarter and the American Section (now known as the Business District) are separated by Canal Street. There never was a canal there, but all street names change as they cross Canal Street.

New Orleans is a Creole city, not Cajun. Cajuns are the largely rural folks from the bayous, descendants of the Great Migration when they were expelled by the British from Acadia (now Nova Scotia). Cajun comes from Acadians, morphed to A'cajuns, and finally to Cajuns. If you don't know the story, read Longfellow's great poem Evangeline.  

Creoles, on the other hand, are descendants of the original French and Spanish settlers of Louisiana. It is an honor in New Orleans society to trace your heritage to a fille à la cassette, a casket girl. They were recruited from French orphanages, streets and prisons to come to Louisiana as wives for the men settling the French colony. Before leaving for the new world they were given a small black case that resembled a casket in which to carry their belongings. Hence, the casket girls.

As the continent’s major port, New Orleans was a swirling gumbo of different cultures – French, Spanish, Caribbean, African – unlike any other location in what became the United States.

Race has always been a part of New Orleans, but in different ways than any other place in the South. Slave auctions were held in the port of New Orleans. On Sundays, plantation owners would often bring their slaves to New Orleans and allow them to go to Congo Square, which was located where Louis Armstrong Park now stands across Rampart Street from the French Quarter. That is where slaves could play music, dance and have a touch of freedom from their masters. Congo Square still has a special meaning to those in New Orleans which is borne out by repeated references to Congo Square in the music and cultural heritage of the City. 

New Orleans was also the only place in the South where one would find Free Men of Color, some of them slave owners. New Orleans also had a social stratum based upon degrees of color. Quadroons (one-fourth black) and Octoroons (one-eighth black) were recognized in society. Quadroon and Octoroon Balls were staged by mothers hoping to match their daughters with white lovers.

Oh, and there's Storyville, the area just outside the French Quarter that existed as a legal red-light district for a few months less than 20 years (January 1, 1898 to the fall of 1917). It was the idea of conservative Alderman Sidney Story, who thought the morals of the City would be best served by confining the rampant prostitution and vice in New Orleans to one small area bounded by Iberville, Basin, St. Louis, and North Robertson Streets.  In 1917, as New Orleans was flooded with sailors preparing for World War I, Storyville was closed by order of the U.S. Navy.

Although the life of Storyville was short and nearly all its buildings are gone, it's legend lives, in large part because its bawdy houses gave birth to the true American art form -- Jazz. Names like Buddy Bolden, Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver and Louis Armstrong got their start playing in Storyville.  

As for Sidney Story, the moral crusader? His only lasting reward is being eternally linked to legend of vice and sin known as Storyville.

GETTING AROUND IN NEW ORLEANS

Streets in New Orleans are generally built to follow the contours of the Mississippi River, so they do not travel in straight lines. Consequently, directions in terms of north, south, east and west are useless.  Ask a local for directions, and you are likely to have them given with referring to Downtown (toward the Quarter); Uptown (toward the Garden District, Tulane University and the Audubon Zoo); Riverside (toward the river) or Lakeside (toward Lake Pontchartrain.

While I’ve traveled to New Orleans for more than three decades, I still generally rely on taxis, Uber or Lyft – or the Streetcar – or best of all, walking – to get around.

Keep in mind that all street names change at Canal Street.  Here's a list, with the street name in the Quarter listed first:

North Rampart / South Rampart
Burgundy / University Place
Dauphine / Baronne
Bourbon / Carondelet 
Royal / St. Charles
Chartres / Camp
Decatur / Magazine
North Peters / Tchoupitoulas 

THINGS NOT TO DO IN NEW ORLEANS

Don't get so drunk (or allow someone else to get so drunk) you don't know where you are or have your wits about you.

Don't go into deserted areas along the backside of the Quarter at night.
Don't flash money. Keep your wallet in a front pocket and don't carry a dangling purse. Pick pockets abound. 

Don't walk into the cemeteries (Cities of the Dead) by yourself or in a small unescorted group. They can be dangerous places.

And whatever you do, when some seven-year-old boy comes up to you and says, "Bet you $5 I can tell you where you got your shoes?"  DON'T MAKE THE BET.  
Sure as hell you do, he's gonna tell you, and then some big guy will step up and say, "Pay him."

(The answer:  "You got your shoes . . . on your feet.")

