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Chris DeBolt

A Map Beyond the Edge

There's a difference between a delusion and a dream, though I donít understand that right now. This is the winter of 1980, the thick of adolescence, and I'm spiraling downward fast--stealing vodka from liquor stores, punching instead of speaking, vandalizing automobiles that belong to my motherís boyfriends. Later I will be called a latch-key kid or socially challenged; now Iím just called a juvenile delinquent or a little prick. It fits the mood in the country. Everyone is pissed-off, demoralized: Three Mile Island is setting off geiger counters, the Soviet Union is strangling Afghanistan, the Ayatollah is holding hostages.

And a policeman is standing in my living room, pointing a blackjack at my chest. "Maíam," he says to my mom, "heís the one." My mom is a legal secretary, working for the Army at Fort Bliss Texas. Sheís also a forty-year-old single parent; the truth is whatever she wants it to be.

"Not my son," she says, "I donít believe it." Her new boyfriend is also here, standing next to her in battle fatigues, his name sewn on his chest: Sgt. Hookano. His weightlifterís arm wraps around her neck, feigning support, but his smirk in my direction communicates the opposite. We havenít spoken much in the three months theyíve been dating, and when we do our words carry threatening undercurrents, two males circling, sniffing for weakness.

"Maíam, my advice is a military school, far, far away." And with a slow-and-low headshake, the cop is gone.

Thereís family tradition in play here, a ROTC academy not so far-fetched. Weíre a nuclear family without the nucleus, my father having died long ago, the folded, American flag in my possession proof of his honorable, military service. Or so it's inscribed on the triangular, plastic cover. Maybe I should also learn to shoot, kill, die honorably on foreign soil. Maybe the family torch really is mine, waiting just for me.

Apparently my mom has other plans.

"Honey," she says, "Itís going to be an adventure!" Hookano unleashes a check-mate smile while she explains that he is being transferred from Fort Bliss to a new post in Kaiserlautern, West Germany. My mom has decided to move with him, already has a job waiting for her at Rhein Main Air Base, an Autobahn-hour away from K-Town. "Besides," she says, "Iím doing this for you, too, you know." She flicks her head at the space recently vacated by the policeman.

My expression is equally vacant.

"Iím in love," she says, "arenít you happy for me?" Tough question to answer. She thinks she wants the truth, but I know better: delusions are much cleaner.

"Sure," I say.

"I knew youíd understand," she says and kisses Hookano on the cheek. The living room is invaded with dead space so I finish her unspoken thought: I knew youíd understand because Iíve already taught you the key to love. "Physical attraction is the most important part of a relationship," she told me earlier, after I questioned the scotch tape on her forehead at night, the jazzercise routines in the morning, the Star Trek glasses and tanning light on the weekends.

My two older brothers, both pacifists and in college, decide to skip the overseas military excursion; I'm fifteen and have no choice. They shake my hand and say, "Good luck buddy, see you soon," pretending my trip will only be a long weekend. Iím gone, unable to stay behind, unable to change my fate: unable to do anything but shred my Van Halen posters, kick a hole in my door Ďgood-byeí and wonder if, after being forced to move to West Germany, Iíll have to wear Lederhosen to school and chew on hard gingerbread for lunch.

I donít. In fact, everyone here wears Nike and Levis and drinks beer and smokes pot and gets into fistfights--just like at home--because itís an American school, Frankfurt High. The student population is over one thousand. Surprising, until I learn there are over one million active duty or military support in Europe right now. "Welcome to the Cold War," my mom says. Some of these grunts, pilots, and ex-conís also happen to be parents, so their children come with them while they protect our way of life back home. Itís a three-to-five year tour. Sounds logical, reasonable, even a bit homey and fuzzy when you toss in a fireplace, hot cider and the KrisKindel Market. Then again wonít we, the young and the oblivious, be the first casualties if World War III starts? Reagan claims itís morning in America, but where Iím standing, within earshot of a million vodka-drunk Russians with itchy Kalishnokovs, there is no sky, only military gray.

