Palo Alto Weekly 25th Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Adult


About Ross Peter Nelson

As a fiction writer, Ross Peter Nelson was a late bloomer.

When the 53-year-old Montana native moved to Silicon Valley in 1979 to work as a software engineer, he never thought about writing. He got his start as a scribe a decade later while reviewing a technical book he thought was not well written. When the publisher asked Nelson if he knew anyone who could write a better book, he responded, "I can."

So write he did, although his early efforts were strictly technical in genre. He authored two programming books in the early 1990s, as well as some articles for technical magazines, but eventually found such writing limiting.

In the early 2000s, Nelson wrote for Playground, a San Francisco-based incubator for dramatists, and in 2006 he won their "Emerging Playwright Award" for his piece on the mating habits of elephant seals, called "Sexual Perversity in Año Nuevo."

In writing this year's winning short story "The Harrow," Nelson crafted a historical vignette with a dialogue-driven encounter between a former Guantanamo prison guard and the son of a former Guantanamo inmate.

He wrote the story after reading a 2005 Seton Hall University of Law study on Guantanamo detainees, which found less than half of Guantanamo detainees have connections to military activity, and only 10 percent of such detainees have been involved in combat.

By having his protagonist prison guard meet the son of one of his former detainees and discover the man's innocence, Nelson encourages his audience to question the appropriateness and efficacy of Guantanamo's purpose.

"It's about getting people to understand that justice isn't being served. It can haunt us, because it's what our country was built on," he said.

The former prison guard turned to heroin to cope with his guilt, Nelson said.

"There are a lot of people who wouldn't feel guilt, because they see the world in black and white. Which makes them less interesting."

In the future, Nelson intends to seek an MFA in playwriting.

"I really enjoy writing, but feel I don't yet have the background."

--Georgia Wells

by Ross Peter Nelson

Editor's note: This story contains strong language and adult content that is not suitable for younger readers.

McKimmon's eyes jerk open. Despite the haze shifting through his mind, despite the ache of muscles shrieking for relief, despite the dimness of the room, some dormant part of his training has kicked in with a word to the wise. Intruder.

Indifference comes to his rescue. Maybe today is the day. Some fellow junkie hungry for a few bucks will cut him. Let him float away on a river of blood. Float away to a more permanent oblivion.

He turns into the mattress, then retches as the scent of urine reaches into the back of his throat. He spits back at it and grimaces. Almost laughs as the voice of Corporal Kemp fills his head.

"God I love it when they piss themselves. Cap's a f---ing genius with those dogs. He waits outside the cell and lets them bark and bark. Then bang, the door's open and the dogs are f---ing inches from their throats. Then Cap snaps his fingers and they're back at his side panting like little puppy dogs and Abdul's lying in a puddle of piss. He'll do it to the same guy four times running and every time he'll piss himself. Cracks me up."

McKimmon hears the dogs barking. He snaps his fingers. No dogs. No Kemp. Something sweet is in the air. Almost sweet enough to chase away the piss. He opens his eyes again. A man in white. Some loose shirt or smock that hangs down almost to his knees. Baggy white pants. No junkie. Tea. That's what he smells. The man holds out a cup smelling of flowers.

"I thought I was in Delta camp," McKimmon rasps as he sits.

"It's closed."

"National disgrace he calls it. Whiny liberals."

"It always was a disgrace."

"Who are you?"


"I can't sleep. Not without..." McKimmon checks himself. Probably some f----t from the rehab. Better not get myself in trouble. He looks around the room to see if anything will give him away. No needles, just some takeout rotting on the dusty table. When did he eat last?

"Perhaps some tea."

"I can still smell it. S---, baked into dust, mixed with blood and sweat and fear, and baked into dust again." The light outside is so dim, is it morning or evening? "What time is it?"

"What does fear smell like?"

He takes the cup calmly, even though his muscles have begun to tense. This is no rehab nurse. "Watered down death. Less like raw meat, more like a backed-up sewer."



The man's voice takes on a dark timbre. "It stains people. Soaks into their flesh. They're never rid of it."

