“Puff Piece” by Brett Allen

Wallace never asks anyone to lunch unless he has a crap assignment for them and that’s exactly what he had for me. To be fair, he never called it “lunch” anyway. He always said he was going to “treat you to a bite” like you’d won some kind of damn prize, and to imply you weren’t to order anything expensive.

We’d barely sat down outside this small bodega in Queens when he started singing my praises for a recent piece I’d written on the tech industry and its tentacle-like reach into the heart of Washington. He proclaimed it was some real next-level investigative journalism. He was buttering me up and I could tell there was a “but” coming.

But, our readers don’t subscribe for stuff like that,” he said. “They’re looking for more topical news. Current events. Trendy stuff. Stuff they can feel outraged about before their morning dumps, but then dismiss before lunch.”

“So—dribble?” I’d said.

He’d nodded.

“Not dribble. But lighter stuff. More relatable stuff.”


He’d leaned across the table and beckoned me in with his hairy, knuckled, chimp finger. I declined and he went on anyway. Turns out he’d been contacted by a worldwide corporation, headquartered right there in the city, but he wouldn’t say who. They’d recently come under scrutiny by the ultra-left crowd because of perceived poor working conditions and were looking for some positive press. It would be my job to go conduct interviews and generate a puff piece about how progressive the company was and all that happy horse crap. It was nauseating to think about.

“If you can make this piece sing,” he said with a wink, “there could be a promotion in it for you.”

“What’s the company?” I asked.

Wallace leaned in farther, looked around for eavesdroppers, then beckoned me in again. I acquiesced this time. His sour coffee breath was hot in my ear and he slid an address across the table.

Wallace never asks anyone to lunch unless he has a crap assignment for them.

He ordered the California Reuben. I ordered a steak.


            The waiting room in Hell Inc. is not at all what I’d expected, but since it closely resembles the waiting room of my childhood dentist, maybe I should have. There are ancient copies of women’s magazines covering the coffee table, their wrinkled, tattered covers advertising intellectual pieces like, “Six Sinful Ways To Spice Up The Bedroom” and “Nine Signs He’s Cheating.” A fish tank bubbles to my left with four hungry piranhas sizing me up. They take turns testing the glass barrier with their stupid flat faces and protruding lower mandibles. The air smells like antiseptic and my eyes burn. My ears burn too, as smooth jazz plays over the intercom. I wait for what feels like an eternity.

            Finally, the door to the main office swings open and a demon in a smart button-up enters holding a clipboard. He is naked from the waist down, which is oddly okay considering the lack of any distinguishing gender features. Two small horns protrude from the demon’s forehead, both capped with small rubber balls. His—or her—arms and legs are thin and lanky, but when he calls my name his voice is deep, foreboding.

            He calls my name again. I look around the empty waiting room and stand. The demon looks up for the first time and raises an eyebrow, which appears to be on fire.

            “Right,” he says. “You’re the guy from the newspaper?”

            “I suppose so,” I say. “We’re almost entirely digital these days though.”

            The demon stares back at me blankly and then checks his watch.

            “Fascinating. The boss wants you to get a few different perspectives of the work we’re doing down here,” he says, looking back at his board. “I’ve scheduled you for interviews in three different departments. Acceptable?”

            “Acceptable,” I say. “By ‘the boss’, you mean Satan, right?”

            “No, Springsteen,” he says, flatly. “Of course, you twit. And he prefers ‘Lucy’. Short for ‘Lucifer’, ya know?”

            I write this down.

            The demon snaps a finger and the waiting room dissolves into red mist.


            Hell’s operation center, as I learned from the demon who greeted me, is divided into two main efforts. The first operations center focuses entirely on one Internal Operation: the torturing of souls condemned to the underworld. This is historically considered a “cush gig” among the demons as it allows for maximum creativity, with the wiggle room of knowing you have a literal eternity to hone your skills.

The second operation center is focused on Outside Influence. The demons working in “O.I.” are charged with manipulating human behavior to promote depravity, which maximizes the annual soul harvest stats. They are essentially salesmen of sin. They work on commission and are often considered social pariahs among other demon echelons. My first interview is conducted with a 497-year veteran of Escalation Call Center Number Three or EEC #3.

Interview #1: Escalation Call Center Technician Balzoobus:

Me: “Can you state your name for the record?”

Balzoobus: “Balzoobus”

Me: “That’s an interesting name. What does it mean?”

Balzoobus: “It means Balzoobus. Can we get on with this? It’s almost lunch.”

Me: “Right, sorry. Okay. Can you explain to me how the Escalation Call Center works?”

Balzoobus: (Points to the meager desk in front of him. There is a single phone with no buttons.) “It’s simple really. The calls come in, we answer the phone, and tell folks what they want to hear.”

Me: “The calls come to you? But where do they originate?”

Balzoobus: “Sinners, bro. Anytime someone is about to sin, we get a call—wires us directly into the caller’s brain, which gives us instantaneous situational awareness. From there, the job is two-pronged. First, you gotta convince the caller to proceed with the original sin request. This isn’t always easy. Heaven has similar call centers trying to convince folks to be lame.

Me: “Right, like the whole devil and angel on your shoulder thing.”

Balzoobus: “What?”

Me: “Never mind. Go on.”

Balzoobus: “The second part of the job is where the real art takes place. The second part is convincing the caller to escalate their sin. Hence the name. Example: a guy is going to swipe a candy bar, and next thing you know he’s robbing a bank. Tax fraud? How about a triple homicide?”

Me: “That’s awful.”

Balzoobus: “That’s Hell.”

Me: “And you get paid per success?”

Balzoobus: “Yes and no. Payment varies with the degree of escalation. The greater the increase in sin, the greater the payday. And if you get lucky, you get Ripples.”

Me: “Ripples?”

Balzoobus: “Yeah, it’s like royalties for when sins lead to other sins. It gets pretty complicated. See that guy over there?”

Balzoobus points to a demon a few rows down. The demon is wearing a slicked-back toupee and aviator sunglasses. There’s a Rolex watch on his wrist and a gold chain around his neck. For a moment I can smell Axe body spray.

