900 Miles: A Week On Hawaii’s Big Island

Hey, folks. I’m baaaaack.

*Crickets chirping*

…Ahem. If you recall, I recently left for a week-long trip to the Big Island of Hawaii. As with all of my travels, I focused on exploration and seeing new things. This was my first time on the Big Island, so there was a lot of ground to cover. And while I’m going cover it all via writing and photography (with a new DSLR!) soon, I thought I’d outline my epic adventure using a list format from this week’s writing challenge. To give you an idea of the scale and length of the journey (totaling nearly 900 miles, to the amazement/horror of the rental car people) here’s a map of the Big Island:

Map_of_Big_Island_of_Hawaii_Detailed

Here’s a list in chronological order of where I went. See if you can chart my routes:

Friday, 11/28/2014:

  • Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. (The location of my hotel and the starting and end points of all my daily trips until the last day).

Saturday, 11/29/2014:

Sunday, 11/30/2014

Monday, 12/01/2014

Tuesday, 12/02/2014

Wednesday, 12/03/2014

Thursday, 12/04/2014

Friday, 12/05/2014

Beaches, harbors, volcanos, lava tubes, rainforests, towns, nature trails, waterfalls, gardens, farms, tide pools…I may have overdone it. Then again, I’m already compiling a list of all things I’ll do the next time I go!

Weekly Writing Challenge: We Still Didn’t Start The Fire

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_writing_challenge/to-the-tune-of/

Inspired by: We Didn’t Start The Fire

San Francisco, Kosovo, Greta Garbo
Tiananmen, Simpsons, Hubble Telescope, Human Genome
Jim Henson, Noriega, Nelson Mandela, Imelda Marcos
WrestleMania, Iran-Contra, Ninja Turtles, McDonald’s in Moscow
Worldwide Web, Chunnel, Home Alone, Super Famicom
Gulf War, Cold War, Gorbachev, Roald Dahl
Desert Storm, Rodney King, TNG, Japanese economy
Starbucks on the go, Street Fighter II, Mount Pinatubo

We still didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We still didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we’re trying to fight it

Apartheid, Yeltsin, Clarence Thomas, Otzi the Iceman
Mike Tyson, St. Petersberg, Soviet Union’s gone
Oakland Hills, Perfect Storm, Robert Gates, Bill Clinton
Tom Clancy, Sophie’s World, Freddie Mercury, Terminator 2
Hannibal Lecter, Beauty and the Beast, American Psycho
Full House, Nicktoons, Black Or White, Clarissa
Jerry Springer, Graham Greene, Dr. Seuss
Twin Peaks, Mario World, Miles Davis, Nadine Gordimer

We still didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We still didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we’re trying to fight it

Johnny Carson, Cosby, and O’Connor
Bosnia, Aladdin, Gotti, A Few Good Men
Sister Act, Endeavour, Goosebumps
Ross Perot, Alex Haley, Unforgiven
Pentium, Boutros, John Paul II’s apology
Asimov, Raymond Burr, Michael Jackson, Janet Reno
Got Milk, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Stephen Hawking
Band of Brothers, Baghdad, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Siege At Waco

We still didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We still didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we’re trying to fight it

Windows, Magic, Buckingham, Arafat
Audrey Hepburn, Sleepless In Seattle, The Giver
Lion King, Jordan in Chicago, Madonna on Letterman
Green Day, Shipping News, Rwanda, OJ on the run
Kurt Cobain, Northridge, Tokyo and Sarin
AOL, Whitewater, Goodbye Jackie, Dahmer’s gone
Toy Story, Not Guilty, GoldenEye, Apollo 13
Atlantis Mir, DVDs, Mr. Burns, Oklahoma City

We still didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We still didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we’re trying to fight it

Game of Thrones, Green Mile, Independence Day
Dexter’s Lab, Pokemon, Deep Blue and Kasparov
Ozone Disco, Dolly Clone, 3D Mario
Chechnya, Atlanta, Esperanto Manifesto
Tupac, Beast Wars, Kabul Taliban
Info Free, Survey Mars, Gene and Ella
Princess Di, Everest, Harry Potter, Shots in Hollywood
Heaven’s Gate, Pol Pot, Mother Teresa

We still didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We still didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we’re trying to fight it

Jack and Rose, Jimmy, Ginsberg and Cousteau
Mason Dixon, South Park, Toonami, Denver
Seinfeld, Nagano, Wind-Up Bird, Truman Show
Google, Ellen, Sinatra, Matt and Alan Shepard
Star Wars, Euros, Matrix, The Sopranos
King is hit, Dalai Lama, Gretzky on the way
Columbine, Napster, Cowboy Bebop, Woodstock ‘99
Bones, Q, Milosevic, Macau, Y2K

We still didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We still didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we’re trying to fight it

Time Warner merge, Good Grief, PS2
Putin, Elian in Cuba, e-books, ISS and Mir
House of Leaves, Millionaire, Gladiator
Wikipedia, Bush, Enron, 9/11, War On Terror
One Ring, Shaved Trebek, Afghanistan
Douglas Adams, Buffy, Queen Mother, ICC
Columbia, SARS, Deep Field, Da Vinci Code
Nemo, Sparrow, Governator, DBZ

