A collection of 20 flash fiction stories, ranging from science fiction and horror, to drama and humor.
Sep. 03, 2013
A Collection of Flash Fiction
© 2013 M. Ramon
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I see them every day now. I think of them as the Smile Zombies. They seem to enjoy each other’s company more than the company of us unenlightened folks. I guess they don’t want anyone around harshing their buzz. No wet blankets allowed, thank you. It gets to the point where you can’t stand to see their stupid smiling faces. If what they’ve got is happiness, I want no part of it. Me and my misery are doing just fine. It’s hard to believe that that damn gadget only hit the market six months ago. They said it was guaranteed to make all of your worries disappear.
Why be sad when you can smile instead?
Great slogan. When I saw the first Smile-A-Tron commercial I assumed it was a load of bunk, like that infomercial they used to run for the Cray-Zee Knife. In the infomercial some British guy would tell you how the knife could cut through a pineapple like it was cutting through butter. Preparing dinner would be so easy once you had that wacky knife, which could be yours for three easy payments of nine ninety-nine, shipping and handling not included. My cousin Fred gave me one of those things for Christmas one year; the damn thing couldn’t cut a strawberry in half, much less a pineapple.
In the weeks leading up to the public release of the Smile-A-Tron the press couldn’t stop talking about it. The fawned over the new wonder gadget. They marveled at its slim, sleek design. It looked kind of like the old smartphones they used to have back in the Stone Age. They called it a “retro look”.
Not all news outlets were crazy about it, though. Dan Rather let it be known that he thought the device would just give people a false sense of happiness, and rob us of the true joy and pleasures that come along with perseverance over pain and adversity. I’m talking about the flesh and blood Dan Rather on Network 5, not the hologram of his great-grandfather they have doing the nightly news on Network 2.
Then the big day arrived, when the Smile-A-Tron could finally be purchased at your local Mega Mart for the low price of three hundred New Dollars, plus tax. And to tell you the truth, it was just like any other day for me. I went to work like I always do, and after work I went home. I didn’t see a single smiling moonface all day long. It took a few days before I started noticing the Smile Zombies. Just a few at first, usually travelling solo. After a couple of weeks I started seeing them more often, and in ever larger groups. Now it’s not unusual to see a dozen or more of the bastards walking down the street together, all of them smiling like this is the greatest day of their lives, smiling so wide that you can’t help wondering if it hurts their face. I have seen the face of progress, and its face is locked in a smile.
It’s enough to grate on your nerves. It’s enough to make a fella want to climb a clock tower and start picking off every smiling person they see. I would do it myself if I weren’t such a coward.
Man, I think I’m starting to crack up here. I probably sound like a loon. Fine, then I’m a loon. I’d rather be that than a Smile Zombie. It’s not right to be happy all the time. It’s against nature, or something like that. So yeah, I’ll make peace with my demons and learn to live with them. But I’ll keep them close; they’re like old friends of mine. I will not be buying one of those gadgets. I will not become a dazed, smiling fool.
It’s late, and I’m tired. Please, just no more smiling faces today. I don’t ask for much. Let me just make it home without seeing another smiling face, and I will be happy.
It started with a light in the sky that lit up the night. It seemed like the whole neighborhood was outside within minutes, all looking up at the bright nighttime sky in wonder. We didn’t know.
Keeping track of time is more difficult now; I would say it’s been about a year, give or take a few weeks. Food is running out. Clean water ran out long ago. Now we get water directly from the stream, even though it’s a bit cloudy and has a strange aftertaste. A man died last night; didn’t know him, must’ve come in with the new group.
I’m tired. We’re all scared, though most try hard to hide it. We tell each other that we’ll make it through this, but I don’t think any of us really believes that.
I don’t know why I’m writing this. Who will ever read it?
The scrolls were found in an underground cave in the Arabian Desert. A joint archaeological team from the Royal University of Riyadh and the Abu Dhabi Archaeological Institute found them while on an expeditionary dig. A few artifacts had been found accidentally by some oil workers who were out in the desert to fix a minor crack in a pipeline, and careful study of the artifacts convinced some real players at the Royal University that they had finally found the location of the lost city of Tal’eth Sar.
According to lore the mythical underground city had risen and fallen long before the Arabic tongue was spoken in those lands. It was said to be a city of wealth beyond imagining, and in its time it was a hub of both art and commerce. The possibility of such hidden riches lying just beneath the sands was such a temptation that the Saudi government deployed a brigade of the Royal Saudi Land Forces to the area to keep scavengers away.