“That’s Jareelz. He makes everyone call him J-Dog. He’s a douche. But he got lucky back in the early 20th century. Convinced some poor Bosnian-Serb schmuck to escalate from bread theft to joining a political extremist group and assassinating the Archduke of Austria-Hungary. Not an easy task. The thing sparked World War One, which led to Hitler, which led to another world war, which led to every other major conflict of the last century. That dude has been collecting on all of it. Ripples, man. Some folks have all the luck.”

Me: “Seems like, with the state of the world now, you guys would be pretty busy down here.”

Balzoobus: (Shrugs) “We have a billion call centers. But yes, we stay busy enough. To be honest, social media algorithms and digital marketing are doing a lot of the heavy lifting nowadays.”

Me: “What am I thinking right now?”

Balzoobus: (Rolls his eye) “It doesn’t work once you’re within the confines of hell. It’s like having two microphones close together. All we’d get is feedback. But I do know all of your digital passwords and can access your web browser search history any time I want. Shall we discuss what’s on there?

Me: “…”

Balzoobus: “…”

Me: “Have you had any big wins recently?”

Balzoobus: (Casts a disdainful glance at J-Dog and then checks his watch) “It’s lunchtime. The cafeteria here is garbage, so most of us have to go out into the Abyss to get anything decent.”

Me: “One last question, before you go. Are you happy working here?”

Balzoobus: “Am I supposed to be?”


The pantsless demon in the smart button-up reappears and before I know it we’re walking through a maze of identical hallways peppered with unlabeled doors. Every turn leads to an identical hallway, bathed in sterile fluorescent light, and I’m positive we’ve passed the same empty water cooler several times. You wouldn’t even know we were in hell if it weren’t for the blood-red stalactites hanging from the ceiling tiles.

“How was the first interview?” The demon asks with feigned interest.

“Good,” I say, trying not to be ungracious. “I got some really good stuff.”

The demon looks annoyed by this.

“Say. What’s your name?” I ask. “I apologize for not asking before. That was rude.”

“And here I thought that was your only redeeming quality.”


The demon pauses outside of a door similar to countess others we’ve passed, except two letters, I.O., are smeared on the frosted glass in what appears to be more blood.

“My name is Rick,” the demon says. “And this is your next stop.”

“I thought I was already here,” I say, cautiously.

Rick is visibly annoyed.

“You were in ‘O.I.’,” he says. “This is ‘I.O.’—Internal Operations. This is Hell Inc.’s bread and butter: the torturing of damned souls. You’ll be meeting with the Department Manager, Azok The Bone Crusher.”

I swallow hard and write the name on my notepad. Rick laughs.

“I’m kidding,” he says. “His name is Mike. But watch out. Mike’s a weasel. He’ll be your best friend until he’s not.”

Interview #2: Internal Operations: Torture Department Manager Mike

Mike is a literal weasel and it’s unsettling. In typical middle manager fashion, his office is arranged according to several textbook “power play” strategies. Elevated desk. Short, uncomfortable visitor chairs. Flaming skulls. Behind Mike’s desk are wall-to-wall windows looking out over a vast lake of fire. Muted screams and shrieks can be heard from outside, intermixed with maniac laughter. Something beneath the waves of flame draws my attention. I squint, only to realize the “lake” is made entirely of writhing, burning bodies.

Mike sees me admiring the lake.

Mike: “Best view in Hell.”

Me: “It’s horrifying.”

Mike nods approvingly. I collect myself and take a seat opposite Mike’s big iron desk. The chair is unbearably hot and I immediately begin to shift in my discomfort.

Me: “So can you tell me a bit about your department?”

Mike smiles a big broad smile and sharp white teeth flash under the brown whiskers of his face. With his paws, he smoothes down his rounded triangular ears.

Mike: “We are the bread and butter of Hell Inc.”

Me: “So I’ve been told. Can you tell me a bit about the department’s structure?”

Mike: “Sure. Sure. The Internal Operations Department is huge and made up of a wide array of subordinate departments, but overall we have one goal: the eternal torment of damned souls. Now I know what you’re thinking. All you mortals are the same. You have this cliché idea that we’re all down here trotting around on our cloven hooves, poking people in the arse with cherry-red pitchforks.”

I nod.

Mike: “That happens, but not as much as you’d think.”

Me: “What are some of the sub-departments?”

Mike gets up from his tall chair and begins pacing in front of the large window, while simultaneously squeezing a stress ball. The inverse of Rick, Mike is not wearing a shirt but is dressed from the waist down in khaki pleated pants and expensive-looking Italian loafers.

Mike: “Oh, we’ve got everything. All the normal departments you’d expect in a big corporation’s task organization. Accounting. Finance. Purchasing. Torment. Research and Development—that’s where we develop tools for the Department of Torment—Marketing. Legal. Illegal. Human Resources, which is like a mini Hell in itself. We do have a few unique departments though. A lot of folks wouldn’t expect it, but we even have a maritime department. Used to be we had a single boat ferrying people across the River Styx, but the volume of souls got to be so much we had to develop a full fleet. If you get a chance, you should go down to the river bank and check it out. Commodore Charon runs a tight ship.”

I’ve been busy writing and failed to notice that Mike has now slipped behind my chair. My shoulders snap up, as he lays his furry hands on them and begins massaging the tight muscles. His grip is firm and mechanical. I’m the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been and I’m fairly sure I can hear him sniffing my hair.

Me: “So…um… if not the pitchfork thing, what’s your… the… um… most prevalent form of torture down here.”

Mike rubs harder.

Mike: “Torment.”

Me: “Sorry?”

Mike: “We call it ‘torment’. ‘Torture’ comes with a certain connotation. I feel like it implies we are trying to extract information or some other end result. There is no end to ‘torment.’”

Me: “Gotcha.”

I try to shrug his paws away, but Mike tightens down again.

Mike: “To be honest, we’ve really been making a concerted effort to bring torment into the 21st century. Like the boat problem, we were just getting too many souls. Good problem to have, I know. But without enough tormentors to go around, our eternal guests really weren’t getting the full hell experience. The trick to torment is consistency and we just weren’t getting that. It got so bad at one point, some guests were getting full minutes of respite from their torment. That was before I took over, of course. I’ve really turned things around.”

There’s an awkward pause and its obvious Mike is waiting for me to ask how he did it. It’s obvious because he pinches me really hard.

Me: “How’d you do it?”

