2013 Bupa Great Winter Run Race Report

Cygnoir after the 2013 Bupa Great Winter Run, with medal on!
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Today I ran my second 5K race! I didn’t think it was possible, but I am even more excited about running now than I was last time.

Garmin Report for 2013 Great Winter Run 5K

Last night, I wasn’t worried about the race because I knew mostly what to expect. I was a bit concerned about my health; my stomach and head have been a mess for the past week as the result of a post-commencement, post-vacation immune-system crash and reboot. So I took it easy all day, hydrated, and ate well. I prepared my race gear, then set out some freshly-washed clothes so I wouldn’t have to think about anything post-race but refuelling, showering, and resting. Then I went to bed on time.

I woke up around 07:00 — still quite dark in wintery Edinburgh — and my stomach was absolutely roiling. Race time wasn’t until 10:35, so I didn’t want to eat breakfast yet, but I wanted to test just how bad off I was. I had a banana and felt not-awful, then a cuppa, and tootled around online until breakfast-time, when I had oatmeal with a splash of maple syrup. I kept drinking water, too.

After waking FunkyPlaid up, I finished getting ready, and soon it was time for us to leave. It was wonderful walking down to Holyrood Park together. I wasn’t nervous at all, only excited, chattering away at FunkyPlaid about the upcoming race.

We got there on time, so I had to queue up for the toilets immediately. (This queue was quite organised, unlike the one at the last race!) Then we found the starting line, where I kissed FunkyPlaid goodbye and joined my starting group.

I was far enough back in the starting group that I couldn’t see any of the warm-up exercises, so I did my best to watch the others around me and fake it. I was so eager to just run already when my starting group lurched forward. FunkyPlaid got one last photo of me before we headed off.

2013 Bupa Great Winter Run

The elevation profile for the first half of the course had me a bit concerned. Again, I hadn’t really trained on hills, so I knew if I was going to make it to the 3K marker without significant pain I was going to have to take it really, really slow. The race announcer confirmed this as we approached the starting line, saying, “I’m not going to lie; the first half of this course is a killer.” Great.

Most everyone else around me took off as soon as we crossed the starting line. The very first portion before the incline was fairly flat, but I saved my energy. Boy howdy, was I glad I did that! As soon as the incline really kicked in, I was able to keep plodding along. Right before the first mile finished, still on that incline, I started to feel that weird, vertigo-like sensation, so I slowed to a walk for about 30 seconds until it passed.

At this point, it was tough not to notice what was going on around me. Some who were stepping off the road and into the wet, slippery grass on shaky legs in order to pass slower runners were also wiping out. No major spills occurred that I could see, but enough to knock people off their feet and scrape some knees. Also, a few people lost their breakfasts. Many people were walking up the incline, and a few were stopping. I felt less awful about having to walk.

Soon after starting, I realised that Runmeter, the iPhone app I use for training, had punked out. I was very glad to have the Garmin as backup, although when I glimpsed my pace I started obsessing about it … until I saw the view out over the city. If my iPhone hadn’t been so tough to get out of my running belt, I would have taken some photos.

I loved how many people were running with partners or in groups in this race. When two people run together, there is usually one person who is a little faster than the other. Time and time again, I observed the faster person turning around to smile or touch the other person’s shoulder to give them a boost. Just witnessing that boosted me a little too. I realised that as much as I love running alone, I would love to run a race with someone someday.

Once the endorphins kicked in, I didn’t feel so awful, but this race was much more of a slog than the last one. I was grateful for my hat. My hat is a souvenir from my favourite museum, the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I’m not really a baseball-cap-wearing person, but I had been looking for a hat with a brim for rainy-day runs. After a great day at the museum with my friend Kate last December, I wanted a reminder of that visit and the spectacular vacation that surrounded it. Fond vacation memories played in my head as I ran today, thanks to my hat.

As soon as we started going downhill, I knew the race was over half-done and I was a bit sad. I started taking longer strides and it felt like I was flying! When I started the final km of the race, I was keenly aware that I was behind my first race time by less than a minute, but as soon as I started pushing myself to go faster, I felt nauseated. So I opted to forget the time and finish happily. And that I did.

2013 Bupa Great Winter Run

Success felt even sweeter with FunkyPlaid there to share it with me! He was energised by spectating at the finish line. There were so many people there today, at all levels of ability, united by intention and dedication. We both love that about races. Maybe we will run one together someday.

We stopped briefly on the way to lunch so I could put my medal on.