However I can see the Iranian hostages finally released onto the tarmac of Rhein Main, though my friends and I miss the red, white and blue ceremony because weíre throwing up a case of dark beer; I can hear the concussive explosions after cars are filled with C-4 and driven onto base by terrorist groups like the Red Brigades, then detonated in front of dozens of Americans while they walk to work, their remains later collected in sandwich baggies; I can taste blood when a sexy German girl tells me at a beer hall to get my capitalist ass back to McDonaldís where I belong, and in response I throw a liter of beer in her face, laughing with each punch I take from a gang of proud Arian men, religiously believing the pain, the bruises, are all well worth it; I can attach myself to girls who shrug at virginity by fourteen, swallow by fifteen, and choreograph three-ways by sixteen. Donít ask me why. Maybe itís the water, the fear, or the Minuteman missiles standing erect, just a glance away, and aimed due east.


Today is my birthday, my sixteenth. I feel old. My girlfriend Merlina, the (excuse me) love of my life, has promised a surprise. I guess I should be thrilled, but Iím really miserable, more insecure than usual, because she is seventeen: I don't know yet what someone her age, someone with her experience, defines as a surprise. And to be honest I really don't want to. Iíve heard more than enough about Merlina already, too many intimate details spread like the plague by the heartless bastards whoíve already coaxed her into the woods.

We meet at the vortex of military life, the bowling alley, at five p.m. and nestle within the pounding balls, exploding pins, pumping fists. Merlina reaches in a bag and hands me my present, a ceramic beer mug engraved in cursive with I Will Love You Forever. Itís so useless and beautiful my eyelids fill.

"Come on, letís walk," she says, interlacing her fingers within mine.

"Iíve changed my mind about the surprise," I say.

"Itís out of my hands, sweety."

I squeeze her hand to see if sheís telling me the truth, but it slips because of sweat.

"Merlina, please donít. Canít we just go to your house, stay in to celebrate?" I ask.

"Don't worry, Iíll be there for you."

We walk past the Officerís Club, where mom goes for happy hour, but her car is missing today. The O Club is no different than any other building on Rhein Main, designed by the same architect who designed the concrete bunker and gun turret, but to make things cheery someone decided to paint every wall an off-white color. A perfect screen to project my imagination, pretend Iím just in an anti-Disneyland, some deep worm hole of reality where they don't care how tall you are to jump on the ride.

It doesnít help.

Merlina does, green, isotope eyes ablaze, beautiful profile exposed by long, auburn hair blown dry and pulled in twin, curling-iron waves.

I met Merlina three months earlier in the school office. She was seeing a counselor, barely treading above the wake of a father who traded her and her mother in for newer models; I was seeing another and taking a test--pencil inside the circle please--to determine if I should be shotgunned into an advanced placement class. We bumped into each other, physically with our skulls, after ducking the concerned counselor-like hands reaching to pat our shoulders. We were inseparable immediately: I fell in love when she sang Journeyís greatest hits a cappella, she with me when I cracked my knuckles as accompaniment, and we with each other when we dressed up like clowns for Halloween and made love, for the first time, in the base haunted house.

"Pretty cold tonight," I say as we walk. Merlina smiles and my insides glow like fuel rods: one smile, one switch flipped to ON.

Soon we reach the back of the base, near the tarmac riddled with razor wire and signs warning Eintracht Verboten! F-16ís shoot up like darts. Massive C-130 cargo planes lumber around like hippos rooting for water. A sexual escapade near the landing lights, I assume, the screaming engines, the hypnotic propellers, the possibility of being sucked into one or shot by an MP for trespassing making this a surprise I will surely never forget. Instead she steers me left, along the fence line, toward a parking lot with conic piles of black ice. A sign reads: Welcome to the Rhein Main Skating Rink, thank you General Davis for your generous donation. The floodlights underneath are melting snow, dripping water on the hood of my momís car parked out front. My momís car parked out front? I stop, plant my feet.

"No chance," I say.

Merlina pulls on my arms halfheartedly, then shakes her head. "Iím so sorry," she says, releasing her grip. "Your mom asked me to help and I couldnít say no."

"No chance in hell," I clarify.

"I promise," she says, "Iíll be there, right next to you the whole time."

Merlina and I are standing only twenty feet from the entrance, and though itís an outdoor rink there is no sound inside. No disco music. No metal scraping against ice. No laughter. Only a mute dome of glowing lights. In my mind I peel back the concrete wall and see them all, my mom, my friends, waiting for me, looking at their watches, stamping their feet and blowing into their hands, aching to yell Surprise!

I move backwards.