We still didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We still didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we’re trying to fight it

Facebook, Burj Khalifa, Massachusetts marriages
Indian Tsunami, Bolaño, Dark Tower, Alice Munro
Halftime show, Friends, Ken Jennings wins
Reagan, Reeve, Ray, and Brando
Northern nukes, Dan Rather, John Paul’s gone
YouTube, Deep Throat, Rosa Parks, and Pat no more
Hunter S Thompson, Hurricane Katrina, Vader, Evangelion
Saddam, Twitter, Doctor Who, McCartney’s 64

We still didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We still didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we’re trying to fight it

Stingray Steve, iPhone, Virginia Tech, Bhutto
Benoit, Marcel Marceau, Pratchett’s ill, Barker’s time to go
Vonnegut, Writer’s Strike, Hulu, Dark Knight
Hope and change, Castro, Breaking Bad, Georgia in a fight
Crashed economy, Failing banks, Politics in Thailand
Heath Ledger, Edmund Hillary, Arthur Clarke, WALL-E
Jackson off to Neverland, Reading Rainbow, CERN, Cronkite
Inception, WikiLeaks, Deepwater, Quake in Haiti

We still didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We still didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we’re trying to fight it

Watson, Arab Spring, Goon Squad, Pale King
Gaddafi, Bin Laden’s gone, Curiosity, Japan crisis, LHC
Kim Jong-il, Fifty Shades, Steve Jobs, Wall Street occupied
Skyfall, Snowden, Munro’s prize, Neil Armstrong flies
New Pope, Nothing written, Ebert, Let It Go
Marquez, Blood Moon, Kasem, Iraq with new foes
Health care, Student debt, marriage rights, dying vets
Russia and Crimea, Girls in Nigeria, Worldwide FIFA

We still didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We still didn’t start the fire
But when we’re gone
It will still burn on and on and on and on
And on and on and on and on

We still didn’t start the fire
It was always burning
Since the world’s been turning
We still didn’t start the fire
No we didn’t light it
But we’re trying to fight it

A List Of Mementos: A Work In Progress

A List Of Mementos: A Work In Progress

  • A finger painting of a clown, to remind me of where I began.
  • A bachelor’s degree, to remind me of what it means to overcome.
  • A chess set, to remind me why I love strategy.
  • A Galileo thermometer, to remind me of my inspiration.
  • A bottle of sparkling cider, to remind me to appreciate family while you can.
  • A glass sailboat, to remind me that the best memories are timeless.
  • A lanyard, to remind me that honesty and persuasion can work wonders.
  • An iPod that says Non sum qualis eram, to remind me to accept change.
  • A Necronomicon, to remind me why I love horror.
  • A copy of The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, to remind me to keep dreaming.
  • A puka shell necklace, to remind me of the spirit of Aloha.
  • A cave painting charm, to remind me to keep exploring.
  • An old walking stick, to remind me of the mountains I’ve climbed.
  • A stamp from 10,000 ft. up, to remind me that the climb is just as important as the view.
  • A miniature anchor, to remind me to keep taking chances.
  • A miniature gilded elephant, to remind me to seek opportunities.
  • A miniature Eiffel Tower, to remind me that some things are worth the wait.
  • A cable car ticket stub, to remind me some things aren’t.
  • A scorpion in plexiglass, to remind me of places to which I’ll never return.
  • A wooden Mayan charm on a string, to remind me what heat and time truly feel like.
  • A pewter Majora’s Mask, to remind me why video games are art after all.
  • A set of pins, to remind me to share my passion for literature.
  • A LEGO Hamlet, to remind me why I love being a geek.
  • A Hello Kitty Chun-Li, to remind me that I should accept all aspects of myself.
  • A pair of Buddhist prayer bead bracelets, to remind me to stay curious.

Weekly Writing Challenge: Blog Your Block: The Hill After Sunset

It’s getting dark. It’ll be another half an hour before the sun sets below the Bay Area’s horizon, but it’s already vanished behind the hill of my neighborhood. A few remnants of daylight peek between the trees up the street, but it won’t last long. The streetlamp just beyond my driveway flickers to life, bathing a small circle of sidewalk in pale yellow. It’s not enough.

This will have to be quick.

I shuffle down the brick steps, swatting a cloud of gnats out of my way. The wooden railing on the stairs is chipped on one end, and there’s a fresh spiderweb on it. I wish our front walk could produce as many flowers as insects. The only things growing right now are small patch of wildflowers by the sidewalk. They’re tiny, but look beautiful close up. Most have shriveled in the last week or so; the heat hasn’t been kind. The weeds don’t seem to mind, though. Most of the pavement on this street is cracked or warped, and green leaves are sprouting everywhere. The breeze kicks in for a moment, and a plastic bag drifts down the sidewalk like a tumbleweed. I quickly grab and drop it into a nearby garbage can. Good thing pickup is tomorrow.