Mike: “Oh, it was nothing, really. At first, we ramped up our virtual reality initiative. That way, when a tormentor couldn’t be actively engaging a guest, they could just be put into simulation and continue the psychological degradation. The problem, though, is it wasn’t cost-effective. The tech gets old and outdated fast. Simulations start looking fake, compared to new tech. Hardware breaks down with all the jerking around and writhing and gnashing. Plus the salt content of tears is highly corrosive. We ended up creating an IT department and the demon-nerds working there were insufferable.”

Me: “So what did you do?”

Mike’s paws work up my neck.

Mike: “I came up with another brilliant solution, of course.

Me: “…”

Mike: “…”

Another pinch.

Me: “Ow. What was it?”

Mike: “Get this. We just let people keep their cell phones!”

Me: “I don’t understand.”

Mike: (Clearly deflated.) “It used to be standard practice to confiscate personal belongings at Reception, but we began noticing people on the surface were miserable all the time. What was causing it? Cell phones! So now, we just let people keep their phones, though we limit their functionality and only allow certain apps.”

Me: “What apps?”

Mike: “Pretty much any social media app.”

Me: “That actually is pretty genius.”

Mike: “Thank you. We’ve been rapidly learning that sometimes the most effective forms of torment are self-inflicted and the tormentee doesn’t even realize they’re happening.

Mike is rubbing my cheeks now and it’s very difficult to write. His breath is unbearable, a slurry of brine-soaked fish rot.

Me: “Ouch!”

Mike staggers back.

Me: “Did you just bite my ear!?”

Mike: “Don’t be preposterous.”

I rub my ear and there’s a definite trickle of blood. Mike’s eyes are wild, so I decide not to press the issue and turn it into a worse situation.

Me: “So how did you come to be in charge of everything?”

My accidental emphasis on the word “you” makes the statement sound like an unbelievable accusation, but Mike doesn’t seem to notice. He struts back around his iron desk and takes a seat, licking his whiskers as he goes. He smiles another big smile.

Mike: “I just kind of weaseled my way into the position.”

I can tell he’s very proud of his stupid joke and I make a show of not writing it down. I’m not going to give him the satisfaction.

The conversation with Mike peters out after this, and I’m sure he can tell I’m irritated about the ear bite. Eventually he intercoms Rick, who appears in a puff of red smoke. Rick immediately spots my bleeding ear and gives me an “I told you so” look.


“I told you so,” Rick says as soon as we’re back in the hall. He moves to the next door and pushes it open to reveal an open platform next to which is docked a large cable car. Spatially, none of this makes sense. The hallway doors are so close together and the platform is so large that, in a world obeying normal physical rules, the cable car would be occupying the same space as Weasel Mike’s desk.

We board the cable car and it immediately lurches to life, sending us rolling out over the lake of fire at an uncomfortable clip.

“Your last stop will be at Reception,” Rick says. “It’s where all the souls are in-processed. It’s like the Ellis Island of Hell Inc.”

As the cable car approaches the far side, I can see Rick was right. Hoards of souls pour off rickety ships that rock in flaming waves and belch black smoke. The masses stream toward a series of gates, where they stand, terrified and weeping, to confirm they are indeed in the right afterlife. Demons in Smoky The Bear hats, similar to those worn by military Drill Instructors, slither through, stopping frequently to scream, heckle, and harangue. Most carry red pitchforks, which they use to poke arses and I wonder if Weasel Mike is aware. 

The cable car docks and soon we are pushing through the throngs of sorrowful souls and malevolent demons. Rick pushes me from behind with a hot, clammy hand on my neck; a move that I assume is meant to both guide and signal to the other demons that I belong to him. We approach a decrepit boathouse that appears to be thatched together with scorched driftwood. Holes dot the building’s facade, but behind them seems to be only impossible darkness, a darkness so complete it leeches the light from the air. On the door is a ragged, wood sign that reads: “Commodore.”

“I get to meet Charon?” I ask, excited at the prospect of being the sole mortal to have personally interviewed the legendary Boatman of Hell.

“Not exactly,” Rick says.

Before I can question him, he pushes me through the front door and into that thick, formless darkness. There is nothingness at first and then, slowly, the darkness recedes, retracting into one single point of origin at the far end of the room. From it, a form takes shape. Standing in the center of the room is an unimposing man with a good-natured, some might say charming, smile. Around him, the room is decorated in the fashion of a modern lake house, with ironic nautical knick-knacks hung from the walls. The man at the center is of slight build but seems to occupy every square inch of free space in the small house, which I know doesn’t make any sense. He is handsome in a way that makes you immediately long for his approval, with olive skin, perfectly coiffed chestnut hair, and teeth so white they border on brilliant. A dimple dots his right cheek. On the breast of his tailored suit jacket is a standard paper name tag: “Hello, I’m:” The name “Lucifer” is scratched out in serial killer font in what appears to again be blood.

The man advances on me in a movement that is more of a glide or slither, than a walk. He extends his hand without a word. He does not need one. The unbearable despair that accompanies his presence is enough to confirm his nametag isn’t lying.

This is Satan.

I remember Rick’s advice earlier and grasp the outstretched hand.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lucy,” I say, shaking vigorously with no feeling of pleasure at all.

I hear Rick gasp behind me.

Satan’s eyes, which had previously been green as emerald seas, collapse into pits of black. Darkness re-enters the room and the nautical knick-knacks fade from view. Two jagged horns spear out from his temples and a long forked tongue spills from behind yellow needle-sharp teeth. He is a hundred feet tall or more.

When he speaks, my eardrums beg to burst. My flesh tries to flee my bones.


Interview #3: Lucy

Things are pretty tense for a few moments before Rick, trembling some, can explain the nature of his practical joke. He will later inform me just how close I’d come to irreversible and eternal obliteration, though he is quite unapologetic. His reason for saving me seems to stem only from the avalanche of paperwork that accompanies the obliteration of a mortal soul.

Lucifer has retracted and now sits in an old rocking chair. He has taken the form of my beloved, and deceased, grandfather, which evokes simultaneous feelings of pleasant nostalgia and resentment, as my rational brain knows it’s being tricked. I sense that Lucifer can feel these conflicted emotions resonating from me like pheromones and he smiles, delighted.

He begins the interview before I can.

Lucifer: “So how has your visit to Hell Inc. been?”

Me: “Eye-opening.”

Lucifer: “I trust you’ve gathered enough information to create a fairly effective piece?”

