WRITER’S BLOCK

     I pulled the brim of my khaki boonie down fractionally in an attempt to buy a few moments of precious time before the sun broke out from behind the cloud cover.  I figured I had one – maybe two – attempts, and I was pretty darn sure this opportunity wouldn’t be knocking again any time soon.  Make it count! 

     Tucked into a vertical crevice of craggy overhang, my elevated vantage point set me up for a clear mark that the competition lacked.  Granted, the distance exceeded optimal, but if I controlled my breathing and steadied my hand, I just might have a chance.  Taking my eye away from the glass, I blinked in rapid succession, mentally cursing the incessant spray of salt mist that was wreaking havoc with my ability to focus.  No doubt about it, this was going to be challenging. 

     Deep breath in … slow and complete exhaleRepeat. 

     Drawing my focus inward, I absorbed the mounting tension of the throng; listening and feeling in turn.  An impression of pent up, charged energy exploded in a collective rush, and at that moment my suspicions were confirmed.  My target was approaching.  With deliberate calm, I closed my eyes and expanded my chest, filling my lungs to capacity before releasing my breath once again … and hold.  Drawing from years of experience, my sequence of moves was executed with calculated and mechanical motion; no faltering, no vacillating.  I simply heard the voice in my head whisper, and I responded.  Take the shot.  

     Although my first instincts shouted for me to vacate the area and beat a straight path back to base as the crow flies, the disciplined component of my brain forced me to disassemble my gear and compartmentally stow it away for safe keeping.  Task completed, I hoisted my field pack onto my shoulders, ensuring that no webbing or paracord straps had worked their way loose during the rigors of my mission. 

     Maneuvering down the jutting outcropping was a task that I could have carried out blindfolded, and my desert tan Outriders gripped the rock and held me fast.  I jumped the last six feet or so, landing in a crouch and allowing the sand to absorb the impact of my two hundred pound frame.  From there, I hit the beach at a lope and didn’t stop until I glimpsed the signal light, floating orb-like against the shadowy curtain of a descending night.

     Grinning, I sprinted the last fifty yards, overcoming the last incline with a calculated series of leaps and bounds.  I tagged the orb before collapsing in a wheezing heap, shifting the pack from my back as I fell. 

~ ~ ~

     It was perfect.  Picture perfect!  Those were the exact thoughts running through my head as I stepped out onto the multi-terraced, cedar-planked deck that fanned out from the western side of my beach cottage rental.  From there, I could enjoy the expansive, oceanic view, which overlooked the iconic monolith of basalt rock jutting from the edge of the northern Pacific like a rugged testament of an ancient and primitive epoch!  At least that’s what the property management advertisement boasted; a depiction that certainly sounded more glamorous than ‘from the deck you can see Haystack Rock’! 

Yes, this was just the sort of place where a fellow could find his focus; really dig in, hunker down, and let the world go by.  No obligations, commitments, or – might as well come out and say it – relationships!  Put it all together with a bow on top and what do you get?  Freedom!  A man’s best friend! 

     I whooped out loud, raising my fist to the storm-darkening sky in a symbolic gesture of masculine autonomy.  An invigorating rush, akin to some primordial awakening, began to quicken inside of me, and as if of their own accord, my hands began drumming out a steady, tribal rhythm against the wooden rail.  I had a beat, I had a groove, I had . . . an audience.     

     Had it not been for the over-sized, hollowed out sockets that housed the largest and saddest eyes on the planet, I would have mistaken the pale, dome-shaped knob for an exotic shell.  The kind they bleach and then light up with a candle to produce ambiance or some such nonsense.  This particular shell was backlit by a hurricane lantern, producing a halo effect and causing me to do a double take. 

     “You’re an urchin,” I guessed, thinking I had labeled the shell correctly.

     “Oui, I have been called that before,” the creature answered, rising up slightly above the rail of the adjacent deck to peer me full in the face.

     “Oh, I mean … no, not that kind of urchin!” I quickly asserted, jamming my hands deep into my denim pockets and trying desperately hard not to stare.

     The boy appeared to have a bioluminescent quality about him, but I suppose that was the glow of the lantern reflecting off his milky white skin.  Creepy.  

     “You have not seen many childreen with thee cancer, non?”

     “Uh …n-no, I guess I haven’t,” I replied, fighting to maintain composure.

     “I deed not think so, Monsieur,” the kid stated matter-of-factly, walking over to a bench and donning a knit beanie.  That was better! “So, I weel do something or you – yes?  I weel put on my hat so that you are not … how do you say … embarrassé?”

     “Embarrassed?” I asked, trying to follow his accent, which was proving to be somewhat of a stumbling block to my Yankee Doodle English.  “I’m not embarrassed, kid, it’s just kind of … ”

     “Awkward?” he supplied with a knowing look. 

     Apparently this wasn’t his first rodeo, and I decided to drop the façade and speak my mind, although I couldn’t quite meet his eye.  “Yeah, well, there’s a storm blowing in and, not to be rude, but don’t you have to – you know – take care of yourself better?” 

     He lifted a single shoulder in a casual shrug that seemed to dismiss my concern as an insignificant factor in the equation.  Somehow, the gesture seemed so very adult and so utterly … French. 