I turn left and stride up the hill at a steady pace. It’s an easy, familiar climb; if I’m home and have some free time on Sundays, I do 10-20 laps up and around it. This time is different, though; I’m doing this without the benefit of sunlight, and that makes a world of difference. I’ve written before about how dangerous my neighborhood is at night, and even now I’m mentally kicking myself for going out at this hour. No one else is out right now. All of the neighbors are home, but the shades are drawn and the porch lights are off. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the buildings are all abandoned. When I was a child, I imagined houses as living creatures, with the windows and doors as eyes and mouths respectively. But now? Each of these Victorian-era behemoths stand dark and quiet, like massive tombs of a bygone civilization. Shadowy entryways, unkempt grounds, and unnatural stillness. Houses are reflections of our own mortality; some age with dignity and grandeur, and others rot and fade into obscurity.

A hundred years ago, this area used to be a high-end neighborhood. These sprawling, wonderfully lavish homes were a far cry from the relatively low-budget places built after the end of World War II. I’m not sure what happened in the last sixty years, but the decline has been evident. I’ve seen old reel footage from what this place used to look like in the 50s; it was still safe enough to have street parades without having to worry about drive-bys. What changed? Was it the influx of people who couldn’t afford to live in Oakland or San Francisco? Was it corruption? Poor planning? All of the above? Whatever it was, this place has been perpetually broke since the turn of the century. This side of town has borne the brunt of it; all the modern establishments are far off in the hills. The schools here have a 30% dropout rate, crime is common, and even Starbucks won’t dare come within three miles of this area. The old Main Street is just a couple of blocks away, but aside from the local tavern, most of its storefronts are abandoned. It’s not safe – both physically and financially – to have a business in an area like this.

I pass by a rusted pickup truck and look at a neighbor’s window. The shades are drawn, but the sound of baseball on TV barely filters through. A police siren fades off into the distance, and I quicken my pace. The night is still young, after all. The top of the hill is there in a few seconds, and I lean against a decorative rock wall. Three trees grew for decades on this corner, but now there are only two. About a month ago, one was toppled in a storm, cutting off the street from two directions and nearly flattening the stop sign. It took almost a week for all the wood to be chopped and cleared out, leaving only a gargantuan stump in its wake. As I stare and reminisce, a cacophony of barks and howls brings me back to the present. A neighbor across the street has three dobermans, all locked up behind high and thickly-veiled fences. No one can walk by that house without getting an earful of snarls and yaps.

Not wanting to be mistaken for a prowler, I make an about face and head for the alleyway that runs back down the hill. I spare a glance down the adjacent street and freeze. There’s a seedy drugstore and adult novelty shop on the far corner, illuminated by a single streetlight. I can see the silhouette of someone leaning against the building in the shadows. Could be waiting for an escort, could be getting high. Maybe both. No one just stands out there idly at this hour. Not long ago, a man was killed in broad daylight in the middle of the street here. Hoping that I wasn’t seen, I duck into the alley and start circling back to my neck of the woods. The areas back here are in even worse shape than the front. Faded green paint chips away from an abandoned house, and weeds have consumed a backyard and part of a chain link fence. A window was broken recently, but it was boarded up and left unfixed. There were wisterias blooming here months ago, but they’re long gone. As I pass by a thicket, I notice a trash bag, empty bottles, and a single, muddy shoe. Those weren’t there last week; a homeless person must have camped out. I take the time to inspect the back fences that connect our properties. The barricades and boarded sections are still undisturbed.

Good.

I practically jog the rest of the way down the hill and round the corner. Weathered sedans and jeeps roar by on the main drag, radios blaring and headlights already on. I pass by my block’s lone palm tree, a odd landmark that was originally planted sometime around 1900. If anything of this place will survive, it’ll be that. The few remaining blackberry bushes are still months away from producing anything, though. The wooden fence running alongside the pavement is starting to sag under its own weight; if the trees and shrubbery are removed, the entire thing will likely collapse. The paint has long faded into a murky, curdled white, peeling away one tiny strand at a time. It needs to be fixed. Everything needs to be fixed.

I make it back home and lock the door behind me, not looking back once. It’s time for dinner, and for some reason I really need some food and a Giants game right now. I just got back from my vacation this week; it’s time to settle in and return to the daily grind.

I can’t wait to leave this place again.

The Inevitability Of Age

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/weekly-writing-challenge-golden-years/

Age. It’s one of the inevitable aspects of our lives. It’s like breathing; it happens to everyone, yet no one notices until you point it out. We try not to think about it too much – our society is very much focused on youth – because of all the implications and associations involved. We live day to day in unspoken denial, with the belief that, unlike those that came before us, we will enjoy boundless energy and health. That we are infallible and invulnerable. That we can mock and dismiss our predecessors for their supposedly outdated perspectives. That mortality – the ultimate equalizer – is of no consequence.

I know better.

Just a quick show of hands: How many you reading this care or have cared for an elderly person? I can’t be the only one. Due to the way the cards fell during the 2008 recession, I ended up staying with and assisting some of my older relatives. It’s been a learning experience just from a medical standpoint. Non-functioning immune systems, cancer, diabetic comas, blood sugar, blood pressure, tumors, growths, astigmatism, partial blindness, weak bones, failing organs, infections, sores, memory loss, muscle spasms, loss of balance, twisted ankles, dental work, infusion clinics, nurses’ clinics, pharmacy pickups, heart problems, depression, sleeping problems, bad backs, bad hips, bad joints, bad everything…Most of the problems are hereditary, so I know growing old will not be pleasant. I’ll be turning 30 this year, and I’ve spent more time in hospitals than any non-medical student should. Do you have any idea what it’s like coming home every night and seeing your family grow just a little weaker?