His voice even sounds like my dead grandpa. I want to punch him, but also hug him or see if I can score a Werther’s Original. I swallow hard and gather my courage.

Me: “To be quite honest, I haven’t really seen many redeeming qualities here. I understand the nature of your…um…company is the wholesale manufacturing of misery, but shouldn’t that stop at the doomed souls? I mean, most of your employees seem to be equally as miserable, unless they’re in some type of position of power. And even then they’re only motivated by more power and a disturbing amount of bloodlust.”

Lucifer: “Yes, we’ve done our best to model ourselves after corporate America.”

Me: “I guess, after being here all day, I really don’t understand the purpose of this assignment or why you need any positive press at all. Everyone here is stuck here. Employees included. You literally have a captive audience.”

The form of my grandfather melts away and the man in the chair morphs into my childhood dog, who’d been hit by a car.

Me: “That’s just messed up, man.”

The dog shrugs and then morphs into a beautiful, voluptuous woman with no shortage of exposed cleavage. My eyes meet the floor.

Lucifer: “The positive press isn’t for people that are already here.”

The woman’s voice is still that of my grandpa’s, which makes everything twice as confused.

Me: “Well, you’re not subject to the laws of the mortal world, so why would you be concerned with what people think up there? Everyone already knows that Hell is… well… Hell.”

The handsome man in the suit reappeared.

Lucifer: “And that’s exactly it. We don’t have an image issue, per se, as much as we have an energy crisis. Do you know what powers all of this?”

Me: “Despair?”

Lucifer: “No. Well, yes. Partially. Despair amounts to about 23% of the emotional fossil fuel we burn down here. But Fear, Fear is where it’s at. Did you know that Fear accounts for nearly 91% of our fuel expenditures down here?”

Me: “Those numbers don’t add─”

Lucifer: “Ninety. One. Percent. But the problem is our daily output has been dwindling and we’ve had to start tapping into our reserve tanks.”

Me: “What’s driving the shortages?”

Lucifer runs a hand through his perfect hair.

Lucifer: “See, that’s what we wanted to know. We ran countless studies, measured performance outputs, employed focus groups, and on and on. We even brought in an outside consultant group, which was a huge waste of money. All the studies came up empty. Nothing down here had changed, which led us to conclude that things up there had changed.”

He points toward the ceiling.

“The mortal world had changed. While we’d been preoccupied trying to find an internal fix, the whole mortal world was flying off the rails. Things up there were getting progressively worse and moving in the direction of a literal ‘hell on Earth’. Essentially, what was happening was that people’s mortal lives were so utterly miserable and they’d lived with so much fear, anxiety, and self-loathing, that by the time they got to us, they’d become desensitized to it. Our torments, which had been top of the line for centuries, had become a hum-drum daily norm for them. They lacked fear.”

Me: “That’s pretty messed up.”

Lucifer: “Right? We even had a few instances of souls coming from the mortal world ‘reverse-tormenting’ some of our employees.”

Me: “How does that work?”

Lucifer: “Mostly they just won’t shut up. They drone on and on about what a crap factory their old lives used to be and how they’re relieved to be out of their toxic relationships, dead-end jobs, and online feuds. We are starting to have a real employee morale issue down here, as you’ve pointed out.”

Me: “Well, that’s your answer then isn’t it?”

Lucifer: “What?”

Me: “It just makes sense that if the hell up there is worse than the hell down here, just make the hell down here replicate the hell up there?”

Lucifer sits with his mouth open exposing several rows of small, sharp yellow teeth.

Me: “I’ll level with you, I’ve been down here all day and I didn’t really find this place all that scary. Your tortures are pretty outdated. People are used to being whipped and beaten and dragged. That’s old-hat. You want to know what’s really terrifying? Getting out of bed in the morning. The prospect of going to the same job every day for decades until you retire…if you can ever retire. Being a prisoner to a mortgage payment. Children’s birthday parties. Thanksgiving.”

Lucifer rubs his ruddy chin and tilts his head.

Me: “You really want to torture somebody? Make them live their anxiety-ridden, regular life on a never-ending cycle.

Lucifer: “Interesting.”

Me: “But here’s the kicker, you have to give them a carrot. Dangle false hope in front of them. Like lottery tickets. Or a promotion that’s always just out of reach. Or a good idea for a novel.”

Lucifer: “You’re one sick bastard.”

I shrug.

Lucifer: “I like your idea. I hope you mind if I steal it. We’ll of course have to run some clinical trials first.”

He raises an eyebrow in a peculiar manner and a slight smile exposed his needle teeth once more. I didn’t particularly care whether he used my idea or not. Frankly, I just wanted to get out of there and end my bizarre day. But first I needed clarification on my story.

Me: “So to be clear, you don’t want me to write a positive piece about Hell Inc. At least not positive in the minds of mortals. Positive in your mind, maybe, which is inverse, so… awful. And I should relay, in my story, how my day here was filled with the most mind-numbing, dull, corporate bullshit imaginable.”

Lucifer removes a small notepad from the breast pocket of his jacket and scribbles something on the top page.

Lucifer: “Yes. Yes. Write whatever you’d like.” He mumbles and chuckles to himself. “Won’t matter much anyway.”

Me: “What?”

Lucifer: “Rick!” Come in here, please! We’re finished.”


Rick enters the shack and looks from me to Lucifer and back again, clearly surprised that I’m not a bloody heap on the floor or something. Lucifer stands from his rocking chair and rips the top page from his notepad. He hands it to Rick. Rick reads it while scratching nervously at a scaly spot on the back of his neck. He looks back to Lucifer, who nods reassurance.

“Is something the matter?” I ask.

Rick smiles. It’s a nervous smile.

“Not at all,” Lucifer says. “Just remembered an errand I need ol’ Ricky-boy to run for me as he’s showing you out.”

Rick herds me toward the door, his goat hooves clomping on the wood-planks.

We exit the shack, but instead of being back outside among the hordes of newly arrived, damned souls, I find myself back in the dentist-style waiting room where I’d began the day. Spatial-reality shifts like this no longer bother me and the piranhas look out with hungry eyes through the fish tank glass.

“I appreciate you showing me around today,” I say to Rick.

“No you don’t,” Rick says, dryly.