McKimmon turns his face into the tea cup and shuts his eyes, letting his eyelids bathe in the warmth. "Cowards. Fear is for cowards."
"It is cowardice to fear for a wife and child? That was my father's fear. Not for himself, but for his family."

"Who are you?"

"My father's son."

McKimmon searches the man's face, looking for a hint. "Did I know your father?"

"You shaved his beard; an insult to an elder of my clan."

Clan. The word sends ice skittering down McKimmon's back. Vengeance. Someone has come for him after all. "Delta camp?"

"Block four. Cell six." In the city streets a siren wails. "You were his interrogator. Not that you ever knew him."

McKimmon's mind returns to Gitmo. He paces out the steps to block four. Peers into the cages wondering who fathered this assassin who provides him tea before death. "There were four men in cell six."

"Rabani Zahir. Daoud Akbari. Hamid Shah. Rasul Sayyaf."

"162. 591. 540. 604."

"Daoud Akbari. 591. I am called Shabir."

"Taliban." McKimmon growls. He drinks from the teacup, then spits. "Poison? Is that how you take your revenge, Shabir, son of 591?"

"The poppy is a bitter plant. It stirs up memories."

Memories. McKimmon's thoughts drift back to Corporal Kemp. How he sneered when the Bureau had come through. "I thought those pansy-ass FBI s---s would never leave. I'd hate to be their kids. -- What did you do in the war, daddy? -- I wrote memos, son. Whiny f---ing memos.-- Only eight percent of these prisoners have any connection to Al Qaida. For f---'s sake, haven't they been in a prison before? Everybody's f---ing innocent."

McKimmon closes his eyes again. "I don't need any more memories, I have enough memories."

"Countless are the handwritings which have inscribed themselves on the palimpsest of your brain, like the annual leaves or undissolving snow. Light falling on light. Endless strata, covered up; but by death, by fever, by the searchings of opium, all these can revive in strength. They are not dead, but sleeping," Shabir recites. "I am my father's son. Come to peel back the layers of your memory."

Shabir begins to remove his kurta, and McKimmon briefly wonders again. Is this some ritual. The killer bears himself before the victim? Damn Abdul. Damn all of them. What's wrong with his chest? It's like a scroll from some museum, "Those tattoos. I saw them on..."

"My father."

"591 did this? To you?"

"This is my mother's hand. But I did this. I forced her to copy every word, every syllable, every letter that was on his body before I would let her bury him."

"He's dead then." His hunch was correct. "Kill me, if that's what you're here for."

"More tea?" Shabir towers above him.

McKimmon wants to get up, to prove he's no pushover. He's still tough, despite the dingy room, despite the disheartening streets outside, despite the tracks on his arm. "You won't get any satisfaction. I had no power to damn nor to save. An interrogator. A cog in the machinery of war."

"Not a cog, but a harrow. A steel pen, carving away my father's life and writing lies in its place."

"All I did was ask questions."

Shabir stamps his foot. No. "What you did to him was to rewrite him. For five years you whispered. For five years you shouted and swore. 'You are Al Qaida. You are a terrorist. You are an assassin. You came from Kunar to kill Americans. You are working for the Taliban.' Every day your stories became more real. Every day his memories of life outside became fainter. Obliterated by the monotony and petty violence of the camp."

McKimmon's thoughts stray once again to Kemp. Kemp with his six foot speakers. Metalica. AC/DC. Eminem. Pounding out metal. Inflicting wakefulness on the prisoners for days on end. Sleep tight, Abdul. Sweet dreams, Mr. Taliban. Shabir is still talking. McKimmon turns his face back to the man in white.

"To save himself, he began to tattoo his life story onto his very skin to keep it from being obliterated." He spreads his arms. "So it is written."
That's a surprise. "I always thought it was the Koran. That he was inscribing holy verses," McKimmon admits.

"So they were. The holy verses of his memory. After he filled his chest, legs and arms, he dictated to his cell mates so that they could tattoo his back. They'd save fragments of broken glass, smash pencils to find splinters sharp enough to pierce flesh."

"We didn't approve of that sort of thing." McKimmon wants to puncture man's reserve. "He confessed, you know."
Again, heat blazes up in Shabir's eyes. "You mean he repeated your stories."