MUST DO WHEN IN NEW ORLEANS

Wander Jackson Square, particularly in the morning as the city comes to life.  The street artists set up all around the iron fence of Jackson Square. The square is anchored by St. Louis Cathedral at one end, and the centerpiece is the namesake Statute of Andrew Jackson in the center of the park.  Next to the Cathedral is the building called The Cabildo.  That is where the Louisiana Purchase was signed. It’s worth a visit if you’re interested in history.

Start your day (or end your night in the Quarter) with beignets and cafe au' lait at the Cafe du Monde. Open 24/7/365.  Nom nom nom. Order more.

After lunch, wander along Royal Street. Nose around in the art galleries and old shops and listen to the street bands that set up there for the afternoon.
Take a ride on the St. Charles Streetcar. It's a great way to see and be a part of the city.
Get off the St. Charles Streetcar and stroll through the Garden District. There are maps available. Magnificent homes.

World War II Museum.  Few know that the Higgins boats -- those WW II boats that delivered troops from ships to invade beaches, not only in Normandy, but also in Italy and throughout the Pacific, were all built in New Orleans. This gave rise to the World War II Museum, which is far more than you might expect.  A really wonderful museum. You should make time for this.

WHAT TO DRINKS IN NEW ORLEANS

Drink a Hurricane at Pat O'Brien's. Actually, do two. One in the piano bar and one in the patio.  Patio is wonderful day or night. But be careful.  Hurricanes taste like fruit punch & kick like a mule. They also have a variety of other tasty rum concoctions. All are worth trying, but they are potent! Note:  At the piano bar, you have to pay extra to have them play "Saints,"  but just a standard tip will get them to them play the New Orleans classic "They All Axed for You"

Get a drink at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, a bar on Bourbon Street a few blocks away from the heavy trafficked areas. I'm not sure anything has been done to Lafitte's in 200 years except add electricity for the dim lighting and move in the piano. If you want to seem like you know what you're doing, ask the piano player to play something by Professor Longhair.
Get a drink at the Carousel Bar at the Monteleone Hotel on Royal Street. Do this early in the evening.  It's a revolving bar, which may prove difficult to dismount later in the evening. By the way, the Monteleone is a wonderful place to stay.

Try a Sazerac - a wonderful New Orleans combination of rye whiskey, Absinthe and bitters. 
 
Beers -- Anyone who visits the Quarter will see the JAX Brewery, which now houses a variety of shops. Unfortunately, Jax hasn't been brewed since the mid-1970s. 

The City's only remaining brewery was Dixie. Post-Katrina, Dixie was brewed on a contract basis outside of New Orleans. In 2019, Dixie moved back to New Orleans into a new brewery. But even beer is not immune from social changes in the world, and in March, 2021, Dixie became Fauburg Brewing (pronounced “FO-burg” – a French term used in New Orleans to mean “neighborhood,” such as Fauburg Marigny). So now if you want a truly local beer, you can step up to the bar and order a Fauburg.

Abita is a popular craft brewer from nearby Covington, La. It brews a wide variety of beers including TurboDog, AndyGator, Purple Haze and my personal favorite, Strawberry Harvest.

OTHER THINGS TO DO

Wander through the French Quarter -- not just Bourbon Street.  Stroll the Moon Walk along the Mississippi (not named for the lunar body, but for Moon Landreau, long time mayor of New Orleans). On the Moon Walk, you will find the Aquarium and the Natchez Steamboat where you can take a ride down river around Algiers Point.

Take a Ghost Tour. They are campy, but lots of fun,  particularly if you have the right guide.
Visit the Fauberg Marigny District. This trendy little area is just outside the French Quarter. It's full of little bistros, bars and shops, but without the tee shirt shops and staggering drunks in the Quarter

Cities of the Dead ­‐ Cemeteries are part of the New Orleans mystique. St. Louis Cemeteries #1 is home to  Voodoo Queen Marie Leveau. But don't go alone. They can be dangerous places. Take the tours.

MUSIC

New Orleans is music. It surrounds you everywhere you go.  Pick up a copy of Friday edition of the New Orleans Times Picayune newspaper that includes the Lagniappe Section. It contains a list of all the music places and who is playing.
WHERE and WHAT TO EAT

There are hundreds of great places to eat in New Orleans -- maybe thousands. And as one wag put it, restaurants have to be good because "they're competing with your momma." This is just a sample, but you can check the many lists of great New Orleans places to eat online, and make up your own lists. Here are some of my recommendations.

