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Just A Common Man


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With just months to live Arch Bailey takes us on a journey of his life. A truly amazing novel--writing at its best. A balm for the soul.


An Iranian doctor who fled her country following the Revolution struggles to practice medicine in her adopted land of America. As an oncologist, it is often her job to deliver the very worst news, and now she must do just that to a mid-fifties widower with a few months to live.

He refuses to believe the terminal news, and maintains a happy bravado. With a satchel full of drugs he visits old friends in hopes of discovering if he lived well or just wasted his time. His health declines, but his spirits rise when he discovers that for his old friends – a lesbian working the Louisiana oil fields, a retired airline pilot, his third grade teacher now in a nursing home, a wealthy classmate in New York – he played an important role.

This wins the doctor’s heart, and reluctantly she gives in, knowing they have only a few months together. He dies, but seven months later she gives birth to a healthy baby boy who they created together.

In Just a Common Man by F. R. Hotchkiss we meet Arch Bailey. Arch is a fifty-year-old teacher, recent widower and father to seventeen year old Cassie. After learning that he has only months to live, from what Arch refers to as the beast (cancer), Arch finds himself reflecting back on his life and falling in love.

Arch is both likable and gruff, arrogant and mischievous. He's rough around the edges just enough to make him interesting. Arch's relationship with his daughter, their shared grief, and life after Cassie loses her mother is a part of this story that many will relate to. Arch's relationship with Dr. Rughari, who later becomes his lover, is a leap of faith for both. From doctor and patient to friends and lovers, Arch wins Rughari over with his attentive and cajoling nature. Hotchkiss has created in Just a Common Man a truly amazing, inspirational, and unique story of life, love, and death.

Each character in this novel is so beautifully developed and very easy to become invested in. I was completely captivated with the main character, Arch Bailey, from the very first paragraph.  I thought I would feel great sadness upon finishing this novel, but instead feel lighthearted, inspired, and definitely more focused on what is really and truly important in life and what is not. Just a Common Man is about looking back, putting things into perspective, meeting old friends, dealing with grief, taking a risk, and coming to terms with the end of one's life. 

In Just a Common Man, the author takes us on an introspective journey of Arch's life before his death. This novel is so much more than a story about life before death. It's also tells a unique story about lessons learned, redemption, love, and rebirth.

Often times novels dealing with the subject of death are weighed down with remorse, regret, and feel heavy and sorrowful. Just a Common Man by F.R. Hotchkiss delivers a beautifully written novel that tells a heartwarming/heartbreaking story and introduces you to a character that will live in your heart and mind long after the last page. I highly recommend this book to all readers especially those needing a balm for their soul.

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Avid reader with a master's degree in strategic design and management working in accounting and finance. I live in Wisconsin with my husband of twenty five years and a very energetic/comical tabby cat named Gabe. When not reading and writing reviews, I enjoy cooking, gardening, and nature.


An Iranian doctor who fled her country following the Revolution struggles to practice medicine in her adopted land of America. As an oncologist, it is often her job to deliver the very worst news, and now she must do just that to a mid-fifties widower with a few months to live.

He refuses to believe the terminal news, and maintains a happy bravado. With a satchel full of drugs he visits old friends in hopes of discovering if he lived well or just wasted his time. His health declines, but his spirits rise when he discovers that for his old friends – a lesbian working the Louisiana oil fields, a retired airline pilot, his third grade teacher now in a nursing home, a wealthy classmate in New York – he played an important role.

This wins the doctor’s heart, and reluctantly she gives in, knowing they have only a few months together. He dies, but seven months later she gives birth to a healthy baby boy who they created together.

Unwelcome Guest

We are given only so much time to do what we can, or at least try. (Proverb, origins unknown)

Arch Bailey was driving his classic Morgan home through the rain one night when something unseen slid into the bucket seat beside him, leaned over and calmly squeezed his heart. The pain erupted so violently in his chest that it threw him back in his seat, almost knocking his glasses off. He pulled the car over to the shoulder and scrambled to hit the brakes, trying to catch his breath. His skin was clammy, and he thought he might puke.

The thing took its hand away and got out of the car. The pain passed as suddenly as it had arrived.

What the hell was that? Arch wondered. He waited, anticipating the pain to hit again, and tested the waters with deeper and deeper breaths to check whether his breathing was the problem.