It eats me up inside.

The same goes for how elders are treated on a daily basis. The slow driver holding up your precious commute? Maybe he’s is too physically weak to drive, but he doesn’t have any friends or money to get him where he needs to go. That old lady at the grocery store that smells funny and is cranky all the time? Yeah, she has a life, just like you. Except that hey, maybe she doesn’t get to see her kids anymore. That her family doesn’t care about her, and they only show up at Christmas in a sense of grudging obligation. Maybe her family is dead, and she has to subsist on what little peanuts her social security provides. That, despite all the government policy claims to the contrary, she has to choose between groceries and medicine. And that maybe she lies awake in her bed at night, wishing her body wasn’t aching and her husband was still alive. Wondering how she’s going to pay the bill next week when she’s out of cash. That maybe she might die in her house and go unnoticed for months, simply because the world forgot about her.

That might be you someday.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t fear death; I’ve come close enough times to know how quickly and easily it can end. It will happen, and I’m at peace with it. The prolonged suffering that leads up to it, however, is something else entirely. It’s hard getting old. If you’ve got the love and support of family and friends, you’re much better off. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Rather than disregarding our elders, we should spend even more time with them. There’s a belief that age begets wisdom. It’s not necessarily true; everyone is flawed and capable of mistakes no matter how old they are. Some of the most immature people in my life are twice my age, and I’ve grown wary of those who use years as a mark of superiority. If anything, age gives you experience; the extra time is filled with possibilities and opportunities, and it’s just a matter of learning from them.

And passing them on, for that matter. I’ve written before about one of my grandmothers, and how she was easily the strongest person I’d ever known. Not physically – her body was badly broken and warped before she died – but mentally and spiritually. She taught me the value of determination; she lived her last agonizing year with nothing but sheer willpower. If a nearly 100 year-old woman can raise her frail, shattered body up to cook and tend to her flowers every morning, then I know I can do better. That’s the kind of thing you can learn only from your elders; It doesn’t matter how badly you age, but how well you live. I just wish more of my generation (and parents) would bother to listen and understand.

If you have an elderly person in your life, tell them you love them. They’ll probably appreciate it.

The Valentine That Never Was

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/02/10/writing-challenge-valentine/

You never wanted a Valentine. I knew that right from the start. For you, it was just so many little, meaningless trinkets. You didn’t want flowers; you accepted every bouquet from all those hopeful suitors with a polite smile, but left them on a table in hopes someone would walk by and steal them. You never seemed to care much for expensive jewelry, either; I can count the number of times you wore something extravagant on a single hand. I could always tempt you with chocolate. But then again, we were always sharing food with each other. If I gave you a box of Godiva or Ghirardelli, you’d just split it with me. We’d eat our meals like we always did – book and phone in hand respectively – and the little treats would just be an added bonus. We’d sit there quietly, occasionally exchanging words and knowing glances. As if everything was normal between us.

After a year of unspoken attraction, it was normal.

We made it so obvious. Neither of us was particularly subtle about it. I kept catching you staring at me. All those held gazes, fleeting but genuine smiles, deep blushes, shifts in body language. Hands and lips close enough to touch, the smell of perfume, the massages, the playful tug of each others’ hair. The tension was palpable. Everyone else in our group was terrified of you, and for good reason. You were so wonderfully fierce, headstrong, and ambitious. You relished playing that role, but I saw past it the moment we spoke alone. The stress, loneliness, awkwardness, confusion, the sheer exhaustion from trying to do everything yourself…you didn’t fool me for a second, because I was exactly the same. You would’ve eventually suffered a nervous breakdown, had I not called you on it. I still remember that stunned, disbelieving look on your face. Was that why you were attracted to me? Because I wasn’t intimidated and wanted to see what lurked beneath your facade? Because I refused to worship you and dared to treat you like a real person instead? Because you found someone to whom you could vent your problems? Because I could teach you things about the world you’d yet to explore? Because I could make you – that stony-faced workaholic – laugh with just a glance?

We didn’t fool anyone. They gossiped about us, you know. Made sure we had plenty of alone time. I think they were taking bets over who’d make the first move. But neither of us budged. It was so, so tempting, but we were locked in an emotional stalemate. It’s ironic; we were supposedly the two boldest, smartest people in the room, yet we were too afraid to just say the truth aloud. There was that underlying fear of change, that admitting anything would irrecoverably shift our dynamic and alter our futures. We silently blamed it on the timing, our careers, and ambitions. We didn’t want to hold each other back. So when we inevitably parted ways, there weren’t any tears; we thanked each other for all we’d done, hugged, smiled, and left.