BREAKFAST and LUNCH

Cafe DuMond —  Beignets & cafe au lait – and often long lines. That's it.
Court of the Two Sisters —  Ideal for Jazz Brunch.  Located on Royal Street, you walk through a carriageway to get to the reception desk. The buffet is a good way to try a variety of New Orleans dishes. Best part is the atmosphere. Order a mimosa, sit under the grape vines and enjoy the music and life.

Muffulettas and Po Boys —  A muffuletta is a HUGE sandwich of Italian cold cuts & cheeses, topped with mounds of olive salad, served on fresh round Italian bread brushed with olive oil. Central Grocery on Decatur between Cafe DuMond and the French Market is famous for making them. Frank's Restaurant two doors down from Central Grocery is my favorite. Others swear by the ones served warm at the Napoleon House. 

Po Boys are a New Orleans staple available everywhere – and I’ve yet to taste a bad one. They are sandwiches of all types served on crusty baguettes. Order it "dressed" (lettuce, tomatoes and mayonnaise). My favorite: Acme Oyster House Shrimp and Oyster Po Boy, dressed.

Mothers — A New Orleans legend. In business district at 401 Poydras Street. Known for breakfast and lunch.  Try the debris sandwich made from the pieces of ham and beef that fall onto the table while they cut the meat.

Acme Oyster Bar,  Felix’s Oyster Bar and Casamento's Oyster Bar — Great place for oysters on the half shell and shrimp & oyster po boys. Wash down with an Abita or Fauburg beer. Acme is right in the Quarter and draws a lot of tourists, but locals too. Felix’s is directly across the street, but also has an entry off Bourbon Street. Casamento's is on Magazine in the Warehouse District, but unfortunately, Casamento’s closes down during the summer. 

Lucky Dogs — For more than 50 years, these little carts shaped like hot dogs have made their way onto New Orleans streets in early evening and stay until nearly dawn, feeding the late night / early morning cravings of New Orleans partiers. 

DINNER

Upperline Restaurant —  A personal favorite. Located in a house on Upperline Street in the Garden District.  You can get there by St. Charles Streetcar. It's only a block or two from the stop.  Extraordinary food and service.  The walls are covered with local art work.

Muriel's — I enjoy this place so much I set a scene in my first novel in the upstairs dining area. It's my traditional stop on my last night in New Orleans. On Chartres Street in Jackson Square, just a few steps from St. Louis Cathedral. The double cut pork chops are sensational, and the Crème Brûlée may be the best I've ever eaten. Make sure to go upstairs and see the ghost table and the decor that look like an 19th Century bordello.

Patois —  Located in a converted house in a hidden away uptown residential area, this is a MUST. One of the five best meals I have ever eaten, and the duck confit salad is my favorite salad/appetizer EVER.

Bayona — Located in a renovated 200-year-old creole cottage on Dauphine Street in a less-heavily traveled part of the French Quarter, this is award-winning owner-chef Suzanne Spicer's gift to the world. Extraordinary elegant food and friendly attentive service in a beautiful setting. But no worry. Business casual - no jackets or ties required. Oh, and no cell phones in the dining room.  That's a good thing.

Pascale's Manale — Known for one thing: barbeque shrimp.  Huge head-on shrimp cooked in spicy butter sauce, served with a bib and a baguette for dipping in the butter. Located in Garden District just off St. Charles.

Commander's Palace — An ageless classic, winner of six James Beard Awards whose former executive chefs include Paul Prudhomme and Emerill Legasse. Need reservations and jackets for dinner (but not brunch).

Britzen's  and Gatreau's —  These two restaurants are favorites spots for locals and a few knowledgeable tourists. Upscale, located in converted houses in/near Garden District.

Classic New Orleans Restaurants — Don't forget about the classic of New Orleans, upscale restaurants dating back a century or more in the Quarter:  Antoines (oldest restaurant in city); Arnaud's, Galletoires, Brennan's, Mr. B's.

Here are a few links to lists of some of to New Orleans top restaurants:

USA TODAY BEST RESTAURANTS:  CLICK HERE

FOOD NETWORK BEST RESTAURANTS:  CLICK HERE

SOUTHERN LIVING BEST RESTAURANTS:  CLICK HERE

NewOrleans.com RESTAURANT GUIDE:  CLICK HERE

NewOrleans.com CASUAL DINING GUIDE: CLICK HERE

YELP 10 BEST CASUAL DINING: CLICK HERE

TimeOut.com BEST RESTAURANTS:  CLICK HERE



SPEAKING NEW ORLEANS

New Orleans language has it's on special sound and rhythm.  There's a bit of French, a touch of the south, and a lot that is just New Orleans. And if you run into someone from the Irish Channel area, you may hear something that sounds more like the Bronx than the deep south.
A few terms to help you understand:

“Where yat”:  How are you. People speaking like this may be referred to as "Yats." Not to be confused with "Who Dat," the cheer for the beloved New Orleans Saints

“Laissez les bons temps rouler:”  Let the good times roll (popular expression)

Snowball:  Shaved ice ball with syrup

Cher:  Common term of affection. "Where yat, cher?"