Cygnoir after the 2013 Bupa Great Winter Run, with medal on!

Then I ate so much food at Café Truva and had a boozy coffee too. On the way home, a passing stranger asked me how the run was. I was pretty exhausted at this point, but I think I mumbled something about it being great. She touched my arm and said, “Well done, you!” It made me smile a lot.

After showering and resting up, I made an indulgent post-race dinner of cinnamon-thyme chicken on a bed of sweet potato “linguine” with brown butter and sage.

Cinnamon-thyme chicken

Next up: beating my pace at the Meadows Marathon Fun Run (5.6K). I’m also training for the Edinburgh Marathon Festival 10K, which Gingiber will be running with me, so I get my wish!

“The Kettle and I” – a story by Halsted M. Bernard

The Kettle and I
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I am pleased to announce the publication of my story “The Kettle and I” in Bewildering Stories, issue 471. Here is an excerpt:

We enter the three-story Victorian and stand at the wooden counter. A thick pane of bulletproof glass separates us from the innkeeper. My not-mother holds her palm up to the glass and the innkeeper scans the chip inside. He shows her down a long hallway, waving me off to the waiting room. Dust films the windows and fogs the carpet. A pad bolted to the wall plays clips of smiling goodbyes read by actors in age makeup.

If you enjoy it, please share it.

Links to this story and more are now at the newly-redesigned halstedmbernard.com.

The Kettle and I

This photo does double-duty today as story illustration and Project 365 submission. What a hard-working kettle!

Project 365 compatriots.

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You probably already know that I am excitedly participating in Project 365, taking a photo a day for a year. But what I am really excited about is that four of my favorite people are also participating! Here are their photos for the first day of 2012 …

1:365 Dogface

1/365: How I spent my holiday vacation.

Happy New Year! My first photo for Project365!

189. Awa Hame

Are you participating too? Post a link to your set in the comments!

ETA: I have created a Project 365 bundle for Google Reader so you can subscribe to all of our RSS feeds at once.

“The Sugarplum Favor” — a Christmas story by Tad Williams

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I hope you are enjoying the holiday, Festivus, Winterval, or whatever you consider this period of time. I am spending it mostly unplugged, an important thing I do not do often enough, but I had to plug back in to share this with you.

I have been an avid fan of Tad Williams since discovering his Otherland saga, a science-fiction series I regularly recommend while never being able to adequately describe it. So when Deborah Beale, Tad’s co-conspirator and wife, tweeted about a new short story of his available for bloggers to post, I was absolutely thrilled to volunteer. And through the magic of the Internet, here it is.

Tad Williams’ new short story collection, A Stark And Wormy Knight, is available now, worldwide, as an ebook, $4.99 (or equivalent) for one month at Amazon.

The following story is unique to this blog and a few others.  Happy Holidays!

THE SUGARPLUM FAVOR
(A Christmas Story)
Tad Williams

     Danny Mendoza counted his change three times in while the teacher talked about what they were all supposed to bring for the class winter holiday party tomorrow.  It was really a Christmas party, at least in Danny’s class, because that’s what all the kids’ families’ celebrated.  Danny had his party contribution covered.  He had volunteered to bring napkins and paper plates and cups because his family had some left over from his little brother’s birthday party with characters from Gabba Gabba Hey on them.  He’d get teased about that, he knew, but he didn’t want to ask his mother to make something because she was so busy with his little brothers and the baby, and now that Danny’s stepfather Luis had lost his job they had a Money Situation.  Danny could live with a little teasing.

     Danny was going to buy a candy bar for his mother, one of those big ones.  That was going to be his Christmas present to her and Danny knew how much she’d like it — he hadn’t just inherited his small size and nimble fingers from her, he’d got her sweet tooth, too.  And she had just been talking about the Christmas a few years ago when Luis had a good job with the Sanitation Department and he’d brought her a whole box of See’s chocolates.  Danny knew he couldn’t match that, but the last of the money he’d saved up from raking leaves in the neighborhood and walking old Mrs. Rosales’ wheezy little dog should be enough to buy a big old Hershey bar that would make Mama smile.  No, what to get wasn’t a problem.  The thing that had him thinking so hard as he went down the street at a hurried walk, hands shoved deep into his jacket pockets, was whether he dared to get it now or should wait another day.