You know what the weird thing is? I don’t miss you anymore. Absence doesn’t make the heart grow fonder; it just makes you forget. I remember those moments and hours we shared. Working on projects late into the night, and you gleefully singing to songs (especially Don’t Stop Believin’) in my playlist. Watching and laughing at terrible movies together. Accidentally walking in on each other getting ready for a dinner, and helping each other get dressed. The one time we went bowling, and failing miserably at it. All the times I playfully mocked you for being such a klutz. The stares, smiles, and sorrows you gave me when you thought no one was looking. I recall all of it, but only through a veneer of faded nostalgia. I’ve moved on, and I’m sure you have as well. And that’s okay. Though I was never your lover, I managed to bring out what you dared not to reveal to anyone. I got you to realize there was more to life – and you – than just a salary. You coaxed me out of my shell, gave me a reason to believe in people, and the possibility that life was indeed worth living. I know you never wanted a Valentine, but I hope you’ll settle for a thank you.

Walking Home In The Dark: Part 2

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/weekly-writing-challenge-cliffhanger/

So there I am, standing at the bottom of the hill in the dark. I can’t be more than 200 feet away from the cars, but the drivers haven’t noticed me yet. Good. That’s very good. The cruddy streetlamp is a mixed blessing; as long as I stay out of its dull glow, I should be able to stay hidden. But I can’t stay out here forever. It’s too cold. There’s no way to get in besides the front, either. I have to head into the light…What about a distraction? Maybe I can call the house and have someone turn on the porch lights. The dealers might take it as a sign that someone’s coming out and leave. It’s worth a shot, right? I quietly take out my phone and begin dialing…

Only to discover that the battery is dead. Damn it.

Okay, so much for Plan B. I don’t have any weapons aside from my fists, feet, and teeth. Confrontation is out. What could possibly go wrong if I just walk up there? It’s a small-time neighborhood drug deal, so it’s not like they’re going to shoot me right out front. It’d be too loud and messy. They’d have to dispose the body, the bullet casings…unless they simply abduct me at gunpoint, take me to a warehouse somewhere and do things more methodically. Or maybe they just don’t care and have no qualms about leaving a body count. I’m not afraid of death – I’ve faced it enough before – but there are worse things. What about living through torture and mutilation? The human body is capable of surviving phenomenal punishment…

I’m over-thinking this.

Fine, then. Let’s just keep this nice and simple. I start walking up the hill at a steady pace. I face forward, but keep the dealers in my sight. Fifty feet. Thirty. Ten. I’m crossing in front of the driveway, and I spare a glance at the truck. A crusty blue Dodge, a few dents in the fender. Can’t make out the plate. The stench of cigarette smoke. As I pass the passenger side door, both men stop talking and look directly at me. I don’t even skip a beat; I turn my back to them and wearily trudge up the steps to house’s front walk. I’m moving on autopliot. I’ve done this hundreds of times, after all. I live here, unlike these people. I get inside the house and slam the door shut, then promptly turn on every light I can reach. A few seconds later, the truck rumbles to life and vanishes into the darkness.

And then I start breathing again.

Walking Home In The Dark

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/weekly-writing-challenge-cliffhanger/

I’m late. It’s already dark. I didn’t mean stay out for so long. Trips to San Francisco are the highlight of my week, but they’re measured by the daylight. The city itself is fine – it’s got the splendor and filth of any major city – but it’s the commute back home that’s the problem. An hour on the BART train system, getting off almost at the end of the line. Waiting for the next bus to arrive for up to thirty minutes, depending on traffic, delays, or if it even shows up at all. It’s ridiculously hit-or-miss, especially on the weekends. Getting off at the closest remaining bus stop to my house (the city shut down the one just down the street, of course), and walking nearly two miles from the outskirts of town. One marshland/construction zone to pass, two hills to climb, three stoplights to cross. Dozens of minutes, thousands of steps, all while keeping an eye on the setting sun and silently praying I make it back before the light disappears. Those minutes add up fast, and I can’t afford waste a single one.

It’s not safe here at night.

The thing is, it’s actually better than riding all the way into town. Most of the buildings on the old main street are boarded up and riddled with graffiti. Only the seedy lounge, an adult novelty shop, and a grimy convenience store on the corner are active at this hour. The rest know better than to keep their doors unlocked for too long. Most businesses packed up and left when the city declared bankruptcy years ago, opting instead to seek fortunes on the other, still-developing side of town. Drunks and drug dealers reign supreme over the remnants. A man was murdered in broad daylight not a year ago, his body splayed and bleeding in the street about four houses up from mine. Thievery is practically a given. The police only show up in extreme circumstances; their budget has been recently slashed. They don’t have the resources to stem the flow of daily crime. In the deepest, darkest hours before dawn, you can hear sirens and alarms on the wind. Sometimes gunshots.

And rarely, a scream.

So, I take the slightly less dangerous route. It’s longer, but there’s less of a chance of me running into someone or something unpleasant. But now that the sun’s gone, all bets are off. It’s okay, just have to focus and keep a low profile. I get off the bus, shove my hands in my pockets, and start walking. There’s a homeless man reclining in one of the construction site tubes, and I hope he won’t try anything as I pass. The street running alongside the former marshland is lined with lights, but there’s a narrow sidewalk on only one side. I have to walk against speeding traffic, shielding my eyes from the glaring headlights of passing cars. It’s too dark for them to notice me. Good, that means less chance of catcalls and muggings.