Gallery: The balcony walkway

Banquette:  Sidewalk

Gris Gris:  A voodoo good luck charm.

Lagniappe (lan' yap): A little extra. (Think getting 13 donuts when you order a dozen)

Shotgun shack:  Common New Orleans style long narrow house with a central hallway. You can shoot a shotgun through the front door, and it will go out the back door without hitting anything in between.

Neutral ground:  the area between the travelled lanes of traffic, often where you'll find streetcar tracks

Most importantly for your trip, be open to all that New Orleans has to offer. You will have a wonderful time. And if you're lucky, it may change your life. -- Stephen Terrell

Friday, April 23, 2021

Another Short Story For Our Times

 This is the second of two of my short stories I'm posting in the aftermath of the mass shooting in Indianapolis last week. This story was published in the Speed City Chapter Sisters in Crime anthology MURDER 20/20, which is still available.


In The Deepest Darkness

by Stephen Terrell

  

Whoever curses his father or mother,

his lamp will be extinguished in the deepest darkness.

– Proverbs 20:20

Six Weeks After the Darkness

            The priest’s words echoed off the high ceilings and cavernous emptiness of the church. The first sunlight streaming through stained glass images of the Stations of the Cross dimly lit pale statues of the saints. A dozen worshipers for morning mass were scattered in the first few pews, but Hanna Carmichael sat in the back row, an observer rather than a participant.

Without moving his head, the priest subtly slid a small scrap of paper resting on the pulpit to where he could see it. He recited the words familiar to the faithful, which he had long ago memorized. “Remember our brother . . . ”  The priest looked at the slip of paper.  “David Edward Carmichael, who has fallen asleep in the peace of your Christ, and all the dead, whose faith you alone have known. Admit them to rejoice in the light of your face.” 

A few moments later, as Hanna unlocked her car, she heard footsteps hurrying behind her. She turned to see the priest scurrying toward her. “Wait please,” he said, through quick breaths that showed exertion. 

Hanna stood, keys still in hand, but did not say anything.

The priest, his graying black hair and paunch showing the onset of middle age, stopped just beyond an arm’s length away. “I need to get more exercise,” he said breathlessly. After a few seconds he continued. “I’m Father Glenn. I saw you in the back of the sanctuary. Did you know the person we remembered in the service?” 

“He was my son,” Hanna said in a matter-of-fact tone. “My cousin Ellen attends your church and requested you say the mass for David.”

“Ellen McQueen?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, I know Ellen well. She’s such a wonderful woman.”

“She is. She made the request. Today would have been David’s seventeenth birthday.”

Father Glen dropped his eyes and shook his head somberly. “I am truly sorry for your loss. A loss at such a tender age is always an unspeakable tragedy. I hope the service today provided you with some comfort.”

“I know you mean well, Father. I know it helped Ellen. She’s very strong in her faith.  She believed she was doing something for David . . . something for me. I’m grateful for that. But when you lose a son, it’s all pretty hollow.”

“The loss of a young person is always a challenge to our faith. But we must find comfort in the Lord’s promises of comfort and life everlasting. What happened to your son, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“David was killed in a school shooting.”

Father Glenn’s hand covered his mouth which was open in shock. “That’s just, well, just horrific. When did this happen?” 

Hanna’s eyes shifted and stared off into the distance. After a long silence, she said, “Six weeks ago.”

***

Three Years Before The Darkness

            Alan Carmichael slammed his cup on the breakfast nook, coffee sloshing over the edge of his cup. “You coddle that boy too much. He needs a firm hand.” 

Hanna’s eyes flashed with rage. “Taking your belt to him is not being firm. Why don’t you take out your handcuffs and put them on David like one of the thugs you’re arresting?”

I’ve never hit that boy with a belt,” Alan said, ratcheting his voice down several decibels. “I know I said I’d take a belt to him. That’s what my mom did to me. But I’ve never done it.”