After a few minutes, he put the classic car in gear and climbed back onto the wooded two-lane country road, heading homeward. He wasn’t going to breathe a word of this to his teenaged daughter, Cassandra. At 50, he had never thought about his death, and he wasn’t about to start now. Besides, Cassie didn’t have anyone in the world but him. Must have been indigestion, he kidded himself.

Two weeks later, it happened again. He was sitting at the dinner table with Cassie when he felt something inside him lick its chops and begin to move. It opened its jaws and flicked its tongue, slowly ripping the edges of his heart and making Arch jump.

Cassie saw it wasn’t good and got up from the table with a look of horror. Arch wanted to grab the thing by its throat, tear it out of his chest, and just eat dessert with Cassie, but there was nothing to hold on to, so he held onto the table instead. He could feel it nuzzling his heart with its mouth – licking it, sucking at it, and toying with him. It was disgusting, terrifying, and foul smelling, and Arch wanted to scream, “Fuck you!” at this horrible thing, but he couldn’t get the words out. It turned and slithered away of its own accord. Arch didn’t have the slightest clue where it went, but sure as hell it was coming back, and he wouldn’t be able to do a damned thing about it.

He and Cassie skipped dessert and went straight to the hospital.


“You shouldn’t have smoked,” Cassie admonished. She was sitting at the foot of his bed in the drab hospital room.

“That was 20 years ago,” he said defensively. “Next, you’re going to tell me I shouldn’t have lived near power lines back in college.”

“Don’t Let’s not forget sunbathing at the beach or too much red meat, to say nothing of red wine,” she said, pulling his leg. She was being brave now, or at least pretending to be, and he appreciated it. At only 17, she was nearly a woman. She was almost six-two and still growing. Where her height came from he had no idea. He was only five-ten, and her mother had been only five foot even.

He suddenly remembered how much he missed his wife. You should never have left me, he scolded her in his mind. He imagined her making a face and whacking him on the butt the way like she used to when she wanted him to do to get him going. He shook the thought off.

“Hey, bucko, time for you to go,” he said to Cassie. “In a minute some young Dr. Kildare is going to come in here with his damned stethoscope to talk to me. It’s private, but don’t worry, I’ll let you know what’s what.”

“Promise?” she asked uncertainly. “You didn’t look so good.”

“Promise,” he lied. “Now scat!”

She did as she was told just as the young doctor marched in – tall, rather dark, and completely devoid of makeup. It was as if she was intent on looking plain. The nametag said “Rughari,” and she looked grim.

Arch was surprised the doctor was a she, but he recovered quickly and said, “Relax. I’m not expecting good news. You look like you’re about to croak.”

Rughari feigned a smile. Arch actually laughed. He was pleased with himself. He was doing all right. He was handling it. For a brief moment, he was even a little proud of himself.

Rughari introduced herself. Italian, Arch figured.

She was quite professional about the diagnosis she had already undertaken from his lab work and X-rays. At least she was honest, spelling out the medical stuff first and then explaining it all in layman’s terms: “You’ve got months left, but probably not years, in all probability.” Nothing was for sure.

When the hell is anything ever for sure? Arch found himself wondering. He couldn’t believe he actually had a snide thought while lying on a hospital bed listening to his own death sentence.

Rughari took her glasses off and said asked, “Any questions?” Arch could tell in that moment that she would rather be almost anywhere else in the world than here delivering early condolences. What an awful job, walking around in a white lab coat telling people they were going to die pretty soon – playing God without the power to do anything about it but deliver bad news, God without salvation and redemption. He imagined Christians hearing this fleeing their churches in droves - the men in particular. “No salvation or redemption? You mean I missed the Packers’ game Sunday to go to church for absolutely nothing? Are you nuts? To hell with this!”

He didn’t have a single question, so he let Rughari go. To her credit, she didn’t run out the door. She actually stopped at the threshold and looked back. Arch noticed she was wearing heels, which very much worked against her dour face and black hair pulled back severely that to emphasize her nose and large ears. It probably worked to her professional advantage to look like shit, he thought - then whatever she achieved in her career would be credited to merit alone. Her success would never be attributed to beauty.

After Dr. Rughari left the room, Arch wilted and looked out the window. The sun was slowly dying behind narrow clouds, leaving a trace of pink across the sky. Arch supposed it was beautiful, but he felt lousy, although he had to admit that the sheets felt good – starched and cool and clean. It was just that he didn’t know what to do next. He felt like he was a plane flying along and suddenly his engine quit. He was still flying in mid-air, but there was no doubt about it – he was going down.