     In Danny’s San Jose neighborhood the Mercado Estrella was like an African water hole, not only a crucial source of nurture but also the haunt of the most fearsome predator in his 3rd grade world.  Any stop at the little market meant he risked running into Hector Villaba, the big, mean fifth-grade kid who haunted Danny’s days and often his nights as well.  Danny couldn’t even begin to guess how much candy and other goodies Hector had stolen from him and the other kids over the years, but it was a lot — Hector was the elementary school’s Public Enemy Number One.  About half the time his victims got shoved around, too, or even hit, and none of the grown-ups ever did anything about it except to tell their humiliated sons they should learn how to fight back.  That was probably because Hector Villaba’s father was a violent, drunken brute who didn’t care what Hector did and everyone in the neighborhood was as scared of him as the kids at school were scared of his son.  The last time someone in the neighborhood had called the police on Hector’s dad, all their windows had been broken while they were at church and their car scratched from one end to another.

     Danny was still trying to make up his mind whether to risk stopping at the market today or wait for better odds tomorrow (when class ended early because of the holiday) when he saw Mrs. Rosales walking Pinto, her little spotted dog.  He almost crossed the street because he knew she’d want to talk to him and he’d spent a lot of time doing that already last week when went to her house to get Pinto nearly every day.  He was too close, though, she’d seen him, and Jesus hated being rude to old people almost as much as he hated it when kids lied, or at least that was what his mama always told him.  Danny wasn’t expecting much from Santa anyway, but if Jesus got upset things would probably be even worse.  He sighed and continued toward her.

     “Look who’s here!” Mrs. Rosales said when she saw him.  “Look, Pinto mi querida, it’s your friend Danny!”  But when he waved and would have passed by she told him, “Hold on a moment, young man, I want to talk to you.”

     He stopped, but he was really worried that Hector and his friends might catch up if he stood around too long.  “Yes, Mrs. Rosales?”

     “I short-changed you the other day.”  She took out a little coin purse.  It took her a long time to get it open with her knobby old fingers.  “I owe you a dollar.”

     “Really?”  Danny was astonished.

     She pulled out a piece of paper that looked like it had been folded and unfolded a hundred times and handed it to him.  “I know boys need money this time of year!”

     He thanked her, petted Pinto (who growled despite all their time together, because Pinto was a spoiled brat) and hurried toward the market.  Another dollar!  It was like one of those Christmas miracles on a television show – like the Grinch’s heart growing so much it made the x-ray machine go sproing!  This changed everything.  He could not only buy his mom’s present, he could buy something for himself, too.  He briefly considered blowing the whole dollar on a Butterfinger, his very favorite, but he knew hard candies would be a better investment — he could share them with his younger brothers, and it was Christmas-time, after all.  But whatever he got, he didn’t want to wait for tomorrow, not now that he had something to spend on himself.  Danny Mendoza had been candy-starved for days.  Nothing sweeter than the baby’s butterscotch pudding had passed his lips that week, and the pudding hadn’t been by his own choice.  (His baby sister had discovered that if she waved her spoon things flew and splattered, and she liked that new trick a lot.)  If he hurried to the market he should still get there long before Hector and his friends, who had many children to harass and humiliate on their way home.  It was a risk, of course, but with an unexpected dollar in his pocket Danny felt strangely confident.  There had to be such a thing as Christmas luck, didn’t there?  After all, it was a whole holiday about Jesus getting born, and Jesus was kind to everybody.  Although it sure hadn’t seemed like a lucky Christmas when Luis, Danny’s stepfather, had lost his job in the first week of December.  But maybe things were going to get better now — maybe, as his mama sometimes said, the Mendoza family’s luck was going to change.

     He was even more willing to believe in miracles when he saw no sign of Hector  and his friends at the market.  As he walked in Christmas music was playing loudly on the radio, that “Joy to the World” song sung by some smooth television star.  Tia Marisol, the little old lady who ran the place on her own since her husband died, was trying to hang some lights above the cigarettes behind the cash register.  She wasn’t his real aunt, of course.  Everybody in the neighborhood just called her “Tia.”

     “Oye, little man,” she called when she turned around and saw him.  “How’s your mama?”

     “Fine, Tia Marisol.  I’m getting her a present.”  He made his way past the postres to the long candy rack.  So many colors, so many kinds!  It almost seemed to glow, like in one of those cartoons where children found a treasure-cave.  When Danny was little, it was what he had imagined when the minister at the church talked about Heaven.  The only better thing he had ever seen in his whole life was the huge piñata at one of his school friends’ birthday party, years and years ago.  When the birthday boy knocked the piñata open and candy came showering out and all the kids could jump in and take what they want – that had been amazing.  Like winning a game show on television.  Danny still dreamed about it sometimes.