“You just can’t yell and threaten him. He’s your son.” Hanna walked to the toaster and put two slices of bread in the slot. She turned back toward her husband, taking a deep breath. “I know he’s difficult. But he’s a good kid at heart. You just have to be patient.”

“I try, but it’s frustrating. I spend time with him. I take him out to the shooting range with me. He likes that well enough, but I think only because it’s like those damned video games he’s always playing. He just spends so damned much time up in his room playing those video games. I tried to take him bowling or to a football game, but he’s not interested. He doesn’t have any friends. I just don’t know what’s wrong with him.”

***

Three Weeks Before The Darkness

              David banged hard into his school locker, then lost his balance. As he fell, his books and papers flew from his hands and scattered across the hallway. 

“Better watch where you’re going, David,” the tallest boy said, his voice in a sing-song taunt. “You have trouble walking?”

The three boys who crashed into him laughed uncontrollably as they walked on down the hall. 

David clenched his jaw tight, grinding his teeth to fight back tears and rage. He leaned to begin gathering his things.

“Assholes.” It was a soft voice behind him. David turned and saw Constance Griffith standing behind him. Even with a look of disgust on her face, Constance was gorgeous. She kneeled next to David and picked up his scattered papers as David retrieved his books. “Those guys are such immature dicks,” she said. Constance handed the papers to David. “Hope you’re not late to your next class.” With that, she headed down the hallway in the same direction the boys had gone.

***

Eight Days Before The Darkness

              David sat by himself at a table for four in the school cafeteria. His daily routine of two sloppy joes, fries, and a Snickers Bar he brought from home were nearly gone. Sounds and laughter of lunchtime conversations reverberated around the room, but David was oblivious. He had been planning this moment for the past two weeks.  He kept his eyes fixed across the room where Constance Griffith sat with three other girls.  They were carrying on an animated conversation punctuated by fits of laughter.

David looked at the scrawled note he had pulled from his pocket. “Do this now!” David took a deep breath, then stood. In tentative steps he walked across the room to where Constance and her friends were sitting. 

“Hi Constance,” he said, his voice barely croaking out the words. No one turned to notice him.  He tried again. This time the words boomed out as if he were yelling across the entire cafeteria.

Constance jumped a bit, then turned. Her faced showed puzzlement and perhaps a little concern. But she recognized David and gave a polite smile. “Why hi, David. I didn’t see you there. Can I do something for you?”

David had rehearsed his lines for hours in his bedroom with the door closed. He had tried different words – cute, clever, romantic. They all worked perfectly. But now as he stood here, he couldn’t recall any of them. And his courage deserted him. 

Looking down at his hands that were folded in front of him, David talked in a voice barely above a whisper.  “I, uh, well, I, uh, just wanted to thank you for the other day. When those guys knocked me into the locker and you helped pick up my books, that was very nice.”

Constance smiled broadly. Her cheeks flushed with a hint of pink and puffed out so that her smile covered not just her mouth, but her entire face. “There’s no need to thank me. Lots of people would have helped. I just happened to be there.”

Constance started to turn back around, but David started speaking again.

“I’d like to do something to thank you. If you’re not doing anything Saturday, maybe I could take you to a movie.”

The smile dropped off Constance’s face, her mouth forming an open “O.” In an instant, David knew he made a horrible miscalculation.

“I, uh, don’t think so, David. I already have plans for the weekend.”

David knew that it didn’t matter whether she had plans or not. He hung his head even further and turned to walk away.

 “But thank you for asking,” Constance said.

As he walked away, David heard the words behind him.

 “Did that perv just ask you for a date? Oh my God. He really did, didn’t he.”

“Be nice,” Constance said.

“Did he really think you’d go out with someone like him.  Oh my God. Can you imagine kissing him?” 

Then he heard a sucking sound, followed by all of the girls laughing.

***

Seven Days Before The Darkness

            The morning after being turned down by Constance, David walked through the school in a fog. Somehow, he made it from one class to the next, but at the end of each class, he could not recall a single thing that happened the previous hour. Through the edges of the fog, it seemed that everyone was looking at him, pointing, laughing. He knew it was his imagination, that no one in the entire school even knew he existed. Not even his teachers. So often he wished he could just disappear. And if by some miracle it happened, no one in the school would even notice.

Lunch period came. As always, David went through the line by himself, ordered the same food he did every day, then carried his tray to a table against the wall where he sat eating by himself. As he ate, he sensed eyes on him. He looked up and saw several people quickly look the other way. At one table, a girl looked at him, then laughed and shared what was on her phone with the girl sitting next to her. At another table, two boys were laughing and one pointed directly at him.