     I cleared my throat, feeling sheepish and crass; quite the far cry away from the self-determining man of a whole 10 minutes past.  I needed time to debrief.  Heading in, I called over my shoulder, “Hey, what’s your name, neighbor?”

     And then it happened … right before my very eyes.  He smiled and I swear that for a second – a split second – the urchin transformed into a boy.  Not a pitiful creature, but a happy, healthy, honest-to-goodness boy!

     “My name ees Gilen,” he replied, lifting a hand in parting.

~ ~ ~

     “You’re late,” a small voice scolded.  “And eet took you eight jumps to get to thee top – I counted.  You’re geeting slow. ”

     “Dude, you’re killing me!” I protested, groaning as I rolled over to face my accuser.  “Do you have any idea how far I just ran?”

     “A marathon?” and then as an afterthought, “you’re not going to die, are you?”

     “Gee, I appreciate the concern and all, but … hey! you’re not wearing your hat!” I chided, taking in the sight of the boy as he stepped into the glow of the emanating light.  It never ceased to unnerve me … seeing him without his hat.

  Idiot! I berated myself, watching his face fall as he furtively touched a hand to his bald head before shoving it into a corduroy pocket.  The last thing the kid needed was a lecture, and I cursed my insensitivity.

     “Ahh … well, hats are overrated,” I replied affably, extending the white flag.  “Besides,” I said conspiratorially, “I have more important matters to report back to you.  Matters concerning … ”

     “Your mission!?”  Gilen interrupted.  “Eet was … a …a …” he faltered, failing in the attempt to produce the proper English word.

     “A success?” I provided, nodding as the kid’s eyes doubled in size, if that was even possible.  Despite the dim light, I could see them bulging ever so slightly, and I chuckled softly.

     “Success … ouic’est ça!” he agreed emphatically, voice breaking into an alarming high-octave squeak.

     “Wow!” I winced, palpating my ear.  “Right – well, let’s rendezvous back at base camp in T-minus 10, after you check with your dad.”

     “Copy that!” the boy agreed, snapping a smart salute and clicking the heels of his slippers together.

     We both knew that keeping his father informed was mere formality; a courtesy that I extended entirely for Gilen’s sake. 

~ ~ ~

      His back-story was simple.  And tragic.

     As if the kid hadn’t received a raw deal enough in the form of leukemia, God decided He needed another gentle soul in Heaven and took Gilen’s mother just two months ago.  Grief-stricken, the boy’s father took his son and fled France in pursuit of a place to forget. 

     As it happened, his flight landed in a cottage on the Pacific Coast where he took up residence in the back room, sitting night and day.  Under the pretext of writer’s block, Gilen’s father would now stare, trance –like, at his laptop screen, waiting for inspiration to reach out and rip through the shroud of anguish that had rendered him paralyzed.  Once a prominent free-lance writer, he was now reduced to an empty shell of a man, haunted by death, both in memory and pending; confined to a prison of his own volition.

     “I call it thee oubliette,” Gilen had responded when I finally mustered up the nerve to ask one evening.  “A place to forget … or be forgotten,” he explained.

     Well, one thing was sure – Gilen had been forgotten; an innocent casualty of war.

     Our paths crossed often over the next couple of months, and it wasn’t long before I discovered that the kid demonstrated a keen appreciation and a critical eye for detail, challenging my skills and pushing me to exceed my own expectations.  Now it was time to see if my efforts had paid off.

~ ~ ~

     I flipped the master switch and immediately the room was flooded with light – all converging upon a central, rectangular table.  Gilen clambered up, sitting cross-legged in his usual spot, astutely observing as I unloaded my pack.  Dramatically, I removed the memory card from my Canon, covertly aware of Gilen’s rapt fascination with cameras and all their paraphernalia. 

     “Ready?” I asked, waving the chip in front of my duel-screen laptop, teasing my little friend.

     “Ouioui!” he clapped, bouncing with unchecked anticipation.

     I smiled, “K then, here goes.” 

     I’m not going to lie, it was a pivotal moment for me.  I could feel the sweat break out against my scalp as we hovered in front of the screens, noses practically touching the glass.  In a matter of clicks, there she was … an alabaster beauty of a Humpback whale in full breach, back arched with flippers fully splayed!  The spray of sea water fanned out in perfect symmetry against the silver-lined clouds, all overlaid against the glorious hues of a rose-tinged sunset. 

     Gilen gasped and his hand reached for the screen, stopping just short of touching the magnificent creature.  “Eet is a masterpiece, oui?”

     Chuckling, I assured him that it was indeed.  My pièce de résistance.  I ruffled his little bald head, envisioning the cover of National Wildlife with my whale on the cover for all the world to see!  There would be phone calls, interviews, speeches at conservation benefits, awards … hey

     My mind was careening recklessly down the path of prospective opportunity when it abruptly collided with a most logical inspiration.  I would need a journalist to write up an inspirational exposition to accompany my submission.  A prominent columnist familiar with the art of creative prose.

     I turned to regard my protégé, his eyes eager and responsive to my palpable energy.  “It’s time for a jailbreak, kid!  You and me – we’re going to bust your dad out of his oubliette!  This is no time for writer’s block … I think we just found something worth writing about!”

 The End

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