     Danny realized that he was staring like a dummy at the rack of candy when every second the danger that Hector and his friends would arrive kept growing.  He quickly examined the big Hershey bars until he found one with a perfect wrapper, a massive candy bar that looked as if it had been made special for a commercial.  He would have loved to spend more time browsing — how often did he have a whole dollar to spend just on candy? — but he knew time was short, so he grabbed a good-sized handful of hard, sour candies for sucking, took several different colors of candy ropes; then, as worry grew inside him, as uncomfortable as needing to pee, he finally snatched up a handful of bubble gum and ran to the front counter.

     “What’s your hurry, m’hijo?” Tia Marisol asked.

     “Mom needs me,” he said, which he hoped was not enough of a lie to ruin Jesus’ upcoming celebration.  After all, Mom did always need his help, especially by this time in the day when she’d been on her own with the baby and the littlest brother since morning, and had just walked the other brother home from preschool.  He pulled the three dollars worth of much-counted change out of one pocket and mounded it in front of Tia Marisol, then put the Hershey bar and his own handful of candy down beside it before digging out the crumpled dollar Mrs. Rosales had given him.  She slid her glasses a little way down her nose while she looked at it all.

     “Where’d you get so much money, Danny?”

     “Raking lawns.  Taking Mrs. Rosales’ dog for walks.”

     Tia Marisol smiled, handed him back twenty-three cents, and put everything into a paper bag.  “You’re a good boy.  You and your family have a happy Christmas.  Tell your mama I said hello, would you?”

     “Sure.”  He was already halfway through the door, heart beating.

     The Christmas miracle continued outside: other than a couple of young mothers with strollers and bundled-up babies, and the old men who sat on the bus bench across the street drinking from bottles in paper bags, the area around the store was still clear.  Danny began to walk toward home as fast as he could without running, because he had the bag under his coat now and he didn’t want to melt Mama’s candy bar.  Still, he was almost skipping, he was so happy.  Joy to the world, the Lord is come…!

     “Hey, Mendoza,” someone shouted in a hoarse voice.  “What’s in the bag, maricon?”

     Danny stopped, frozen for a moment like a cornered animal, but then he began to walk again, faster and faster until he was running.  There was no question whose voice that was.  Pretty much every kid in his school knew it and feared it.

     “Hold up, Mendoza, or I’ll kick your ass good!”  The voice was getting closer.  He could hear the whir of bike tires on the sidewalk coming up behind him fast.  He looked back and saw that Hector Villaba and his big, stupid friends Rojo and Chuy were bearing down on him on their bikes, and in another second or two would ride him down.  He lunged to the side just as Hector stuck out his foot and shoved him, sending Danny crashing into the low wire fence of the house he was passing.  He bounced off and tumbled painfully to the sidewalk as Hector and his gang stopped just a few yards ahead, now blocking the sidewalk that led Danny home.  The hard candies had fallen out of his bag and were scattered across the sidewalk.  He got down on his knees, hurrying to pick them up, doing everything he could to avoid eye contact with Hector and the others, but when he reached for the last one Hector’s big, stupid basketball-shoe was on top of it.  The older boy leaned over and picked it up.  “Jolly Rancher, huh?  Not bad.  Not great, but not bad.”  He waved it in Danny’s face, making him look up from all fours like a dog at its master.  “I asked you what’s in the bag, Mendoza?”

     “Nothing!  It’s for my mama.”

     “For your mama?  Oh, iddn’t dat sweet?”  Hector’s fingers hooked under Danny’s chin and lifted.  Danny didn’t fight — he knew it wasn’t going to help — but he still flinched when he saw Hector’s round, sweaty face so close, the angry, pale yellow-brown eyes.  Hector Villaba even had the beginnings of a real mustache, a hairy smudge on his upper lip.  It was one of the things that made him so scary, one of the reasons why even bigger twelve year olds like Chuy and Rojo let him lead them — a fifth-grader with a mustache!

     “C’mon, open it up,” Hector told him.  “Let’s see what you got for your mama.”  When Danny still didn’t offer up the bag, Hector’s friend Chuy put a foot on Danny’s back and pushed down so hard that Danny had to brace himself to keep from being shoved against the sidewalk.  “I said show me, maricon,” said Hector.  “Chuy gonna break your spine.  He knows karate.”

     Danny handed Hector the bag, biting his lip, determined not to cry.  Hector pulled out the big Hershey Bar.  “Hijole!” he said.  “Look at that!  Something for your mama, shit — you were going to eat that all by yourself.  Not even share none with us.  That’s cold, man.”