It wasn’t David’s imagination.

David lowered his head and concentrated on his sloppy joes. When his tray was empty, he reached into his backpack for his Snickers bar.

Curt Marcum, a boy who had been in David’s classes since elementary school, took a seat across the table from David. Freckle-faced and lacking social graces, Curt was an outsider, too. But his easy-going nature and willingness to help those who didn’t have his unfathomable ability in math and science left him free from being the target of taunts and bullying.

“Hey, David.”

David looked up surprised. No one had sat with him at lunch since he started high school. “Hi, Curt. What’s up?”

Curt leaned in and lowered his voice. “David, I just don’t think it’s right what’s going on. I want you to know I have nothing to do with it.”

David’s mind was blank. “What do you mean? What’s going on?”

“The stuff Angie Blankenship started about you on social media. There’s just no excuse for it. And I told her so.”

“What stuff?”

“You haven’t seen it?”

“No. What are you talking about.”

“Oh, Jesus, David. I don’t want to be the one to tell you.”

David’s voice rose. “Tell me what?”

Curt looked away, his mouth tight. After a long moment, he turned back to face David and pulled out his phone. “You sure you want to see this?”

“Show it to me,” David demanded.

Curt punched his phone to life and scrolled until he found what he was looking for.  He handed his phone to David.  The social media post showed more than 200 “Likes” and “Laughing” responses, and a long list of replies.

David glared at the screen, then read:

“That perv David Carmichael asked Constance Griffith for a date. Can U imagine. Can you imagine kissing that pimple faced freak? Ewwwwwwwwwww!”

The first reply was even worse:

“Deformed David Carbuncle?”  Attached to the post was a photo showing David’s school yearbook photo superimposed on a boil oozing puss. There were so many laughing face emojis that David couldn’t count them all.

Post after post followed.  “I wouldn’t kiss Carbuncle with your mouth.”  “Hey Constance, I’ll give you $20 if you stick your tongue in Carbuncle’s mouth.”  “I’ve seen his pecker in gym. Maybe it should be TW Carbuncle – for Teeny Weeny.”

David fought the urge to throw the phone. He slid it back across the table to Curt. He looked across the cafeteria and it seemed that every eye was on him.

David swiped his tray, sending it flying across the room. He stood without saying anything and walked out of the cafeteria and out of the school.

***

Two Hours Before The Darkness

            Alan Carmichael sat at his desk in the detective squad reviewing incident reports from the previous night. As he sipped on his third cup of coffee of the morning, he made notes about the follow-up investigation, and filled out the assignment sheet on which detective would handle the matter. He always kept the most interesting cases for himself.  

The phone on Alan’s desk buzzed. “Detectives. Carmichael speaking.”

“Alan, we’ve got a shooting on the west side.” It was the familiar voice of Assistant Chief Ben Truman. “One of our young patrolmen, Gary Storey, answered a call to a domestic. When he got there, he found a woman dead on the front porch, her husband still standing over her, swearing at her.”

“Is the guy in custody.” 

“Yeah. Pretty open and shut. But I think this is Storey’s first murder scene. He seems pretty shook up. Can you take it?”

“I’m on my way. Be there in 15.”

***

Thirty Minutes Before The Darkness

            “Get up, David,” Hanna shouted as she pounded three times on the door to David’s room.  “You haven’t gone to school all week. You have to go today. Otherwise they’re going to kick you out.”

There was no sound. Hanna tried the door, but it was locked. She cursed under her breath about allowing David to have a lock on his door.   She hit the door again. “Get up!”

This time there was a response, but only the series of F-bombs were understandable, then something hit the door from the inside.

“I’m not going to tolerate this. You can’t say those things in this house.”

“Whatcha gonna do, mommy?” The sarcasm dripped from each word. “You going to call daddy at work and tell him to bring the handcuffs home and arrest me?”

“Just stop it. I don’t know what’s wrong, but you have to go to school.”

Hannah heard moving and thrashing around inside David’s room.  The commotion lasted for minutes without a single word being spoken. Finally, the door flew open. David, wearing a wrinkled t-shirt and the same jeans he had worn all week, barged out of the room. “

“Get out of my way, bitch,” he yelled. As he passed, David’s backpack crashed into Hanna, knocking her into the wall.