McKimmon gloats. "He gave us names, locations. It was my job to find the truth."

Shabir lowers himself to the floor, and crosses his legs. "You deal in truth, I deal in stories. Once upon a time ... this is how stories begin, is it not? Once upon a time there was a man from my village. One day, two things happened, several of this man's neighbors disappeared and the man was found to possess a small fortune. Perhaps in America, $40,000 is not a fortune, but when you work an entire month for $40, it is significant."

"I know what you're going to say."

"You are familiar with this story?" Shabir smiles, then his face hardens into accusation. "Because you heard him say it, over and over. And you had confirmation. The boy in cell five was turned in at the same time by the same bounty hunter. You imprisoned a 12-year old boy."
"They don't come with birth certificates!" What kind of fool is this Shabir? He claims to know war? Claims to know Afghanistan? Some 12-year olds are deadlier than men three times their age.

Shabir rises over him again. Sarcastically asks what it takes to make a 12-year-old confess. An angry pride fills McKimmon. He rises to meet the accusation.

"We fed that boy better than he'd ever been fed in his life."

Shabir does not relent. "Dogs? Icy blasts of air so cold he shivered for hours? The pounding of your so-called music?"

Trying to focus in the dull light, McKimmon spots the duffel bag that will vindicate him. He roots through it with burning eyes. He finds the paper, kneels, and smooths it on the floor. He knows the words by heart but needs to see them, just to make sure, before he shows Shabir. That was the best day of my life, he tells himself. The day Enam was released, hugging the bright orange basketball McKimmon had given him. Triumphant, he hands over the page. Each word on it echos in his head as he sees the document reflected in Shabir's pupils.

"You will laugh, but sometimes I am dreaming of the hamburger. Once, my family traveled to Kandahar and I found a shop selling hamburgers. But they were not like the ones in Guantanamo. My father is still angry. He thinks that I am a traitor, that with your gifts you turned my head from my people. You will forgive me, but I sold the Nike's to help buy kerosene for my family, but I still have the basketball. I practice every day, just like on the base. I know four languages now, Dari, Pashto, Arabic, and English. I think I would like to be a translator for the United Nations. Perhaps one day we will meet again."

Shabir lets the page drop. "Even he you rewrote. Made him over in your image. Hamburgers and basketball."

"I saved him. You can't take that away from me."

"And what of the others? The suicides, the shattered, the hollow men?"

"They're home now, if their countries will have them."

"My father's life was stolen."

"Only five years. It was five years of my life, too. Rotting on that island. Anyway, we sent him back."

Shabir snorts. "Sent home, pale and weak, to a farm grown barren in his absence. My mother sold the donkeys to buy food while he was away, so he plowed the fields by hand. His heart straining against five years of inactivity. Five years of fattening like a bird to slaughter. Wrestling against the land with a body no longer fit for it. He died before he could claim his first harvest." Shabir becomes very still and when he speaks again, his voice is hushed. "I took my father's place in the fields only to plow up a land mine."

"A land mine?" McKimmon grabs for a leg to feel for the prosthesis. He catches only air.

"I became a shadow, no, a memory of a shadow." Shabir's frame is now as murky as the lackluster light from the window. "Visible only in the light of the opium poppy. The poppy that is your harrow."

McKimmon stares into the empty room. "I don't know what you're talking about." He turns back to his duffle bag and pulls out a needle and the rubber tubing that he uses to tie up his arm. "I saved that boy. Enam is alive because of me."

Outside, the beat of a basketball on the pavement accompanies the shake in McKimmon's hands as he lights a candle to heat the hard candy. Six thousand miles away, a similar steady dribble irritates a soldier with an AK-47 who sprays bullets in the direction of the sound. It ends.

Judges comment

"Gritty, terrifying and unrelenting, 'The Harrow' is a needle-sharp and penetrating 21st century evocation of Kafka's 'In The Penal Colony' made all the more powerful by its unflinching look at today's tools and tricks of the jailers' trade and the punishments that frequently render both captor and captive casualties."


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