“No. No, I don’t suppose I do.” There’s an awkward silence and I look around the room in an effort to escape Rick’s weirdly intense stare. That’s when I noticed there is no longer an exit leading back to the street. “How do I get out of this place?”

“I have to show you a magic trick,” Rick says. The dead tone of his voice suggested this is some corporate gimmick clownery thought up by an out-of-touch middle manager (probably Weasel Mike) and now Rick is resigned to this performance-monkey bullshit every time the situation arises.

“A what?”

“A magic trick,” he nearly vomits the words.

“Alright,” I say. “Shoot.”

Rick pulls a quarter from… well… I don’t know where because he doesn’t wear pants. Maybe out of his arse, I guess. But he pulls out a quarter and with his left hand, he pretends to put it behind my ear and shows me an empty left hand. Then with his right hand, he reaches behind my other ear. When he pulls his hand back and has my full attention, he opens it quickly and with a mighty puff, blows red dust into my eyes.

“The hell, Rick!?!” I shout. It burns. I rub my eyes and to my surprise find myself sitting outside a small bodega in Queens opposite that insufferable prick, Wallace Ernst.

“But, our readers don’t subscribe for stuff like that,” Wallace is saying. “They’re looking for more topical news. Current events. Trendy stuff. Stuff they can feel outraged about before their morning dumps, but then dismiss before lunch.”

“So—dribble?” I say, reflexively.

He nods his head.

“Not dribble. But lighter stuff. More relatable stuff.”

The inside of my brain is screaming, trying to reconcile what is happening. Wallace leans across the table and beckons me in with his hairy, knuckled, chimp finger. I decline, again, and he goes on anyway, again. Of course, I know it all already, but some invisible force makes it impossible for me to deviate from the course of the conversation or do what I really want to do, which is bash Wallace’s head into the salt and pepper shakers.

“If you can make this piece sing,” he says with a wink, “there could be a promotion in it for you.”

A few tables over, I catch sight of a handsome waiter with perfect coiffed, chestnut hair who smiles with pin-shaped yellow teeth.

“That son-of-a-bitch,” I mutter.

“What’s that?” Wallace asks.

“What’s the company?” I sigh.

Wallace leans in farther, looks around for eavesdroppers, and beckons me in again. I acquiesce. His stale coffee breath feels ice cold on my ear and he slides an address across the table.

Wallace never asks anyone to lunch unless he has a crap assignment for them.

He orders the California Reuben. I order a steak.


If you enjoyed the story above, go ahead and pound the subscribe button. I’m fueled by validation and positive affirmation. The more people subscribe, the faster I will write! Also, check out my Afghanistan war novel Kilory Was Here!

Book Review: “Scars And Stripes” by Tim Kennedy & Nick Palmisciano

Scars and Stripes: An Unapologetically American Story of Fighting The Taliban, UFC Warriors, and Myself

By Tim Kennedy and Nick Palmisciano

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, this book should come with a WARNING label. Why? Because when you read it, it’s going to affect you in two profoundly different ways. First, it’s going to make you feel like a giant worthless turd. I know, this isn’t a good thing, but stay with me (and I apologize for making you read the word “turd”). The author(s) of this book have done so much cool and extreme stuff, that you, the reader, are going to find yourself really second-guessing a lot of your life decisions. This is especially so if you’re listening to the audiobook while you sit in your vanilla cubicle and sadly watch the geese meander across the office complex parking lot to crap in front of your car door. (They do this because they don’t respect you.) If you’re the right type of person, you’re going to get mad. Mad at yourself for underachieving. Mad for every time you’ve slept in, skipped a workout, or just taken the easy way out. (Still isn’t good, I know) The second thing this book will do is negate those first feelings of inadequacy by filling your motivational tanks to the brim (there we go, that’s better). After reading Scars and Stripes, you too will be inspired to go out and do great things, though I’d highly recommend against jumping into a UFC cage fight or catching a plane to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan without proper training first. 

So what’s this book about? This book is about Tim Kennedy. Don’t know Tim Kennedy? Well, come out from beneath that rock you’ve been under. Tim Kennedy might be comparable to a modern-day Kit Carson. The dude has been everywhere and done everything. He’s been an EMT, a firefighter, a policeman, a U.S. Army Special Forces operator, and a mixed martial arts warrior. He’s a veteran of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, has been on numerous TV shows and at least one zombie movie, he’s hunted Nazis around the world, relentlessly pursued human traffickers, and even participated in a civilian-led initiative to extract Americans and other allies from Afghanistan during the country’s tragic 2021 collapse. He talks about all of it in this wild book. Through it all, Tim attributes his accomplishments to just being “too dumb to quit.,” as he replied to me in a recent Tweet. I appreciate this humble approach because I too am incredibly humble (read in Drax voice), but I think we all know there’s a little more to it than that. You don’t get to be one of America’s elite warriors if you’re a big dummy and you sure don’t get asked to hunt Nazis and human traffickers either. Don’t get me wrong, Tim’s definitely taken his fair share of traumatic blows to the head. As a UFC fighter, that’s just part of the deal, but one can’t help but assume there’s some kind of “Homer Simpson Syndrome” going on there (man, I hope at least some people get that reference) because Tim seems to have come out of it no worse for wear.  

One of the pieces I most appreciated about this book was Tim’s open discussion of his failures. Tim doesn’t shy away from them and, in most cases, he’s brutally honest about the mistakes he’s made along the way. But like all successful people, Tim seems to realize that these mistakes and failures have played just as big a role in shaping him, as any of his successes. There are two types of people in the world, those who dwell on their mistakes and let them cripple them, and those who learn from their mistakes, bare down, and drive on. 

Plain and simple, this book is about not giving up. About being relentless. We live in a world that constantly tempts us into a state of willful sedation. It’s too easy to give in to that next batch of streaming TV shows or to spend hours scrolling aimlessly through social media feeds, negatively training our brains with microdoses of dopamine, like dogs responding to treats. If we want to be anybody or anything worth remembering, we need to break free from those time eaters, that wasted existence. We need to go out and push ourselves to the point of discomfort and, once there, push past it, instead of retreating back. The one thing you won’t read in Scars and Stripes is about Tim spending days and weeks nursing his wounds or feeling sorry for himself or binge-watching the new season of Sex In The City or some garbage like that. He’s always in motion, building momentum to the next big thing. In a world of lethargic slugs, be a Tim Kennedy. 