Down the hall, a woman’s voice cried out, “Nurse, nurse!” Arch wondered if someone were checking out of their hospital room a little sooner than planned. “Why the hell not?” he muttered under his breath. What difference would it make?

Now that was a good question. What difference had he made? Not much, came the immediate response as he answered his own question. “Don’t think I’ll start thinking about that now,” he said out loud to the spare hospital room, looking around aimlessly.

He never felt comfortable in a hospital – too many sick or dying people. Then too, the nurses and doctors came breezing in without the slightest knocks or pauses whatsoever at the door like they owned the place. One of his cheerier nurses said, “Here we are!” every time she entered his room, as if she were royalty and her arrival warranted an announcement. “No shit,” he mumbled to himself every time she did it.

Arch looked down at his hands. They seemed older, no longer and not a part of him. It was as if his body was an outer shell that carried the real him inside it, like a bag around the groceries. How appropriate – groceries! The damned groceries were starting to rot.


Three days later, Cassie helped him out of the hospital. The nurses had insisted he use a wheelchair. “You’d think I just gave birth or something,” Arch mumbled.

“Dad, quiet,” Cassie hushed him, pushing his wheelchair. “Imagine what Mom would have said.”

Mom would probably have just given him a look. They had understood each other well enough for that. Two years ago, he had rolled over one morning to nudge her awake, and she hadn’t woken up.

They said it was her heart, but he didn’t really give a damn about the explanation. She was barely 40, for Chrissakes! She had just lain on her stomach with her head turned away – still and vulnerable and distant. “Honey, honey?” he had said over and over again, holding her lifeless, soft, cooling hand. He was still saying it when the 9-1-1 people arrived. It seemed so long ago or yesterday – he couldn’t figure out which.

He had stumbled through the following days like a robot, trying his best to be a father to Cassie but feeling lost himself. If anything, Cassie had proved to be stronger, more resilient. It was she who had sat him down after the memorial service and said, “I don’t understand any of this, and maybe I never will. But, Dad, we have to go on,” as if they were voyagers on a lifeboat and someone had fallen off. He wanted to turn back and pick them up, but they were gone, lost forever. He had a hard time believing it.

They had done pretty well after that, he had to admit. He had focused on Cassie in order not to listen for his wife’s fading music. The three of them had all had shared a sense of humor. Now there were only two of them to laugh. Arch also had a knack for embarrassing his daughter, which he loved and she usually thought was pretty funny, too.

When they got to the parking structure, Cassie couldn’t find the car. Arch sat there in the wheelchair in his bathrobe and slippers feeling stupid while she bounded around the structure looking for the Morgan. People driving by didn’t know what to make of him. Perhaps he had been dropped off – a drooling Alzheimer’s case left to fend for himself, abandoned by some fed-up, exhausted relative. They quickly looked away. After the people in three cars did the same thing, he made a face and started acting like a real nut, making ape-motions with his arms.

Cassie reappeared, carless and breathless, a few minutes later, so Arch got up from the wheelchair, put her in it, and they started rolling down the ramp to find the car. Following three near crashes and one minor collision with an elderly driver who could barely see over the wheel, they found it.

“So, what did the doctor say?” Cassie asked him once they were in the car.

“She said there was no use worrying,” Arch replied.

“Sounds good to me,” Cassie said brightly.

“Me, too,” Arch said. It did sound good, now that he thought about it. If dying was what he was doing, he thought he was doing it pretty damn well.


That night he had a dream. It started pleasantly enough. It was a replay of the day. He saw the hospital room with and the fussy nurses – male and female these days – and Rughari with lipstick on for some reason --- then Cassie and the parking lot, the drive back home, and dinner and all. Everyone was smiling, happy, but he felt something was missing.

Arch suddenly realized with a jolt that what was missing was him. The nurses were fussing around an empty bed, with Rughari standing in the corner pondering something. Cassie was whizzing down the parking ramp having the time of her life, all by herself. Someone other than him was chatting with her at dinner. It all seemed to work quite well without him.

He awoke in a sweat and fled the damp sheets. After a quick stop in the john, he headed, stark naked, for the back yard. He didn’t need Freud to tell him what that dream was all about.