     “It is for my mother!  It is!”  Danny pushed up against Chuy’s heavy hiking boot trying to reach the candy bar, which didn’t look anywhere near so huge clamped in Hector Villaba’s plump, dirty fingers.  Chuy took his weight off for a moment, then kicked Danny in the ribs hard enough to make him drop to the concrete and hug himself in pain.

     “If you try any more shit, we’ll hurt you good,” said Hector, laughing as he unwrapped the candy bar.  He tossed a piece to Chuy, then another to Rojo, who grabbed it out of the air and shoved it in his mouth like a starving dog, then licked his fingers.  Hector leaned down and gave Danny another shove, hard enough to crash him against the fence again.  “Don’t you ever try to hide anything from me.  I know where you live, dude.  I’ll come over and slap the bitch out of you and your mama both.”  He pointed to the hard candies still clutched in Danny’s hands.  “Get that other shit, too, yo,” Hector told Rojo, and the big, freckled kid bent Danny’s fingers back until he surrendered it all.

     The Christmas chocolate bar, looking sad and naked with half its foil peeled away, was still clutched in Hector’s hand as he and his friends rode away laughing, sharing the hard candy out of the bag.

     For a while Danny just sat on the cold sidewalk and wished he had a knife or even a gun and he could kill Hector Villaba, even if it made Jesus unhappy for weeks.  At that moment Danny almost felt like he could do it.  The rotten, mean bastard had taken his mom’s present!

     At last Danny wiped his eyes and continued home.  It was starting to get dark and the wind was suddenly cold, which made his scratched-up hands ache.  When he reached the apartment he let himself in, dropped his book bag by the door, then called a greeting to his mama feeding Danny’s baby sister in the kitchen as he hurried on to the bathroom so he could clean up his scratches and tear-stained face and do his best to hide the damage to the knees of his pants before she saw him up close.  It wouldn’t do any good to tell her what had happened – she couldn’t do anything and it would make her very sad.  Danny was used to keeping quiet about what went on between home and school, school and home.

     After a while he went out and sat at the table and watched as his mother fed green goop to the baby.  Even her smile for Danny looked tired.  Mama worked so hard to keep them all fed and dressed, hardly ever yelled, and even sang old songs from Mexico for Danny and his brothers when she wasn’t too tired…

     And now that cabron Hector had stolen her present, and he didn’t have any money left to get her something else.

*

     Later that night, when the house was quiet and everyone was asleep, Danny found himself crying again.  It was so unfair!  What had happened to the Christmas luck?  Or did that kind of thing only happen to other kids, other families?

“Please, Jesus,” he prayed quietly.  “I just have to get Mama something for Christmas – something Hector can’t take.  If that’s a miracle, okay – I mean, I know you can’t do them all the time, but if you got one…an extra one…”

*

     Something woke him up – a strange noise in the living room.  For a moment he lay in bed wondering if Santa Claus might have come, but then he remembered it was still three days until Christmas.  Still, he could definitely hear something moving, a kind of quiet fluttery sound.   His brothers were both sprawled in boneless, little-boy sleep across the mattress they shared, so he climbed carefully over them and made his way out to the living room.  At first he saw nothing more unusual than the small Christmas tree on top of the coffee table, but as he stared, his eyes trying to get used to the dark, he saw the tree was…moving?  Yes, moving, the top of the pine wagging like a dog’s tail.

     Danny had never heard of a Christmas tree coming to life, not even in a TV movie, and it scared him.  He picked up the tennis racket with the missing strings Luis kept promising to fix, then crawled toward the scraggly tree with its ornaments of foil and cut paper.

     As he got closer he could see that something small was caught in the tree’s topmost branch, trying to fly away but not succeeding.  He could hear its wings beating so fast they almost buzzed.  A bird, trapped in the apartment?  A really big moth?

     Danny looked for one of the baby’s bowls to trap it, then had a better idea and crept to the kitchen cabinet where his mom kept the washed jars.  He picked a big one that had held sandwich spread and slithered commando-style back to the living room.  Whatever the thing was, it was really stuck, tugging and thrashing as it tried to free itself from the pine needles.  He dropped the jar over it and pulled carefully on the branch until the thing could finally get free, then Danny clapped the lid on the jar to keep it from escaping.

     The thing inside the jar went crazy now, flying against the glass, the wings going so fast that it made it hard for him to see for certain what it was.  The strange thing was, it actually looked like a person — a tiny, tiny little person no bigger than a sparrow.  That was crazy.  Danny knew it was crazy.  He knew he had to be dreaming.