You can pick up a copy of Scars and Stripes right here.

Book Review: “Dodgebomb: Outside The Wire In the Second Iraq War” by Darin Pepple

The Iraq War is still a bit abstract to me, even though I spent many months training to deploy there. When I was coming up in the Army, still a wet-behind-the-ears Second Lieutenant, Iraq was all the rage. In the parlance of our times, Afghanistan was tired and Iraq was wired. Everybody who was anybody was going to Iraq. But not me. After months of training up in 2008, my Brigade’s deployment orders were switched from Iraq to Afghanistan and the rest is history. Now, years later, I still seek out novels and memoirs that will give me an accurate account of the Iraq experience to better understand my close friends who deployed there and the day-to-day of the young leaders on the ground. I recently had the privilege of readying Darin Pepple’s debut novel, Dodgebomb: Outside The Wire In The Second Iraq War, which is an excellent depiction of exactly these things from the perspective of a junior officer in the most excellent type of combat unit: the Cavalry.

Dodgebomb focuses on the deployment of 2nd Lieutenant Eddie Fitzgerald, a fresh-faced Cavalry Officer, who is deployed to Iraq to serve as a replacement Platoon Leader in a Troop operating from a remote Patrol Base in Iraq. After a long, tedious journey from the States to his new unit in Iraq, Fitzgerald first meets his Squadron Commander, a brash and egotistical, Lieutenant Colonel who is eager to show everyone just how smart he is about war. This seems to be the predominant trope for officers of that rank in GWOT literature and it’s satisfying every time. As Fitz gets closer to his ultimate destination, Patrol Base Murray, he meets an array of Soldiers who view him with annoyance and skepticism, at having to risk life, limb, and eyesight ferrying this new officer to his post, where he will, in their minds, probably be just another worthless “butter bar”. Even before they reach PB Murray, Fitz experiences his first of many tragedies in the war, as one of the convoy’s trucks strikes an IED, killing an American Soldier. This sudden trauma sets a tone of uncertainty for the rest of the book, which is perfect given how fast things can change in a warzone. The rest of Pepple’s Dodgebomb follows Fitz through the remainder of his Squadron’s deployment, where he earns the respect of his soldiers and peers, experiences victories in combat, endures no shortage of tragedies, continues to be plagued by the pompous pageantry of his superior officers, faces awkward interaction with weirdly over-eager local nationals, and endures his first-ever Squadron staff meeting, a hellish nightmare I know all too well.

What I enjoyed most about Dodgebomb was the way Pepple captured the subtle nuances of deployed life, especially for a first-time deployment. Pepple starts the novel with an excellent example of this as the reader accompanies Fitz on the last part of his long, awkward trip from the States to his assigned Troop, all the while only vaguely knowing where he’s supposed to go and how he’s supposed to act around other soldiers who’ve already been around the block a time or two. Fitz’s introductions to his Platoon Sergeant and other Platoon Leaders are perfect. As several very different personalities collide, you can almost feel the men measuring each other up and gauging each other’s level of competence and professionalism. These morph beautifully into ever-progressing relationships throughout the book. Fitz is thrown into action almost immediately upon arrival and he is again measured up by this Commander, fellow Platoon Leaders, and soldiers. For anyone who has ever arrived at a new military unit, you understand this behavior well. 

I highly recommend Dodgebomb to anyone looking to understand what life was like for veterans of Iraq or to any veterans looking for a trip down memory lane (which was recently cleared of IEDs). For me, it painted a much clearer picture of what day-to-day life was like there and I am continually surprised by how different the Iraq experience was from an Afghanistan deployment. It’s strange how two Army Officers of the same rank and similar dates of service, could have two dramatically different experiences in two very different wars, serving under the command of nearly identical personalities. This, in itself, highlights the importance of novels like Dodgebomb. I’m grateful to Pepple for writing this and to all veteran authors who share their stories, helping us to better understand each other as we figure out where to go from here.

You can pick up a copy of Dodgebomb: Outside The Wire In The Second Iraq War by Darin Pepple here!

Book Review: “Keeper Of The Dead” by Ryan Young

I don’t normally read in the horror genre, cause let’s face it, I’m a bit of a pansy when it comes to stuff like that. Ask my wife. She’ll tell you that I’m rarely willing to watch movies or shows that most people wouldn’t dub even moderately scary. I get nightmares, okay? Leave me alone. Anyway, I decided to make an exception for this book, Keeper Of The Dead, written by fellow indie author and friend, Ryan Young. 

Keeper Of The Dead is Young’s debut novel and boy is it a great one. Calling “Keeper Of The Dead” simply a zombie book or a horror book would be doing it a disservice because it’s much, much more. The novel follows two different timelines, the “then”, which chronicles the survival efforts of Viktor, the main character, at the start of a terrifying new pandemic (timely, right?) that transforms its victims into the ravenous undead (much the way social media does), and the “now” which follows Viktor several years later, as he sets out on a quest to track down a mysterious woman from a driver’s license he’s collects in his travels. The weaving of these two timelines is masterfully done and each section leaves the reader wanting for more as Viktor gets deeper and deeper into trouble.

In many ways, Keeper Of The Dead is more of a survival book than anything, as Young goes into great detail describing the various ways in which Viktor has adapted to survive in his new harsh environment, not only physically but mentally as well. Not to give away any spoilers, but it makes me wonder if Mr. Young spent a fair amount of time living in self-constructed treehouses to research for the book. I wouldn’t blame him, cause that sounds awesome. Hopefully, though, he doesn’t have a collection of dead people’s driver’s licenses hidden in his basement somewhere. 

What struck me most about this book was the way Young got into the head of Viktor and how precisely he paints the picture of this man who has survived unspeakable horrors, his mental state, and the habits and hobbies he’s developed to keep himself pushing forward, taking one day at a time. If you’re like me, you’ll find yourself reflecting on how you’d survive in similar situations and if you’re really like me you’ll come to the conclusion that you’d be zombie lunch before the end of the first act.

The book is a heck of a lot of fun, in a terrifying way. If you’re looking for a great read, that will keep you on the edge of your seat or you just want to study up on how best to survive the inevitable zombie apocalypse, I’d highly recommend Keeper Of The Dead. The nightmares are worth it. 