Arch stood bare in the cold air. A breeze nudged the trees down the lawn at the foot of the hill. In the moonlight, the wind made them appear like smudged shapes of gray, pale green and charcoal, swaying slightly. He had seen them hundreds of times, but now they seemed different – haunting, enduring, and beautiful. How could this ever end? he wondered. Of course, it won’t, you jerk. It will go on and on, he said to himself. It will just end for you.

He wasn’t going to be a part of it, but he wanted to be. In fact, it would do just fine without him. Was that the way things worked? One day you just stopped and got off while the world whirled merrily on? That was hard to accept.

Where do I go from here? He didn’t feel like going anywhere. He felt heavy, numb, and hopeless. He was, literally, a man without a future. It was starting to sink in. He said out loud to the darkness, “Why the hell is it, now that it no longer makes any difference what I do, and I can therefore do anything I want, that I don’t want to do anything at all?”

He waited for an answer, but there was none, so he turned around and went back to bed.


The next day, Rughari came by with a case-full of pills, sans her lab coat. In fact, she had on a rather short skirt that revealed startlingly fine legs, paired with a very drab suit jacket. Once again, the face and hair were just awful. Arch thought the legs might be a therapeutic tool, something to inspire ailing male patients. They certainly worked on him.

They sat at the dining table going over the pills. Rughari explained each pill and then put it in its own little section in a pale blue plastic container with divided sections. Arch hated pale blue.

After about the thirteenth pill, when it was clear that the doctor was just getting started, Arch interrupted her, “Wait a minute. Which of these are drugs?”

Rughari looked confused. “What do you mean?” she asked. She had an indefinable accent, Arch noticed. It was apparent that she wasn’t used to these kinds of questions from a patient.

“I mean which of these pills is going to make me feel like shit – tired, indifferent, and stupid? That’s what I mean.”

“Well, these might have some side-effects,” Rughari said, holding up a particularly virulent-looking little red pill with infinitesimal black writing on it. Arch thought it probably read, “Hold on to your hat, buster,” or something along those lines.

“I’m not taking those,” he said evenly.

Rughari sat back in her chair and looked at Arch. “But you have to. You don’t have a choice.”

“Want to bet?” Arch picked up the little pill and tossed it into the sink.

Rughari’s eyes widened. “Listen, you need these pills. We have to try everything we can.”

Arch looked straight at her. “No, we don’t. I do. And I am going to do it my way, with all my senses clear.”

For a moment Rughari just looked at him. “Alright. But it’s going to hurt like hell,” she finally said.

“Well, when it does, I want some really fun drugs, but not until then.”

Rughari didn’t say anything for a minute. Finally she bit her lip and said, “Okay.” For the second time since he had met her, Arch felt sorry for the woman.

“You’ve been through this with others before me, haven’t you?” he asked her.


“And it’s not pretty, is it?”

“Pretty is not a word I would use, no.”

“What’s the worst part?”

Rughari had no intention of getting into the physical stuff, which could get disgusting, particularly if you were as averse to bodily functions as she was. She had almost dropped out of medical school because of that, until an intern who was doing his best to make passionate love to her explained, “Hey, it’s all a part of nature, just like this.” He had done something that had been pretty good, she had to admit. It had changed her outlook to some extent.

“The worst part is when they feel sorry for themselves,” Rughari said. She was surprised to hear herself say that. It was certainly true, but she seldom shared it with anyone, particularly not with a dying patient.

“Right,” Arch said thoughtfully. “Absolutely. That’s perfect. That’s a hell of a lot more helpful than any of these damned pills. Thanks,” he said, touching the back of her hand with a single tap of his finger.

Just then Cassie came in through the front door. Rughari stood up primly to say hello, then looked to Arch for instructions. Arch liked her for doing that. He introduced them.

“I told Cassie you said not to worry,” Arch said with a smile on his face, watching to make sure the doctor caught what was going on.

“That’s right,” Rughari chimed in. “These pills are a temporary boost if he’ll take them, which he has already told me he won’t.”

“Dad, don’t mess around. Take your medicine for God’s sake.”

“Isn’t it strange how they sound like their mothers?” Arch asked.

“I’m going to leave now,” Rughari said, packing up her pill case. “Call me if he gets to be a pain,” she said to Cassie, handing her a business card.

“Absolutely,” was her quick reply as she headed for her room.

The long, lean doctor was just heading out the door when Arch asked, “Italian, right? Southern Italy?” He prided himself on his knowledge of history. Southern Italians had always favored America, and they tended to be dark. He was betting Rughari was Italian.