Merlina stops me, wraps her arms tight around the small of my back. Her pupils lock onto mine. She says, "Just close your eyes and jump. Sheís doing this for her, not for you."

Blasts of truth occur infrequently in life. When they do wide paths are cleared between concepts once appearing whole: forgive and forget, trust and faith, delusion and dream.

There are the delusions, the false beliefs: that America is always right; that the mirror complimenting you is being honest; that whatever, whoever surrounds you is an accurate reflection of who you are. That fucking is just fucking.

And there are the dreams, the fond hopes: that the crater inside your chest will one day be filled; that pain experienced in youth is different than that as an adult; that your environment is ephemeral, the F-16 now launching off the tarmac, leaving behind a rolling concussions of exhaust, a vehicle that might one day just spirit you up and away.

I consider what Merlina says, then finally answer, "OK, letís go in."

The turnstiles squeal when I move through, thick steel handles pushing my ass forward in case Iím having second thoughts. Through a narrow door frame, directly in front, I see the ice rink glowing glacier blue. I take small steps, to the right and left, the known and unknown. What should I do, I wonder, when I turn the corner? Should I slap my hands to my cheeks, round and my lips into an overdramatic O and say you shouldnít have? Should I soil myself? Should I jump back, put my palm to my chest, laugh convincingly, then hug my mom and say thank you so much I love you for doing this for me?


Hours before my surprise skating party I sit quietly in class, far in back so my advance placement teacher canít see my red eyes or smell smoke in my long, greasy hair. My fellow advance-placementeers leave me alone too; in a class filled with rejects I am rejected. Here the school windows draw my attention. I know outside winter is low and heavy, but I canít see it. The glass has frozen over, brittle elm trees swaying in the wind and etching intricate designs into the translucent frost.

Mr. Mueller, the AP teacher, is German and depressed at having to lecture a group of ignorant American kids. He drones instead of speaks and moves the chalk over the board so limply it never scratches or makes a sound. Must be interesting because my classmates' heads are nodding in unison, in faux rapt attention, at every word. What a joke. Advance placement, we the anointed few whoíve been airlifted to the front of the pack but are too dumb to know weíre already at war.

Yet hereís the shock: the old man is actually interesting today. It sounds like a ghost story so I tune in to pick up some details. Fires, shadows, stick-figure drawings of people in chains. The Platonic Cave, he writes, underlines. He points to his diagram and says to the class, "Here we are, all of us, living a lie in the dark."

Nodding heads halt, confused. "But," he asks, wagging his finger at us, "if anyone ever escapes from the cave, makes it out into the sunlight--discovers the truth--and tries to explain to the other prisoners whatís on the outside, what will they say? Wonderful? Release us? Tell us the truth?" Mueller pauses, then delivers his punch-line with a smile.

"No, theyíll think heís insane and kill the troublemaker."

The crew-cutted ROTC guy sitting next to me gives me a thumbs-up. "Fuck yeah," he says. Heís ready to kill, the front line his home. Heís been insisting I sign up, get some discipline, learn to shoot. Mesmerized by his wild eyes, I wonder if Iím really the killing type, or the one with the target on my back.


Surprise! The rink explodes. Backslaps. Flashbulbs. Spots in my peripheral vision. My mom moves behind the condiment table and yells, "All right, who wants a hot dog?" Sheís having a ball, movements fluid, unhindered. She must have hustled over right after work and set everything up, because sheís still in work clothes, a silk blouse with matching neck scarf. Her knee-high skirt has a little mustard on it but she doesnít notice.

"You all right?" Merlina asks, wrapping her arm around my waist.

"Never better," I answer.

Hookano saunters up in a camouflaged parka. With his dark skin and mustache he looks more like a killer Eskimo than an Army Ranger.

"Happy Birthday buddy," he says, shaking my hand like itís a wrestling maneuver. But he doesnít look at me. "Hello Merlina," he says, eyes dancing from lips to breasts, the way Iím sure he looked at mom when they first met.

"Hi. How have you been?" Merlina answers. She catches herself, looks at me, then down at the ice. Been? Been? The word implies a prior meeting. My mind rewinds the last three months, backward voices screeching like crows. Have I ever introduced them before?