Sidenote: Deer hunters beware when reading this book. I won’t say anything more than that, but when you read it, you’ll know.

You can find Ryan Young’s Keeper Of The Dead here on Amazon or ask for it at any of your local bookstores. 

Book Review: “Endure: How To Work Hard, Outlast, and Keep Hammering” by Cameron Hanes

Ever read the right book at the right time and the message strikes home just that much harder? That’s what Cameron Hanes’s book Endure: How To Work Hard, Outlast, and Keep Hammering did for me. For a while now, I’ve been deep in the querying trenches, trying to find a literary agent for my new novel. Turns out the publishing world is a tough nut to crack and when your network of industry professionals is six dudes you’ve only met on Twitter, it can be hard to get an agent to even open your submission. It’s easy to get discouraged, to wallow in your imposter syndrome, shame-eat a couple dozen donuts, and start contemplating throwing in the towel or spiking your laptop in the driveway. This is where I was, right before I read Endure and Cameron Hanes gave me the metaphorical slap in the face I needed to get my head right and, as Cameron says, “keep hammering.”   

If you don’t know who Cameron Hanes is, let me fill you in. He’s a bad mama-jama from Oregon who’s made his name as one of the world’s foremost backcountry bowhunters and as one hell of an endurance athlete. What makes Cam unique (can I call him Cam?) is that he combines his two passions and uses his insane physical fitness to get him further into the backcountry than most bowhunters could ever dream, affording him opportunities to harvest game that most hunters will never even see. All of this has resulted in Cam smashing the curve on success rates in elk hunting and ruining it for the rest of the class. Thanks, Cam.

Throughout Endure, Cam drives home the fact that he’s just a regular guy. But regular guys don’t have 1.3 million Instagram followers, so what gives? Cam explains further that he’s just a regular guy who has built every inch of his success through perseverance and dedication to the activities he loves. He gives the reader a full-disclosure view of his average Joe (no offense, Rogan) upbringing, his angst-filled teenage years, and his humble beginning as a novice hunter and bowhunting writer. Cam doesn’t really talk about any big breaks. He just talks about how he kept going. How he kept his nose to the grindstone and carved out his place among the greats one arrow and one run at a time. 

Another aspect of this book that I enjoyed is that Cam doesn’t tell you what you have to do to be successful, he just tells you what worked for him. He doesn’t tell you that you need to wake up every day at 4:30 am and run a marathon. He doesn’t tell you that you have to hit the gym for four hours daily and then eat 5 pounds of protein powder, dry, between handfuls of organic, homegrown kale. He doesn’t tell you to eat the raw heart of a bull elk to harness its power. He just tells you to keep hammering. To zero in on your goals and never let up, whether it takes 5 years or 50. And then once you’ve reached those goals, set new ones and keep hammering. 

What sets this book apart from most in its genre is that Cam uses his platform to give credit where credit is due. He talks at length about the people in his life who have helped him and built him along the way, from his father to his family to his lifelong hunting partner Roy Roth. Cam rarely takes credit for his own success, which is a rare trait in itself. 

Endure resonated with me because, like Cam, I too am a bowhunter. Unlike Cam, I kinda suck at it. I’ve been shooting archery since I was 8 years old, but I’ve just recently started hunting and I haven’t seen a lot of success yet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a bad shot, there are just other factors in play: time available, location, my inability to sit completely still for more than three seconds, etc. Also like Cam, I’m a runner and though I’ve never completed an ultramarathon, I do have a few regular marathons under my belt, and I do get up every morning at 5 a.m. to workout so it doesn’t hit as hard when I shame-eat a couple dozen donuts. But here’s the great thing about Cam’s book Endure: you don’t have to be either of those things to enjoy it and benefit from it.
The only criticism I can offer of this book is that some parts are repetitious in their message, but I guess that’s not really even a criticism. Mantras are meant to be repetitious, right? And that’s what this book is at its heart, one long mantra to building a better you through the historically proven method of muscle-grinding, mud-eating, hard work. Read this book if you want to learn a little about bowhunting. Read this book if you want to learn a little about ultramarathoning. But mostly, read this book if you want a good jolt of motivation to get you moving or keep you going. Recharge your batteries with Endure. And keep hammering.

Here’s a link to where you can get a copy of Endure: How To Work Hard, Outlast, and Keep Hammering

Kilroy: The Man Behind The Wall

I know a lot of you are curious about the title to my upcoming book, Kilroy Was Here, but have been too shy to ask about it. We’ve all heard “there’s no such thing as a dumb question” and we all know that’s a bald-faced lie. There are sooooo many dumb questions. The world is filled with dumb questions. Now more than ever. But, this isn’t one of them. So who is this Kilroy? Is he (is it a he?) the protagonist of the book? Why was he here? Where is here? Where did he go? Where are any of us going? What is the meaning of life? Relax. I will answer most of these questions, if not all of them, in the following sections. (The answer to the last one, of course, is the number 42.)

To clarify, Kilroy is not a character in my novel. 

So who is Kilroy? 

Well, there is still much speculation about this, so it’s more important to understand the what, instead of the who. The phrase “Kilroy Was Here” has its origins during the height of World War II and is usually accompanied by a crude drawing of a bald head and large nose peeking over a wall. The image and phrase became a popular graffiti tag left on the battlefields of Europe, Asia, and Africa by American soldiers, thus proving that even then most soldiers were, as they still are, delinquent vandals at heart. Though Kilroy has many variations, he’s typically depicted like the image below:

Kilroy was here

Engraving of Kilroy on the WWII Memorial in Washington DC


So Where Did “Kilroy Was Here” Originate?

This is where the who comes in. The most prominent origin theory for “Kilroy Was Here” starts with a Rivet Inspector named James J. Kilroy in a shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. During World War II, the United States was manufacturing naval vessels for the war at an extraordinary rate and Rivet Inspectors like James J. Kilroy were paid by the number of rivets they inspected each day in these ships. To keep track of where he’d left off or to keep shifty coworkers from erasing or moving his marks, Kilroy began to leave the message “Kilroy Was Here” wherever he stopped for the day. Oftentimes, the ships were pushed into service so fast these marks were never erased or painted over and the message “Kilroy Was Here” could be seen in random—often obscure—places inside the ships. Many of these ships were troop transport carriers, delivering soldiers to battlefields in every theater of the war. The soldier’s, seeing the marks and the messages, began leaving Kilroy everywhere as they fought their way across war-torn continents. Kilroy quickly became a legend, as soldiers sought to outdo each other by finding increasingly difficult-to-reach places to leave him. Many soldiers marveled at how often Kilroy seemed to appear on the battlefield before anyone else. It was, essentially, the original viral social media post.  