I reach the first light, punch the signal button, and wait. It’s freezing out here. I can just make out the vapors of my breath in the pale light. But I’m burning up; I can feel the sweat coming off arms, and the blood pulsing in my ears. A guy pushing a shopping cart full of odds and ends passes the other side of the intersection and vanishes into the shadows. The signal beckons me forth, and I practically leap into the crosswalk. I stride briskly to the other side, feeling the eyes of the drivers on my back. Don’t turn around. Don’t turn around, it’s okay, just keep going. I make it to the second intersection and do it all over again. I turn right and start climbing the hill.

Now that I’m off the main drag, it’s much quieter. But somehow, it makes things even worse. This neighborhood is one of the oldest in the entire city. The pavement is uneven, cracked, and weedy. Its houses are grand, rotting relics…and so are its streetlamps. There’s a sickly yellow glow coming from each lamp, but they’re way too far apart. There are long stretches of dark in between, abysses that seem to devour everything that gets too close. There could be anyone – anything – in those pockets of nothing.

And there’s no way around them.

I take a few deep breaths and sprint up the hill. I spare a glance at the old, hollowed furniture shop as I pass by – someone cracked its front window recently – and hope there’s no one lurking inside. None of the houses on this street have their lights on. Not a single sign of life. The other side of the hill is much more inviting. Brighter streetlights! Cars! One last intersection! And…Mexican music playing somewhere up the street? Fine, I’ll take anything over the silence.

I shuffle down the slope and make it past the final crosswalk. I stride past the rumbling vehicles without a second glance. I pass by a house with a fenced yard, and a little white dog yaps at me from the shadows. Someone left a couch on the corner; it’s laying on its side, stuffing bulging out and cushions faded with dirt. It’ll be gone by morning. It’s okay, doesn’t matter. I’m too close to care. I turn left and start making the final climb up the hill. My house is only a few hundred feet away. I look up the street in eager anticipation…

And freeze.

There is only one old streetlamp on my block. It’s halfway up the hill, right in front of my house. And in its splash of muted light, I can see two cars parked with their engines running. A blue pickup truck and a brown, rusty sedan. Neither of them belong to anyone in this neighborhood. There’s a guy sitting in the pickup, and he’s talking with the guy leaning against his window. Most likely a drug exchange.

And they’re parked right in front of my house.

To Be Continued

Weekly Writing Challenge: Ghosts of December 23rds Past, Or: The Christmas Cancellation

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/writing-challenge-ghosts/

It’s December 23rd, 1989. It’s a late night. Much later than I’m normally allowed to stay up. I’m spending the last half of December at my Grandma’s house. The American one, not the Filipino one. The house is bustling with activity; it’s the place everyone in the family visits on Christmas Day, so we’ve got to get ready. My Grandpa and uncle hauled in a real, 10-foot tree a couple of days ago, and it’s still not completely decorated. The angel on top is beautiful, like a big hazy star that’s somehow floated into the room. Some of the ornaments higher up – the ones made of metal and glass – shine and sparkle against the flickering lights. Grandpa lit up the fireplace a few hours ago, and the heat feels wonderful. I could watch the flames dance for hours, but I’ve been tasked with an important duty: dusting.

They said I didn’t have to do it all in one day, but I want to do my part. Besides, there’s only this living room left. But there’s so much to see! All the old paintings from someone’s previous adventures, the relics of family members long past, the treasure trove of books lining a wall, the new crack near the ceiling from the earthquake, the huge garland they somehow managed to string from one end of the room to the other…and the stockings. There are so many stockings, each with their own design and hanger. Mine is fuzzy penguin with a winter cap and red earmuffs. It’s hanging from the hook of a tiny, smiling Eskimo. The stockings are empty and flat; no one touches them until Christmas morning. The grownups keep telling me that filling the stockings is Santa’s job, but I don’t believe them. How’s Santa supposed to get down the chimney if a fire is going? Won’t that burn him and all the presents? It doesn’t make any sense. The smell of freshly-baked cookies wafts in from the kitchen, and I run off in hopes of a dessert.

The dust rag is forgotten.

It’s December 23rd, 1994. Late night. I probably should be in bed, but I’ve got too much energy. I’m back at Grandma’s again. As usual, it’s really busy. My grandma and a couple of aunts are working feverishly in the kitchen, bringing forth tray after tray of cookies. I’ve stopped try to keep count. A couple of hours ago, I helped clear off the dining table and put the huge green table cloth over it. It looks so different with all the fancy dishes on it, and I’m proud of how it looks. I set the table all the time at home, and I finally got the chance to show off my skills. If I stand on a chair, I can almost reach the upper part of the tree. The top is still beyond me. It’s okay, at least they let me handle decorating all by myself. I’m granted access to half a dozen large boxes crammed full old ornaments. Each trinket has a story, and I ask about everything that looks interesting. A crystal sailboat from Carmel. Aluminum stars from the 1870s. An old watch my great-great grandmother found while traveling through Southeast Asia. A garland of what resembles dried Froot Loops. Now that I have glasses, the angel at the top actually looks like an angel instead of a star.