Thereís nothing but thick silence between the three of us. Paranoia overtakes my thoughts, a hallucination of Hookano rubbing his hands over Merlinaís naked body. His tongue tracing lines along her hip. My diaphragm seizes. Blood drains from my head. But I manage to ask a question, sounding more like a plea. "You two have met before?"

Hookano takes a long drag off his Marlboro. The trailing smoke causes one of his eyes to squint. He looks at Merlina, then laughs, "You want to take that one?"

The hallucination morphs into a concrete image, one scene at a time scrolling through my head. The two of them drinking at a bar, holding hands while they walk outside the base fence line, into the woods, whispering, promising to keep it all a secret.

Merlina looks away. An aftermath in a blink.

My mom suddenly jumps between us and asks, "Having fun honey? How about this for a sixteenth birthday, huh? Bet none of your friendís moms ever did something like this."

My mouth is dried shut.

"Son? Right?"

"Yeah mom," I try, "thanks."

"And my baby even made it." She raises on her toes and kisses Hookano on the cheek, raking her right hand through his thick black hair. "Thanks for coming, sweety, I know K-Townís a long drive at night."

"Never miss a party," he answers with a wink, "especially when thereís cake."

"But," she says in my direction, "you havenít even skated yet. Whatís wrong?"

My life fast forwards about ten seconds and I find myself leaning on the skating rink perimeter for support, twenty feet away from the group. I must have walked away without answering the question. Or maybe I did. I don't remember. Itís a blank.

"Whatís his problem?" I hear my mom ask, but no response follows from either Merlina or Hookano. The question simply evaporates without being answered.

"OK everybody listen up," she yells, ready to make a speech, but another F-16 launches off the runway and drowns out her words. Iím still close by and canít hear a thing, only watch her mouth form words like a silent movie, "Everybody hold on for a second." A few of my friends actually do stop to listen--Spar Stormo, Stu Laws, Robin Goodwin--and give my mom their attention, though by now she can only flail her agitated arms at the noisy interruption. Finally she gives up and clasps her hands, head bowed as if praying for quiet. My friends bow their heads too, twisting their ankles inward to balance on tiny pieces of steel, glancing at each other and laughing.

Watching this scene I have an urge to say a prayer, even though I don't think there is a God. I say one anyway: "God, I know this moment is being branded into my mindís flesh, but please, you merciless asshole, please, do not let the scar last an eternity. Amen."

When the plane trails off, a pinprick of orange in black sky, my mom speaks again.

"Can you hear me? Everybody? Now? OK. Well you might not believe this but my boy has never ice skated in his life. Crazy, isnít it? Well why do you think weíre here? Anyway I have two presents for the boy and girl who spend the most time helping him learn how skate."

She rummages through a brown paper bag at her feet. "Letís see, OK, I have a football for the boy as a prize," she holds it aloft and twists her arm so that all sides of it can be examined, "and for the girl a stuffed animal ... what is this thing anyway? My God I don't even remember what it was I bought. Well it looks like a seal, a stuffed baby seal is the prize for the girl who helps my little boy learn how to skate!"

On cue my friends begin sliding over the ice, their faces blurred into tracers. I watch from the edge and expect them to smirk, but instead they smile and wave. This could be the most ridiculous part of the day so far. These are the same friends that break into Porsches for fun, shattering windows with crowbars, showering glass like hail onto the sidewalk. These are the coiled friends that attack a group of Greenpeace protesters, chanting outside the base fence line with upside-down American flags and effigies of Reagan with missiles embedded in the temple, and pummel them with baseball bats and homemade num-chukkas. These are the twisted friends that goosestep through crosswalks and scream "Heil Hitler!" to taunt the local Germans. Now they are smiling, waving, ice skating at my birthday party, which, on second thought, makes absolute sense at a moment when absolutely nothing makes sense.


Iím caught off guard. For the first time in school, in class, Iím leaning forward into my desk rather than tipping backward. I want to know more about Platoís Cave. The sickness of delusions. The definition of dreams. I need more details, more character analysis, more backstory. I have questions to ask and I need answers. Right now.