“No,” she said and left. So much for that.

Hey, I was just trying to be nice, Arch thought. He stood at the door, watching as Rughari opened her car door, sat in the driver’s seat, and swung her legs in neatly, knees together. He had always admired that particular move in women – when their skirt came up a bit on one side, and they pulled it down where a little more of their thigh was showing. Sure enough, Rughari tugged briefly at her skirt and caught him looking at her. He smiled. She busied herself starting the car and pretended not to notice.

Shit, I’m not going to hang around here daydreaming and let Cassie see me fall apart, he thought. He was the kind of person who felt guilty for not doing something, and dying was definitely not doing something in his book.

He almost wished it were. He knew people who seemed perfectly happy doing absolutely nothing with their days – just grocery shopping, watching TV, fixing dinner. He alternately envied and pitied them. The envy came from wishing he could be completely satisfied with the really simple things in life and just go with the flow.

There had been guys in college like that, usually the fraternity types, as far as he could remember. They didn’t seem to have a care in the world. They partied, dated girls, and talked about absolutely nothing that wasn’t right before their eyes in that moment. It seemed to him like living in a two-dimensional world, limited primarily to things.

And it wasn’t just a passing phase, either. Arch had run into one of them not long ago. The guy’s entire universe revolved around 1) the country club, 2) his job, and 3) sports on TV. Trying to engage him in a conversation had been like conversing with a large database of pre-recorded messages. He even paused before saying anything as if it took the machinery some time to pick the right phrase, put it on the turntable, and get it out the speaker like an ancient Wurlitzer. Every word was carefully considered and weighed for sagacity and impact.

The effect was enormously boring. If there was a single original thought in the guy’s head, Arch didn’t hear it. The guy was the CEO of some big-time Fortune 500 company – one of his classmates who had “made it to the top.” Thus, his sentences began with, “Well, conventional wisdom on that is…” or, “Here’s what we think about that…” Arch couldn’t tell if “we” referred to the regal “we” or the group “we.” If this was what the top was like, Arch was glad he was closer to the bottom.

And at the bottom he was. At least that’s what he felt about being a teacher now after 20 years as a civil engineer. He left that behind because he wanted to work with people, not numbers. Teaching money was lousy, and the job satisfaction ran from A to Z, all in the same day. On the one hand, it was inspiring to see his students light up when he taught them about some important piece of history, such as why the American Civil War changed not only their nation but the entire world.

On the other hand, it shattered him when he would try and try with some students and watch his efforts fall to the floor with absolutely no visible effect. He felt that way too often at the end of the day.

The pity came from the suspicion that one day down the line there would be a reckoning, and doing nothing would bring nothing. Nothing comes from nothing.

Watching Rughari back down the driveway, Arch gave himself a year, no more. In that time, he wanted to find out if he had been a complete failure, if he could love a woman again, and if he could launch Cassie in flight so she would be fine – or at least be able to manage – without him.


Rughari’s Story

Rughari didn’t want any part of this. She could see it coming a mile away. Here was this perfectly nice, normal guy with his sweet daughter living an Ozzie and Harriet life. He was going to have his world ripped apart, and he hadn’t a clue what he was up against. He might as well put a gun to his head and finish it right now, because there was no doubt how this particular episode was going to turn out. In his case, even chemo and radiation would be absolutely useless.

And now he was trying to be nice to her. That was the last thing she wanted.

She had seen this before – people who thought the world was one way when it was another way entirely in reality – and not just in medicine. It had happened to her, too.

She had grown up in Tehran and had started out as a true believer in the radical political left. It was surprisingly easy, a reflexive rejection of the only thing permitted, the authoritarian political right. Late-night knocks on the door were whispered about, and while she had never known anyone to actually disappear, she was damn sure it happened. It was common knowledge at the university.

So when the U.S. embassy takeover came along, she was right out there on the streets with the best of them, yelling slogans and shaking her fist. She knew it was all theatrics, but it was fun. At night, you went home, chucked the robe and ate dinner.

There was a moral point to be made, too – something to be said against the on-rush of Western materialism. There was more to life than things, for sure. That seemed to be the sum total of the Western values that were being imposed on them. Or were they being willingly, voluntarily adopted? She wasn’t sure, and didn’t want to think about that.