     “What are you doing?” the thing said in a tiny, rasping voice.  It didn’t sound happy at all.  “Let me go!”

     Danny was so startled to hear it talk that he nearly dropped the jar.  He held it up to the light coming in from the street lamp to get a better look.  The prisoner in the jar was a little lady — a lady with wings!  A real, honest-to-goodness Christmas miracle!  “Are you…an angel?” he asked.

     “Let me out, young man, and we’ll talk about it.”  She didn’t sound much like an angel.  Actually, she sounded a lot like that scratchy-voiced nanny on that TV show his mama watched sometimes.  Her hair was yellow and kind of wild and sticky-uppy, and she wore a funny little dancing dress.  She was also carrying a bag over her shoulder like Santa did, except that hers wasn’t much bigger than Danny’s thumb.

     “P-Promise you won’t fly away?” he asked this strange small person.  “If I let you out?”

     She had her tiny hands pressed up against the inside of the jar.  She shook her head so hard her little sparkly crown almost fell off.  “Promise.  But hurry up — I don’t like enclosed places.  Honest, it makes me want to scream.  Let me out, please.”

     “Okay.  But no cheating.”  He unscrewed the lid on the jar and slowly turned it over.   The tiny lady rose up, fluttering into the light that streamed through the living room window.

     “Oh, that’s so much better,” she said.  “I got stuck in a panoramic Easter egg once, wedged between a frosting bunny and a cardboard flower pot.  Thought I was going to lose my mind.”

     “Wow,” he said.  “Who are you?  What are you?”

     She carefully landed on the floor near his knee.  “I’m a sugarplum fairy,” she said.  “Like in that ballet.”

     “Huh?”

     “Never mind.  Look, thanks for getting me loose from that tree.”  She turned herself around trying to look down at herself.  “Rats!  Ripped my skirt.  I hate conifers.”  She turned back to Danny.  “I didn’t mean to scare you, I was just passing through the neighborhood when I felt somebody thinking candy thoughts — real serious candy thoughts.  I mean, it was like someone shouting.  Anyway, that’s what we do, us sugarplum fairies — we handle the candy action, especially at Christmas time.  So I thought I should come and check it out.  Was it you?  Because if it was, you’ve got the fever bad, kid.”  She reached into her bag and produced a lollypop bigger than she was, something that couldn’t possibly have fit in there.  “Here, have one on me.  You look like you need it.”

     “Wow.  Wow!”  He suddenly realized he was talking out loud and dropped his voice, worried that he would wake up his mama and Luis.  He reached out for the lollypop.  “You’re really a fairy.  Do you know Jesus?”

     She shrugged.  “I think he’s in another department.  What’s your name?  It’s Danny, isn’t it?”

     He nodded.  “Yeah.”  It suddenly struck him.  “You know my name…?”

     “I’ve got it all written down somewhere.”  She started riffling through her bag again, then pulled out something that looked like a tiny phone book.  She took out an equally small pair of glasses, opened the book and began reading.  “For some reason you fell off the list here, Danny.  No wonder you’re so desperate — you haven’t had a sugarplum delivery in quite a while!  Well, that at least I can do something about.”  She frowned as she took a pen out of the apparently bottomless bag and made a correction.  “Of course, they may not process the new order until early next year, and I’m not scheduled back in this area until Valentines Day.”  She frowned.  “Doesn’t seem fair…”  A moment later her tiny face brightened.  “Hey, since you saved me from that tree branch I think I’m allowed to give you a wish.  Would you like that?”

     “Really?  A wish?”

     “Yes.  I can do that.”

“You’ll give me a wish?  Like magic?  A wish?”

     She frowned again.  “Come on, kid, I know you’ve been shorted on candy the last couple of years but is your blood sugar really that low?  I just very clearly said I will give you a wish.  We’re allowed to when someone helps us out.”

     He was so excited he could barely sit still.  It was a Christmas miracle after all, a real one!  “Could I wish for, like, a million dollars?”  Then even if Luis didn’t find another job for a while, the family would be okay.  More than okay.

     She shook her head.  “Sorry, kid, no.  I only do candy-related wishes.  You want one of those extra big gummy bears?  I hear those are popular this year.  I could bend some rules and get it to you by Christmas.”

     He was tempted — he’d seen an ad on television — but now it was his turn to shake his head.  “Could I just get a big Hershey bar?  One of those extra-big ones?  For my mother?”