Hanna stood in the upstairs hall, rubbing the place where her shoulder banged into the wall. She could hear the sounds from downstairs as David thrashed around. The refrigerator opened and closed with a slam. So, too, did the cabinet doors. There was a rattling of dishes and silverware. 

Hanna’s heart pounded in her throat and her breathing was hurried and short. She walked into her bedroom and sat down hard on the edge of the bed, trying to remember the techniques Dr. Oz had taught on his show to reduce stress.

From below, Hanna heard the sounds of David rooting around like an angry bear. Doors opened and shut, furniture scraping across the floor, muttered curses.

“Bye, bitch!” she heard, and the front door slammed.  

Dreading what she would find, Hanna got up and walked downstairs. She looked out the window in the door and saw David getting into her car, her spare car keys in his hand. She started to open the door, then paused. She just could not face the confrontation.

The engine started up and the tires squealed. 

Hanna opened the door and looked out. David had backed out of the drive. As she watched, he accelerated away toward the school. In the morning sunlight shining through the car windows, she saw a glint off black metal leaning against the passenger window.  As her car disappeared around the corner, a shiver ran down Hanna’s back.  “Oh God, no.”

***

Eight Minutes Before The Darkness

            Alan Carmichael took one last look at the blood-splattered front porch and the lifeless body of Mary Henderson, then slipped his notebook into his shirt pocket and walked toward where Gary Storey was standing under a small maple tree smoking a cigarette.

“You know you’re not supposed to smoke in uniform.”

The patrolman turned sharply. He pulled the cigarette from his mouth.  “Sorry, Lieutenant.”

“Your first murder scene?”

“Yes, sir. I’ve not seen anything like that before. Her face was just gone.” The young patrolman started to drop the cigarette.

“Finish your cigarette,” Alan said. “The first one is always tough. At least you didn’t lose your breakfast. That’s what I did on my first death scene.”

Storey nodded and gave a sheepish smile.

“I’m done here,” Alan said. “Crime scene boys will be working here for the next couple of hours. Stick around for crowd control until they’re done. That will give you a chance to catch your breath. If your commander says anything, tell him I didn’t want any nosey neighbor screwing with the scene until the techs are done.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I don’t care if you sneak a cigarette. You probably need it. But don’t let anybody see you.” 

The radio on Storey’s shoulder crackled.

“All units. All units. 911 call reports possible school shooting underway at St. Benedict High School. Repeat, possible school shooting underway at St. Benedict’s. All nearby units respond. SWAT is being called.”

“That’s my son’s school.” Alan said. “We’re five minutes away. Tell them we’re responding. And don’t forget your vest.”

Alan ran to his unmarked car. He grabbed his Kevlar vest from the back seat and threw it on over his dress shirt.  Sliding in behind the wheel, he started the car, put it in drive, and pushed the accelerator to the floor.

***

Deepest Darkness

            David pulled his mom’s sedan into the St. Benedict High School parking lot. There were a few spaces open in the back row, but David saw that handicap spaces closest to school entrance were open.  “Screw it,” he said aloud, and whipped the Toyota around the aisle and into the handicap spot.

David stepped out of the car and grabbed for his dad’s 9 mm Glock that he had taken from the cabinet where he knew it was kept. The gun slipped through his sweat-drenched fingers and nearly fell to the pavement, but David finally got it in his grasp.  He wiped his hands on his jeans, racked a round into the chamber, and slid the gun behind his back into his belt. Then he pulled the shotgun from where it was propped against the passenger seat. He took a deep breath and walked toward the school entrance.

David heard the first sirens in the distance. There were two from different directions. Then more. It became a wailing symphony growing louder with each second.

Pulling the shotgun to his shoulder, David hastened his pace to the glass double-door entrance.  Inside, a woman was locking the door. It was Mrs. Smithson, the principal. As the first police cars squealed to a stop, David took aim and let go with a blast.

One glass door shattered, sending shards and fragments exploding like crystal snow into the morning light. Mrs. Smithson was blown to the floor by the blast. As she scrambled to get away, David took aim and fired again. The second shot blew out the bottom half of the door, but Mrs. Smithson was now on her feet, running around a corner and out of view.

David heard more cars stopping. The sound of the sirens was all around. Then came an amplified voice.  “Stop! Put your gun down and get on the ground!”

David stood still but did not turn or lower his gun. Everything went still. Then David heard his dad yelling behind him.

“It’s my son. It’s my son. I’ll handle this.”