Along with the oil money that poured in came a foreign way of doing things, a foreign look, and a foreign feel. Two thousand years of history were washed away in a few decades. It was as if the country was no longer theirs. It didn’t belong to them anymore, and she wanted it back with all its traditions.

She loved traditions, like her visits to her grandparents out in the country with old-style meals eaten while sitting on the floor, where electricity (and just about everything else she lived with every day) didn’t exist. Traditions added depth and texture to life, in her view. Despite her pride in being politically tough and sophisticated, part of her was romantic. She yearned for the past. She agreed with the religious professionals, the ayatollahs, on that. Later on, she would realize it was really her childhood that she missed. So up with the revolution! At least that’s what she told herself.

There was another problem a little closer home. At the university, it had become fashionable and even fun to snort a little coke and get a little high. The fact that it was politically dangerous made it all the better. Before long, she was looking forward to those parties more than she wanted to and more than she should have, she knew. She was on a very slippery slope, and she was afraid of where it might lead because she wasn’t entirely in control. Perhaps the “new order” could save her from all that. Perhaps it could save her from herself. Salvation was a religious function, and this was a religious movement, wasn’t it? She hoped so, and threw herself into the movement happily and wholeheartedly.

At first, everyone was a little taken aback at all the new rules – things you should and shouldn’t do. But perhaps the religious leaders had to be a little strict at first, she surmised, and had to push people a little. She could understand. Nothing so terrible about that – as long as the end justified the means. Eventually they would lighten up and “get real.” They just needed some time.

Soon, the drugs dried up. At first it had been hard but soon she thanked God she was free of them.

Then the rules got tough, progressively stricter. You had to wear certain clothes and look a certain way. All the boys suddenly grew beards and acted pious. You were expected to think in a certain way. No one had warned her about this. She felt these rules were absurd, an exception. They must be a mistake, a temporary aberration, the over-reach of some over-zealous bureaucrat or low-level religious fanatic. She was confident the higher leaders, the mullahs, would correct these errors as soon as they found out about them. Be patient, go with the flow, she told herself.

Gradually she began to realize that this was not an exception to the rule: this was the rule. And there wasn’t just one rule – there were a lot of them. As a matter of fact, that’s what life had become: following rules. Initiative, inspiration, intelligence, creativity were all frowned on and gone. What became important was how loud and how long you could yell or how much text from the Quran you could quote verbatim. It was all wrapped in a blanket of righteousness, which meant you couldn’t challenge it.

This wasn’t what she had wanted at all. She tried to go along with the new way, but she couldn’t. She had always been a free thinker, a maverick. Now she felt betrayed. Before long, she began opening her mouth, speaking out despite her father’s admonitions. She couldn’t help it.

“Just let it pass,” he urged, handsome man with graying hair and near-black eyebrows that he was. He buried himself in his work at the hospital most of the time. She called it keeping his head in the sand.

“It’s not going to pass!” she yelled at him. How could he be so stupid? Why was he so weak? God, these accommodating men! It made her sick.

For years she had suspected him – correctly – of periodic infidelity with some newer, younger nugget of choice. She despised infidelity, but despite all the evidence, she continued to love him. She loved him for the sweet candy he always brought for her when she was little, for his wonderful, soft, warm hugs at the end of the day, for the rich way he smelled of tobacco and coffee, or (occasionally) a new perfume.

Now she could accuse him of cowardice and allegiance to liars, and she did, at the top of her lungs. Her mother, a submissive wraith she had stopped relating to years ago, shrank back in horror into a corner of the room. You didn’t talk this way – not to your father, particularly after what they now called “the Revolution”!

People in the adjacent apartments heard what she had said. There were whispers in the neighborhood. Late one night, a friend of her father’s had knocked on the door. They had spoken quietly at the door. Her father came and awakened her. “You’re leaving tomorrow. Get ready.”

“What?” she had asked, afraid.

“The police are after you. You have to leave!”

She took a bus out of the city to Tabriz in the northwest, along with chickens, goats, and sheep, then trekked for several days by horse around Lake Urmia. There had been sporadic blockades manned by newly-bearded students whom – students a few months earlier she would have considered her peers and even friends. Once she made it over the border into Turkey, it was not difficult to gain entry into the United States, where her uncle lived.

Two weeks after she reached America, her father disappeared. She never knew what happened to him, and she never heard from him again. He was gone. She suspected her loud mouth might have been the cause behind his disappearance, but she desperately hoped not. Her mother still lived in Tehran, but they never wrote to each other.