But before I have a chance to ask anything the fire alarm goes off. Over the intercom, over the racket, our principal, in a resonant baritone, officially notifies us itís another bomb threat. He doesnít sigh but his voice sounds as if heíd like to. "Single file," he instructs, "please, everyone walk briskly to the auditorium." Walk briskly? Itís pandemonium in the hallway, and even worse in the auditorium where they corral us until everythingís clear. We hear the sirens and watch the US Army bomb squad, dressed like a commando HazMat team, rush past us with a kennel of German Shepherds, experts at sniffing out the Bulgarian plastique thatís hidden somewhere in the school, a trash can, a locker, a water fountain. We donít care. Weíre the young Americans on the front lines, humming with teenage energy, kicking, fighting, spitting, pulling beers and microdot acid out of our own pockets or the billfold from someone elseís. Itís usually an exciting event, the monthly bomb scare, the possibility of a large detonation, the loss of life, blood mixed with cinder block dust causing adrenaline to pump even faster than normal.

But Iím too distracted to enjoy it anymore.


Now hereís where I wrap it all up in a Tiffany-blue box and move to the big climax.

What did not happen:

My questions went unanswered; Mueller quit when a fake bomb was found near his class.

I did not grab the stuffed baby seal, tear it in half, and burn the stuffing in a bonfire.

I did not drop kick the football into the twirling blades of a propeller.

I did not bring the sharp edge of a skate down onto Hookanoís head.

What did happen:

I laced up my skates, staggered over the rubber mats, and lowered myself onto the ice.

Merlina got the seal by default; no one wanted near my windmill arms.

Hookano got the leftover angel food cake and took it back to his barracks.

Mom got a hug.

Afterwards I turn down her offer for a ride home. Mom and I live twenty klicks off base in a small apartment, but transportation isnít a problem. I either take the bus or hitchhike, normally the latter because I usually stay as late as possible to see Merlina, and the last bus to our neighborhood leaves too early, at ten p.m.

The best spot to hitchhike is just inside the main gate of the air base, next to a sculpture erected to commemorate the Berlin air lift in 1948, when millions of tons of supplies were flown in to break the Russian siege. The memorial is twenty feet high and basically looks like a large ocean wave made of concrete with finger nodes jutting on top. Supposedly this represents a bridge from here to there and a twin sculpture sits in Berlin, reaching out, ready to interlock with this one. A rainbow kind of thing, only thereís no color, just gray (no pot of gold at the base either, I checked). Itís not much to look at but itís a perfect blank wall for me to lean against, a plain background for the exiting headlights to spot me, thumb extended.

Sometimes it takes minutes to get a ride, sometimes hours. Itís worth it, even when itís below freezing and I have no money for beer or cigarettes. When I wait a really long time, say into the early morning hours of night, I collapse a little farther into myself and add layers and fathoms to the definition of alone. But someone always comes. And when they do, especially on nights like this, on nights when you realize the joke is really on you, Iím eager to ride with strangers because I can pretend to be whoever I want to be. For example when the kind soul who gives me a ride asks what I was up to this evening, Iíll say I just stood by the fence line and watched the planes take off.

So youíll understand if, when I arrive home and hear my mom fucking a man other than Hookano, a man she must have met somewhere between birthday party and front door, I keep pretending a little longer. I ignore the knocking headboard, lie down on my bed and stare at the dark contours of my ceiling, projecting myself out of this scene and into another: snapshots of a future life. It is something, my pretend future, something you should really see.

Yes, but first I have promised a climax.

Early the next morning a coda: toilet flush, tiptoe of creaking floor tiles, front door open/close. Within an hour my mom knocks on my door. She asks if Iíd like some breakfast, maybe watch some television, spend quality time. Itís a Saturday in the middle of a nuclear winter.

I say, "Sure."

She pours us both a bowl of Applejacks, then lies on the couch for maximum comfort. I sit nearby in the La-Z-Boy. Though our crunchy-sweet breakfast is loud in my ears, all I can hear is the silence throbbing between us.


"Some party last night, huh?"

"Yeah, it was. Thanks again."

"Some party," she says.

Our television station in Germany is the Armed Forces Network. Itís the only English language station in Europe--reruns of three-year-old stateside shows like Charlieís Angels, Threeís Company--but right now a commercial is on screen. A soldier in battle fatigues steps forward with a shoulder harnessed bazooka. The top of the screen displays urgent, macho graphics: The Stinger. AFN is not ABC, so commercials are about military propaganda, not capitalism. The soldier turns and, in the distance, the trailing exhaust of a jet streaks across blue sky. The narrator growls, "The Stinger: One soldier, one dead enemy fighter jet." On cue the grunt looks through the scope and fires. In slow motion a missile jettisons from the bazooka, corkscrews through the air, and blows off the jetís left wing.