David turned to see his dad standing on the sidewalk about 50 feet away. Behind him was an array of police and emergency vehicles. More than 20 armed officers wearing bullet-proof vests pointed their weapons directly at David.

Alan and David stood unmoving, frozen like statutes. Slowly Alan holstered his service handgun and held open palms toward his son. Cautiously Alan moved his hands to his jacket and undid the straps on his Kevlar vest, then dropped it to the sidewalk. With deliberate motions, Alan began walking forward.

“David, let’s all take a deep breath and calm down.” Alan’s voice was calm but firm. “All you’ve done so far is a little bit of vandalism. That’s no big deal. We can handle that. You don’t want to do something that can’t be undone. Come on, son, put the gun down and let’s talk this out.”

David hesitated, then dipped the barrel of the shotgun ever so slightly.  Alan continued to walk. When he was only two steps away, he reached his hand out for the shotgun. David moved the weapon a few inches, paused, then held out the gun. In a single, sharp movement, Alan grabbed the barrel. David shook his head. “No,” he shouted and snatched the Glock from its resting place in his belt. David fired three fast shots into Alan’s chest.

A barrage of gunfire exploded from the officers perched behind their cars. David staggered backwards, then fell into the blanket of glass shards covering the sidewalk, blood pouring from every part of his body.

***

Six Weeks After The Darkness

            Realization dawned on Father Glenn’s face. “That was your son? The one at St. Benedict’s? I heard about that. Your son was the shooter?”

“Don’t worry, Father. The only person he killed was his dad.”

“He shot his dad?”

“He was a detective; one of the first cops at the scene. He tried to talk David down, but David shot him.”

The priest stood motionless. Silent.

“You want to take back your prayers?”

Father Glenn placed a hand on Hanna’s shoulder. “Of course not. Those who are troubled, who are tormented, deserve our prayers, too. Only God is to judge.”

“That’s not the way most people think. That’s why Ellen requested the mass for him here. None of the churches in our area would say anything for David. She thought maybe people around here wouldn’t know his name. I’m sorry if she caused you any trouble.”

“He’s your son. No matter what he did, that doesn’t change. I will keep him and your husband in my prayers.”

Hanna’s stoic expression remained unchanged, but a solitary tear rolled down one cheek. “I appreciate your prayers for my son. My husband, too. But if there is a god, if he is so good, then why didn’t he help my boy before he died? David was deeply troubled. We tried everything, but there was no help for him when he was alive. If there is a god, why didn’t he give David a chance to find peace in his life?”

“We can’t know God’s plans. All we can do is have faith and pray for His mercy and love. I’ll pray for you, too.”

 “Mercy? What mercy? There was no mercy for David. As for your prayers, you can save them. I’m past that.” 

“No one is past the reach of prayer. If we open ourselves to Him, God will grant forgiveness and peace, even to those who suffer more than they think they can tolerate.” 

Anger flashed in Hanna’s eyes. “You know the Bible, don’t you?”

Father Glenn nodded. “Of course.”

“You know Proverbs 20:20?  A son that curses his parents will be extinguished in the darkest pit. Something like that. That’s what the priest at our local church told me when I asked about a service for David.”

Father Glenn shook his head. “That is awful. He should not have done that. I believe in a loving, forgiving and merciful God, not a vengeful God who turns his back on those in need.”

“There are some things beyond prayer, beyond forgiveness.” Hanna wiped away her tears and her face hardened.  “You see, I made the calls.”

Father Glenn looked at her, not understanding. “Calls?”

“When David drove away, I saw the shotgun in the car. I was afraid of what he might do, so I called the school. Then I called 911.”

They stood motionless, looking at each other. In a nearby chokeberry bush, a mockingbird trilled its vibrant morning songs, changing cadence every few seconds. The song went on undisturbed for minutes, with no other sound. In a world of such momentary beauty, it was difficult to imagine the horror of that morning at St. Benedict’s.

Finally, Father Glenn spoke, his voice so soft it could barely be heard above the songbird. “But if you hadn’t called, so many other children may have died. It took someone brave, someone who cared about others, to make that call.”

“It took someone scared. I was so damned scared that I couldn’t think straight. You think I would have sacrificed my son for any of them?”

The priest lowered his eyes as if in prayer. “My child, that is exactly what God did.”

“I’m not God!” Hanna shouted. “My son and my husband are dead, and I’m responsible. So, go say your prayers for someone who wants them, and leave me in my own darkness.”

Hanna got in her car and sped away, leaving the silent priest in her wake.