I wonder if I’m asking too many questions, but the grownups don’t seem to mind. Everyone’s been nice to me since my sister left a few months ago. I’ve been tasked with putting wrapped presents on display, and most of them are already done. I’ve been told not to touch mine – I know the sound of shaking LEGOs – but I can guess based on the size of the boxes. One of them is the size of a Super Nintendo cart. It’s probably Donkey Kong Country. I’m also holding out for some Pogs. I just hope I don’t have to wear that nasty sweater Mom gave me early; it’s this red, white, and black wool monstrosity that makes me itch and sweat. Someone turns on the cassette player in the next room, and a soothing voice starts singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. I’ve run out of decorating room on the tree. I eagerly hop off the chair and run to the kitchen, hoping to show someone what I’ve done.

It’s December 23rd, 1995. It’s getting late. The work has stopped for the night. We’ve already got the majority of the chores finished. The cooking and presents are done. The process seems more subdued. Everyone is tired, and I know why. It’s Grandpa. He’s been sick for months. He’s in a big bed installed a couple of rooms over. They say there’s something called a tumor growing in his brain that’s making him sleep more and more, so much that he barely stirs when you talk to him. It’s so quiet and somber in the house now; the tree lights have been turned off early, and no one bothered to put on music. I’m already in my Charlie Chaplin pajamas, but I don’t want to go to bed yet. I’m watching an I Love Lucy rerun on Nick At Nite, the one with the chocolate factory. Grandma appears in the doorway, and something’s wrong. I can see it on her face.

“It’s Grandpa. We think…he’s dying.”

Her voice breaks on that last word, and it occurs to me that I’ve never seen Grandma cry before. I numbly get up and walk the twenty feet over to Grandpa’s bed. I peer at his face – there’s only one dull overhead light in this room – to see for myself. No movement, as I’ve come to expect. But now he’s not breathing. There’s no sound in the room except for my Grandma sobbing in a chair in the corner. I mumble some kind of prayer in hopes that I’ll see him again someday. I’m then ushered back to the bedroom. I’m put under the covers and told to go to sleep. No one else does. I can see light from the next room pouring in the doorway, and the sounds of what can only be paramedics. I don’t think I’ll ever sleep again, but I do eventually.

It’s December 23rd, 2000. It’s getting late again. Everything’s down to the wire this year; even with my help, all the preparations are just going to be done on time. I’ve just finished putting up the stockings – I’m the only one with a memory good enough to know which belong to whom – and I’m taking a moment to enjoy my handiwork. Everything is centered, with an equal number on each side. Good. Even though I and the rest of my cousins are all teenagers now, we never got rid of our old stockings. My penguin is where it normally is, first stocking on the right side of the mantel. None of them are filled yet, but that’s okay. Everyone’s too busy to show up at the same time on Christmas Day, so we’ve got a few hours of leeway. It’s so cold in here. The fireplace has been empty for years, mainly because no one knows how to properly maintain it. It’s okay, we don’t need it.

My uncle pulls up in the driveway, and I go out to help him bring in gifts. He asks about my father, who suddenly had enough of America, packed up, and left for Malaysia earlier in the year. No, he’s not going to be here for Christmas this year. Or any Christmas. I don’t know if he’s ever coming back. It’s okay. In the deep, secret part of my heart, I don’t miss him. I take a moment to look at the sky. It’s a clear, crisp night, and I can see stars for the first time in weeks. I quietly walk to the side of the house and turn on the outdoor Christmas lights. Three floors lined in shiny white, a simple but elegant attempt to celebrate like our neighbors. Besides, it’s 2000; we had to do something special this time. There’s a vague notion that something is changing, but I don’t know what it is.

It’s December 23rd, 2011. I’m so tired. My head is aching. It’s been a long, exhausting week at work. I stagger in the door and shuffle off my coat, forgoing dinner for at least a few minutes. The recession has hit my family hard, and I’m one of the few that still has a job at this point. There’s no tree this time. No one’s interested in buying gifts. Nor does anyone want to visit for Christmas; why spend the time coming to an old house like this when they can stay home? All of us kids have grown up and made their own families – except for me, of course – so they’ve got their own plans. Everyone’s health problems have flared up, too; my aunt’s been and out of the hospital a couple of times just this past year. Grandma’s got it worst, though. Diabetes, lymphoma, cataracts, and breast cancer. It’s like dominoes. She had surgery earlier this month, leaving her practically bedridden. She’s had an infection and fever since yesterday, and no one knows if she’s going to live through the weekend. She could die in that bed, 20 feet from where her husband died long ago.

I quietly fix a plate of leftovers and take out my passport. It’s about to expire, and Mom said she would pay for its replacement as my gift. I flip through the pages of faded stamps and symbols before settling on the ID page itself. I stare at the picture and come to a terrible realization: I don’t recognize the person the picture. What happened to me? When did I become like this? How have things changed so much? Why doesn’t anything seem magical anymore? How much worse is this going to get? What am I doing here? I stand up and wash my dishes, but everything seems to be going much slower than it should. My hands are shaking, and for some reason I’m breathing hard. A chill creeps through me like a winter breeze, and it takes me a minute to calm down. I turn off the kitchen light, head to my room, and put on a movie.