So she knew what life could do to you, how it could deal the unexpected to you, and how it could make you think you were going in one direction when in fact you were going in quite another, and she also knew that most Americans had no idea about this, none at all. Certainly not this guy. They believed life to be simple and straight, but in reality, it was complex and crooked. And it could be mean.

Watching Arch go through what he was about to go through would be like watching a child get hit by a train – it would be just awful. He would be blasted away, and she couldn’t bear the thought of it. She didn’t want any part of it.


Later in the day, Arch told Cassie about the side effects of the pills and why he didn’t want to take them. She decided to make a game out of it, shooting them along the length of the polished dining room table by hitting each with her coiled index finger. He tried to catch them at the other end with his mouth like a hockey goalie, chin at the table level. They had so much fun that he forgot entirely he was taking the damn things. They were on his fifth pill when the phone rang and Cassie answered it.

“Dad, do you know a Max Hornburg? That name sounds familiar.”

Max Hornburg was his long-time friend, a commercial pilot who flew all over the world. Arch had always envied him because of that. They had gone to high school together, where Arch had dubbed him “Slim” to highlight the fact that he was a little squirt, the only kid in their class who had been the same size as Arch and one of only four Jews in the entire school.

After high school, Slim had gone away to college and returned slim, lean, and lanky, fitting his name to a T standing six-feet-four. Arch hadn’t recognized him the first time he saw him at one of those gee-it’s-good-to-be-back, post-high school get-togethers when Arch realized how little he had in common with most of his former classmates.

“Hey, it’s Slim,” this tall stranger had said with a big grin. “You were right.”

They had both gotten a big laugh out of it, though Arch felt a twinge of jealousy, since his vertical progress had abruptly stopped at five-ten feet. Since then, they spoke over the phone every 3–4 years. And here it was again.

“How’re you doing?” Hornburg asked, like some Hollywood movie cowboy, over the phone. Arch was having a hard time pretending everything was fine, playing I’m-not-really-sick around Cassie all the time. He needed to talk to someone. His good friend – maybe even his best friend for life – calling out of the blue seemed almost too good to be true.

“Hey, you. Listen, could I come down to Texas for a few days?”

Hornburg didn’t miss a beat. “You got it. Let me know when you’re coming, and I’ll pick you up.”

“I’m serious about this. Not kidding, okay? Who knows when I’ll get another chance …” Arch trailed off.

“Absolutely. I’ll be waiting for your call,” Hornburg said and hung up.

Cassie fired another pill-shot the length of the table. “Are you nuts? I thought you were under a doctor’s care,” she said, concentrating on the shot. It made Arch lunge on to his knees like a hockey goalie. He got the pill, albeit with a slight carpet burn. He grinned at her triumphantly and swallowed the pill.

“My dear, the doctor is supposed to care about me, whether I’m here or in Timbuktu,” he said grandly. “If she doesn’t, she’s fired. See if you can stay with Sally for a couple of days, would you?” Sally was Cassie’s closest friend, and they were fortunately on speaking terms this week. Arch never knew from one week to another.

“Yes!” she exclaimed in celebration of the extra freedom, then stopped mid-thought. “What did you mean, ‘Who knows when I’ll get another chance’?”

“Absolutely nothing,” he said quickly.

Arch started to get up from the floor when he felt the thing inside him wake and stir. It got his full attention but he kept moving mechanically to prevent his daughter from seeing him struggle. Everything felt jerky. All he wanted was to get out of the room, while the monster sat there, its sides going in and out inhaling and exhaling as it breathed. Arch had begun to imagine it in his mind.

Hiya, buddy, he said to it in his mind. He was less afraid of it by now. Must be getting used to the bastard, he thought, still scared shitless. It swung its head and took a nip out of his stomach. Arch, by now in the den, lunged for the couch, where he buried his face in a pillow and screamed. He stayed there for a few minutes, his breathing heavy and his face soaked with sweat. More than anything, he didn’t want Cassie to come in and see him in like that. 

About the author

My first serious writing produced several screenplays, and then my first novel, "Playing With Fire" about successful men mistakenly casting off a faithful wife for a younger woman. My intent is to write encouraging, uplifting novels. This is my second. A third, "One Fine Day" will be out shortly. view profile

Published on April 06, 2020

50000 words

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

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