Why The Heck Is Your Book About Afghanistan Named After WWII Graffiti?

Good question. Kilroy traveled with U.S. soldiers into the Korean War and even made a few appearances in Vietnam. Most recently he has popped his bald head up in Iraq and Afghanistan, though that’s not the reason for the title. My book has less to do with the war itself and more to do with the people who live it. The individual soldiers who slog out the day-to-day, no matter how ridiculous it might sometimes seem, and how each soldier, in some way, hopes to leave a mark on the war. Kilroy Was Here is a story of both hubris and humility as well as how our treatment of others can shape our world more than bombs and bullets ever could; though sometimes we can’t always see it in the moment.

Fun Fact #1: There is rumored to be a Kilroy sketched into the dust on the surface of the moon… from the astronauts… not from aliens or anything. 

Fun Fact #2: The character “Wilson” on the hit 90’s TV show, “Home Improvement”, was originally to be called “Kilroy” as his hands and the top half of his face were all that were ever seen over the fence. ***THIS HAS BEEN FLAGGED AS FAKE NEWS*** 

For more popular theories about the origin of “Kilroy Was Here”, check out www.kilroywashere.org 

Kilroy Is Coming!

Kilroy is coming! As many of you may know, my first novel, Kilroy Was Here, will be published soon. The novel is satire and obviously fictional, but based loosely on some of the insane happenings of my 2009 deployment in eastern Afghanistan. This is not your typical hero journey or shoot ‘em up war story, though there are a few negligent firearm discharges and a particularly harrowing Peeps eating contest. Below is a brief synopsis of the book to give you an idea of what Kilroy Was Here is all about:

“U.S. Army Officer, Lieutenant Jared Rye is a battle-hardened warrior. Or at least he thinks he’d like to be. On Christmas Day, 2008, he arrives at the war with high hopes of battlefield glory and a lasting legacy, only to be relegated to a Squadron desk job. With the help of his Squadron’s “accidental Chaplain”, a local interpreter bent on leaving for America, a perpetually drunk Russian contract pilot, and his fellow staff officers, Rye navigates a yearlong deployment on a rural outpost in Afghanistan. As he seeks to find meaning in the war, Rye faces oddities and mishaps ranging from an inter-Army mafia of lower enlisted soldiers to a crippled, local boy with a penchant for pornographic doodles, a two-faced local militant, and an autocratic Squadron Commander paralyzed by paranoia. Rye’s unlikely friendship with his interpreter becomes the bedrock of his sanity, as he grapples with the reality of America’s “Forever War” and his perceived lackluster war experience. But when a series of roadside bombs cripples a resupply convoy, the soldiers of Titan Squadron look to the highest ranking officer remaining and Rye must put his training to the test to lead an assault against an enemy of unknown strength.”

Details on the book’s release date will be coming soon. To get regular updates, click “Follow” at the right of this page.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram: @hogwashwriting



The History Of The Donut

The History Of The Donut

In honor of tomorrow being National Donut Day, I have written a short history of the donut. This is not the full history of the donut, obviously, but a few key moments in history that are worth noting:donut

1057 B.C. – A Greek naval commander named Dorotheos of Naxo set sail in search of a mythical island of great wealth. Half way through their journey, the crew of Dorotheos’s boat was lured into wreckage off the coast of a small island, by the incredible smell of baked goods. When Dorotheos and his remaining crew struggled ashore, they found the island inhabited by elderly women producing a previously unknown type of sweet roll. Dorotheos and his men immediately enslaved the women, as was the custom of the day. They repaired the ship and set sale for home with their newfound, culinary wealth. The island women fed the crew exclusively sweet rolls on their voyage, which eventually capsized the boat due to the excessive weight gain of the crew. The sweet rolls were dubbed “Donauts”, short for “Dorothothoes Nauts,” in memory of the lost crew (“Naut” being the Greek word for sailor).

1476: Following his death, the tyrannical ruler of Romania, Vlad The Impaler (or Vlad III Dracula) still lingered in the minds of its citizens.  Rumors and legends of his cruelty, and even supernatural abilities, haunted people for years to come. His thirst for blood lead to tales of vampirism. So much so that the citizens of Transylvania began placing pastries filled with blood red jelly on their window sills at night. Their hope being that by sucking out the jelly, the fearsome Dracula would satisfy his thirst and pass over their house. In 1897, Bram Stoker galvanized the legend of Vlad with the title role in his vampire novel “Dracula”, though the jelly filled donuts were largely left out of the story.

Early 1800’s: Dutch settlers in New York City (or New Amsterdam) brought with them their delicious sweet pastries that were deep fried in animal fat. At the time, these treats were known as “oily cakes”, which sounds disgusting. The name changed over the years to “grease muffins” (which wasn’t better), then to “sugar bagels”, then to “doughnut”, and finally to the original Greek “donut”.

1865: Wounded Civil War veteran, Abe VanDough returned home to New York City with one leg and a dream to open a bakery. After commandeering a vacant storefront, VanDough began churning out oily cakes and grease muffins based on his own family’s secret recipes. Finding it difficult to draw in customers, and impeded by a missing leg, VanDough took out a small loan to purchase a horse. With a custom harness, VanDough mountained a wooden dowel to the horse’s forehead. With oily cakes speared on the dowel, VanDough would ride about the city selling his pastries to people on the street. VanDough is credited with giving the donut it’s hole and his horse became known as “The Unicorn of Time Square” and is the reason why unicorns are often associated with sprinkles and glitter. VanDough is also credited with having the world’s first “food truck”.

I hope you’ve learned something here about my favorite food. Please go out and support your local donut shop tomorrow. There are thousands of donuts in need of a good home. Be a hero.

***Additional Fact: The donuts known as “bear claws” were originally made with actual bear feet, coated in pastry dough, and deep fried (essentially a chicken-fried bear foot). This tradition was discontinued in the early 1940’s when rations were put on the bear feet supply due to their need for the war effort.