Christmas has been canceled.

The Door Opens

http://dailypost.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/challenge-collecting-detail/

It’s 2:13 AM. I don’t know why I’m still up. Too many things to read? Insomnia? Depression? All of the above? It doesn’t matter anymore. The laptop bathes me in the glow of its backlight, like a digital campfire. It doesn’t hurt my eyes. Yet. The fan hums quietly, its white noise ever-present but not comforting. The old analog clock on my headboard ticktocks ten minutes fast, a reminder of my mortality. There is no music left; the night’s playlist has long run out. An empty teacup languishes on a coaster, chilly to the touch. The portable heater sits unplugged two feet away, tempting me with promises of warmth on multiple settings. No, not now. It’s too late for that. It’s too late for anything. I’m no longer sure that I really exist.

My bedroom door opens.

The air catches in my throat. I don’t turn my head to look. Just my eyes. I stare frozen and wide-eyed at my door. The white paint has faded over decades, and a couple of shirts hang from the top. The doorknob is a massive chunk of brownish metal, with an old-fashioned keyhole beneath it. Quaint. But there’s no lock. There never was a lock. The latch has slipped loose, and now there’s a half-inch gap between the door and its frame. And within that half-inch, there is nothing but darkness. An endless, inky expanse that devours all who ventures into it. No light, no sounds. There is nothing out there.

Reality does not exist beyond that door.

I sit there for what seems like hours, transfixed by that narrow crack in reality. I’m shaking, and it’s not just because it’s freezing outside. How did the door open by itself? Is there someone or something out there, peering at me? Waiting? An icy wind crashes headlong into the house, and snaps me out of my thoughts. Of course! It was the wind! It stopped raining a couple of hours ago, but the wind is still going strong. This house is old – at least a century – and it’s got plenty of drafts. The breeze must have gotten in and pushed the door. It’s powerful enough to do that. I can hear the fallen leaves rattling on the pavement outside. They’re being stirred up by the wind, not the footsteps of some beast lurking in the cold. It’s okay. You’ve just got to close the door and go to sleep. It’s fine. You’ve just been awake way too long. I choke out something that resembles a laugh, stand up, and grab the doorknob.

Are you sure it’s safe?

Damn it. I can’t remember if the side door downstairs is locked. It’s the only way someone could sneak inside without causing detection. Or slightly opening doors to spy on impressionable, insomniac writers. Okay, I have to go down there and check. It’s the only way to be sure. I grab a small flashlight, swallow hard, and open the door wide. The hinges creak, and I practically jump out of my skin. Idiot, calm down!  I hope I didn’t wake anyone up. And if there’s someone prowling in here, they know someone’s awake. They’re probably hiding, or looking for an escape. Oh, I’ll give them something to escape from! I reach behind me and grab my walking stick. Anger replaces fear, and I step confidently into the darkness. Flashlight on, nothing moves. I’m surrounded by silhouettes that vaguely resemble my home. But I know better.

At this hour, anything is possible.

I miraculously make it down the stairs without stumbling over anything. I tread lightly, avoiding all of the creaks and cracks that I’ve spent years memorizing. The carpeted surface is a mottled relic of the mid-70s. Still-life paintings and photographs line the stairwell, and I’m grateful that none of them feature people. I don’t think I could handle seeing a human face staring back at me in the dark. An old cane hangs from the lower banister, a remnant of a someone long past. The door is right there, and both locks on it set. I jiggle and twist the doorknob a few times just to make sure. Good. Ye gods, it’s cold. I once nicknamed this lowest part of the house the Ninth Circle of Hell, because it’s always freezing down here. It’s not an exaggeration this time; I can see my wispy breaths float in the glare of my flashlight. Shivering, I walk over to a window and peek out. I can just make out the trees thrashing in the wind, but a plastic rainwater bucket steals my attention. It’s filled to the brim, and the water is frozen solid.

It’s too cold for this.

I make my way back to the stairs and glance back. Everything is fine. Freezing, but fine. I sigh and take a step up. A low creak rises up out of the dark, and I freeze. What was that? I turn around and fumble the flashlight. I know I heard that. It came from somewhere down here. Thirty feet of dusty storage boxes and relics of days long gone stretch out before me like a labyrinth. The light switch is on the other end, and I don’t think I’m in the right frame of mind to go searching for anything. It’s okay. It was probably nothing. It could’ve been something. No, the door was locked! You’re done, go to bed! I take a step backward and stumble. I feebly grab the railing, and in that brief second I glimpse something in that darkness, some unspeakable horror poised to kill.

I’m beyond thinking at this point. I scramble up the stairs and frantically speed-walk back to my room. I shut the door with a shaky hand, and stand there panting. It’s okay. There’s nothing there. There’s nothing there. The door is locked, nothing got in. I shut off my computer, and my world is silent save for the endless ticktocks. 2:19 now. It’s pitch-dark, and I practically fall into my bed. I lay there on one side, wishing the blankets would warm me up faster. I let out a sigh and close my eyes.

My bedroom door opens.