     The little woman tilted her head up so she could see him better from where she stood down on the ground.  “Truly?  Is that all you want?  Gee, kid, I could feel the desperation coming off this house like weird off an elf.  You sure you don’t want something a little more…substantial?  A pile of candy, maybe?  A year’s supply of gumdrops or something?  As long as it’s candy-related, I can probably get it done for you, but you better decide quick.”  She pulled quite a large pocket watch on a chain out of her bag, then put on her glasses again.  “After midnight, and I’ve still got half my rounds to go.”  She looked up at him.  “You seem like a nice kid, Danny, and it doesn’t look like you guys are exactly swimming in presents and stuff.  How about a nice pile of candy, assorted types?  Or if you’d rather just concentrate on — what did you say, Hershey Bars? — I could probably arrange a shopping bag of those or something…”

     For a moment his head swam at the prospect of a grocery bag full of giant chocolate bars, more than Hector the Butt-head Villaba could ever dream of having now matter how much he stole…but then another idea came floating up from deep down in Danny’s thoughts — a strange, dark idea.

     “Can you do all kinds of wishes?  Really all kinds?”

     “Yeah, but just one.  And it definitely has to be candy-related.  I’m not a miracle worker or anything.”

     “Okay.  Then  I’ll tell you what I want.”  Danny could suddenly see it all in his imagination, and it was very, very good.

*

     The school holiday party was nice.  Danny and his classmates played games and sang songs and had a snack of fruit and cheese and crackers.  Nobody brought Chips Ahoy cookies, but one of the mothers did indeed bring cupcakes, delicious chocolate ones with silver, green and red sprinkles for Christmas.  There were even enough left over that although Danny had finished his long ago despite making it last as long as possible, he was allowed to take home the last two for his little brothers.  He suspected that the teacher knew his family didn’t have much money, but for this one day it didn’t embarrass him at all.

     After the bell rang Danny followed the other third-graders toward the school gate, holding one cupcake carefully in each hand, his book bag draped over his shoulder.  He was watching his feet so carefully that he didn’t see what made the other children suddenly scatter to either side, but as soon as he heard the voice he knew the reason.

     “Look at that, it’s Maricon Mendoza, yo,” said Hector Villaba.  “What’d you bring us for Christmas, kid?”  Danny looked up.  The mustached monster was sitting astride his bike just a few yards down the sidewalk, flanked by Rojo and Chuy.  “Oh, yeah, dude — cupcakes!” said Hector.  “You remembered our Christmas presents.”  He scooted his bike forward until he stood directly over Danny, then reached out for the cupcakes.  Danny couldn’t help it — he jerked back when Hector tried to take them, even though he knew it would probably earn him another bruising.

     “Punch the little chulo’s face in,” Rojo suggested.

     Hector dropped his bike with a clatter.  The other kids from school who had stopped to stare in horrified fascination jumped out of his way as he strode forward and grabbed the cupcakes out of Danny’s hands.  He peeled the paper off one and shoved the whole cupcake in his mouth, then tossed the other to Chuy.  “You two split that,” he said through a mouthful of devil’s food, then turned his attention back to Danny, who was so scared and excited that he felt like electricity was running through him.  “Next time, you better remember to bring one for each of us, Mendoza.  You only bring two, that’s going to get your ass kicked.”

     Danny backed away.  It was hard to look into those yellow-brown eyes and not run crying, let alone keep thinking clearly, but Danny did his best.  He dropped his book bag to the ground and out fell the stringless tennis racket that he had brought from home.  Hector hooted with angry laughter as Danny snatched it up and held it before him as if it was a cross and Hector was a vampire.

     >”Que?  You going to try to hit me, little boy?”  Hector laughed again, but he didn’t sound happy.  He didn’t like it when people stood up to him.  “I’ll take that away from you and beat your ass black and blue, Mendoza.”  The bully took a step nearer and held out his hand.  “Give it to me or I’ll break your fingers.”

     “No.”  Danny wasn’t going to step back any farther.  He lifted the racket, waved it around like a baseball bat.  It was old and flimsy, but he had come to school determined today.  “You can’t have it…you fat asshole.”

     Behind Hector, Rojo let out a surprised chortle, but Hector Villaba didn’t think it was funny at all.

     “That’s it,” he said, curling his hands into fists.  “After I kick your ass, I’m gonna rub your face in dog shit.  Then I’m gonna kick your ass again.  You’re gonna spend Christmas in the hospital.”  Without warning, he charged toward Danny.