"Howís your cereal?"

"I want to ask you something," I say.

"Well," she says, "thatís good, because I do too." She sits up and puts her bowl on the glass coffee table. "I didnít want to bring this up on your birthday, but the police called. Some cars have been broken into. They say itís you and your friends. Is that true?"

I think of the dozen car stereos currently hiding under my bed, the violent release I felt when yanking them from the dashboard, coils, wires, forged metal giving way to raw emotion.

"Thatís not what I want to talk about," I say.

"Well I do," she says.

"Mom ..."

"Be honest."

"Who slept over last night?"

Silence. My mom stares hard at the television. A new commercial is now flashing on screen. FOD: Foreign Object Damage. An Air Force colonel is standing near a runway, legs apart, arms crossed at his chest. He points at the screen and says sternly, "Make sure you do your part for military safety. Keep our tarmacs clean of trash, out of our jetís turbine engines. Make sure no FOD is allowed to cripple our freedom."

"Merlinaís doing this to you, isnít she?"

"Stop it," I say.

"I just knew she was a bad influence."

"Answer the question, mom."

"It was a friend. Just a friend. Happy now?"

"No. Iím not."

My mom leans forward. "Mister Morals all of a sudden? So now youíre telling me how to live my life? I know what Iím doing." She hesitates, as if debating internally, then says with a matter-of-fact tone. "Hookanoís cheating on me."

She studies my expression. "You look shocked. I'm not. The only thing I don't know is who heís cheating with."

"Stop it. I canít hear anymore."

"Well you asked for it. So now I cheat on him. Tit-for-tat. Itís the way the world works."

I donít know anything about the way the world works. Now all I know for sure is this: delusions and dreams aren't just different, they're opposites.

Itís the way the world works. I can tell even mom questions those words. She shakes her head and turns away. "You just donít understand," she whispers, closes her eyes, looks down. "Iím alone. Trying so hard. All alone."

I exhale, "Yeah, I do."

"Oh you do?" My mom lets out a half-hearted laugh. "Youíre so young, so naive. Just wait, youíll see how tough it all gets. Life is not one big skating party."

Finally, something that rings true. I look out our window, now thawed enough to see through the frost, a hazy morning struggling to clear. I donít know this yet but just beyond, on the other side of the Fulda Gap, events are unfolding, tectonic shifts that will rust thousands of Red Army tanks, topple another delusion. This, in turn, will break another, a so-called tradition, a military torch finally extinguished in one family. And yes, something else is dying, something black inside a young mind, delusions swept away and spit out, allowing just enough room for fanciful visions, dreams of a different life.

I walk over to the couch and sit next to my mom. Even up close she looks much younger than forty, like a little girl. She leans forward, puts her face in her palms. "I want you to know," she says, sniffling, her make-up smeared, "Iíve really only loved three men in my life: you and your two older brothers."

I sit for a moment and let that sink in. There are so many things I can say in response, almost all of them inappropriate. Instead I jostle her shoulders and try to cheer her up with a joke. "Hey," I try, "maybe we three boys were given to you to offset your three marriages?"

My mom laughs, shakes her head. She looks up, thinks about it, then laughs again.

I can see our images reflected clearly in the glass coffee table: a mother and son trying their best in difficult circumstances, pretending what theyíre both saying is true, though both knowing she was really married four times, and really loved any man that would love her back.

Weíre both too tired to say anything further, neither having slept much the night before.

I excuse myself, return to my room, lock the door. I lay down on my bed and stare up. Again the dark contours of my ceiling draw me in; again I project myself to a time much later than now, to a place just beyond the edge of the map where once we were taught only tempests lurked. There I am, canít you see? Still adrift, watching a distant, future episode where my beautiful wife and I lie half-asleep in a floating procession of white, me lazily stroking her hair with one hand, the other with a finger placed deftly against my lips, a whisper to our glowing, impatient children tugging at our bedsheets, "Sssshhhh, one more minute, your parents are dreaming."

Chris DeBolt lives in Los Angeles. He has short fiction forthcoming in Sweet Fancy Moses and Carve Magazine, and is currently working on a non-fiction book, his first.

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