     Danny stepped to the side and swung the racket as hard as he could, hitting Hector right in the stomach.  With a whoop of surprise and pain Hector bent double, but when he looked up he didn’t look hurt, just really, really mad, his eyes staring like a crazy dog’s eyes.

     “That’s…it.  I’m…going…to…get…you…Mendoza…” he said, then sucked in air and stood up straight, but even as he did so a funny expression crossed his face and he looked down at where he was holding his belly.  Hector’s hands were suddenly full of crackling, cellophane-wrapped hard candies, so many of them that they cascaded over his fingers and onto the ground.  He lifted his hands in disbelief to look and dozens more of the candies slid out of the front of his open jacket — candy bars, too, fun-size and even regular ones, Snickers bars, Mounds, Tootsie Rolls, lollipops, candy canes, even spicy tamarindos.  The other children from the school stared in horrified fascination, guessing that Danny had broken a bag that Hector had been carrying under his coat.  They were so scared of Hector that they didn’t move an inch toward any of the candy that was still slithering out of the big boy’s coat and pooling on the ground at his feet.

     “Oh, man,” one of the other third graders said in a hoarse whisper, “Mendoza’s going to get beat up so bad…!

     But even more candy was pouring out of Hector’s belly now, as if someone had turned on a candy-faucet, a great river of sweets running out of the place where Danny had knocked him open with his old tennis racket.

     “What the…?”  Then Hector Villaba looked down at himself and began to scream in terror.  Candy was showering out of him faster and faster onto the sidewalk, already piled as high as the cuffs of his pants and still coming.

     “Hijole, dude!”  said Rojo.  “You’re a piñata!”

     Hector looked at him, eyes rolling with fear, then he turned sprinted away down the street squealing like a kindergartner, a flood of candy still pouring from him, Crunch Bars, M&Ms,  (plain and peanut) as well as boxes of gumdrops and wax-wrapped pieces of taffy, all raining onto the street around the bully’s legs and feet, bouncing and rolling.

     Rojo and Chuy watched Hector run for a moment, then turned to stare at Danny with a mixture of apprehension and confusion.  Then turned from him to look at each other, came to some kind of agreement, and threw themselves down on their knees to start scooping up the candy that had fallen out of Hector Villaba.  Within a few seconds the other school kids were all scrambling across the ground beside them, everybody shoveling candy into their pockets as fast as they could.

     Danny waited until he wasn’t breathing so hard, then started for home, following the clear trail of candy that had gushed from Hector Villaba as he ran.  He didn’t bother to pick up everything, since for once in his life he could afford to be selective.  He stuffed one pocket of his jacket with candy for his brothers, then filled the other just with Butterfinger Bars, at least six or seven, but kept walking with his head down until he spotted a nice, big Hershey Bar in good condition which he zipped in his book bag so it would stay safe for his mother.  The rest of the way home he picked up whatever looked interesting and threw it into the book bag too, until by the time he reached home he was staggering with its weight up the apartment building walkway.  For once, Hector Villaba had been the one who had run home crying.

     He didn’t feel sorry for Hector, either, not at all.  Scared as the fifth-grader was now, he would be all right when he reached home.  Danny had made that a part of the wish and the fairy had said she thought it was a good idea.  Jesus didn’t want even mean kids to die from having their guts really fall out, Danny felt pretty sure, so he had done his best not to spoil the Lord’s birthday.  Of course Hector Villaba probably wouldn’t have a very merry Christmas, but Danny had decided that Jesus could probably live with that.

I left something in San Francisco.

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Maybe it was my heart. No, my heart was there, for a time, spread out in beating chunks across the hills and Muni lines and friends and restaurants and libraries and moments I thought I would never survive and the moon so full reflected on Ocean Beach.

San Francisco, you taught me what it meant to expect beauty down every little alleyway, to believe in magic because living without it is dying a little every day. You taught me never to assume that I was alone because I felt lonely. You taught me patience with frustration, and when patience ran out you taught me how to curse it colorfully so I felt that at least I was doing something.

San Francisco, you gave me serendipitous meetings by the truckload if only I would look up from my books. You gave me ridiculous inconsistencies that I had to learn to wrestle, and in learning, let a little of my compulsivity go. You gave me a career direction and a writer’s voice.

I left something with you. I left my friends and I left knowing where to go for the best meals in the world and I left a part of myself, too, I know I did, that part that believes in a transit system and tolerance and a world with poets instead of politicians at the wheel.

But not my heart.

You gave me my heart.