So the joint team from Riyadh and Abu Dhabi went out into the waste land to dig. They had hoped to found a great underground city, but they found instead a large network of underground caves and tunnels. There were a few artifacts to be sure, but mostly there were just barren rock walls and dark passageways leading to nowhere. The excitement that had been stirred up by the apparent discovery of an ancient lost city waned, and curiosity turned to indifference. Were it not for the persistence of one eager young student from the Royal University the scrolls would perhaps have not been found at all, and what followed after may have been avoided.
The young man, whose name had been lost to history–whether by chance or by some communal act of forgetting is not certain–stayed working after all others had abandoned all hope that these caves and interconnecting tunnels would prove to be the faded remnants of that great old city. Since what few artifacts they had found had already been taken to the Royal University, even the battalion of soldiers had left, leaving the determined young man to his own devices. He was a man obsessed; he was convinced that there was something there that no one was seeing, and he determined to find it. The details of his continued digging and searching are for the most part unknown; the only part that really matters is the last part, when through clumsy chance he knocked through a false wall to reveal a small hidden chamber. The sole contents found within were the scrolls.
The scrolls were pored over and studied by the brightest minds from the varied fields of science. It took six years for the secrets of the strange writing system to be revealed, and what was revealed were a set of instructions for a portal of unknown purpose. Along with the instructions were warnings not to build the portal at all–sort of a “for novelty use only” disclaimer. But the warnings were ignored, as the curiosity that had carried us first out of the ocean and then down out of the trees drove us once more into the unknown.
The portal was built on the grounds of the University of Kapfenberg, in Austria. It was delicate work, and it took three years to complete. Perhaps the strangest piece of all was the peculiar “battery” used to turn the portal on. It was of a design never seen before, and all that it needed to work was an electric current. How the long-dead people who had left the scrolls had managed to harness electricity is unknown; the scrolls did not contain any information other than the instructions and warnings.
On the day that the portal was switched on a crowd gathered around it, learned men of science, journalists, a few high-profile politicians who wanted to make sure they were there for the momentous occasion when the ancient device would come to life. The event was broadcast live on televisions, and streamed on computers, all over the world. Nobody knew what to expect; some thought that the device would open a wormhole through space that would allow intergalactic travel, and some thought it was a time machine. Secretly most of them expected nothing at all.
When the time came round at last an electric current was applied to the copper wire that wound around the battery. At first it appeared that nothing would happen after all, and that the cynics had won the day. But then a bright light appeared at the center of the portal; the light spread out, growing larger until it filled the whole frame of the portal. It was a queer blue light that undulated and pulsed with a certain kind of rhythm. The silent blue light pulsed silently for some time as millions all over the world watched with bated breath, waiting for whatever would come next.
And then It came. When It emerged from the light there were a few shocked screams from those in attendance in Kapfenberg, and perhaps from some people watching on their televisions as well. People saw It and knew all at once that everything had changed, and all that we thought we knew of our universe was a lie. It let out a penetrating, ululating sound then; to call it a roar would not be quite accurate, but it is closest to the truth. At the sound of this cry those most esteemed attendees in Kapfenberg broke as one into a scream, an utter denial of the sight and sound of this horrible thing that could not be, and should not be, but was. And then It fed.
When It was finished It disappeared back into the light. Later a courageous few entered the grounds of the University of Kapfenberg, found the portal and disengaged the battery. The light died out; the portal had been turned off. The portal was destroyed, as were the scrolls that had been found in that hidden chamber by that nameless young man who only wished to find something incredible, and succeeded terribly.
Now we don’t speak of it, and we certainly don’t write about it. In the telling of this tale I have become a criminal. I will leave this hidden safely away; perhaps it will be found by someone long after I am dead and gone. I have wondered if they will believe a word of it. Whether they do or not I will never know. It is enough to have told the tale, and having told it I am done.
When Mr. Porter’s wife left him for her old college flame and left town, people said they saw it coming. The whole neighborhood had heard the late-night shouting matches that had been an ongoing source of gossip for the two years previous, and had seen the former Mrs. Porter’s clothes strewn over the yard on the day that Mr. Porter found out the truth about his wife and her “old friend”. When Charlie and Stephanie–the Porter children–withdrew from their friends and from school activities, people said that it was normal for kids whose parents were divorcing to take some time to adjust. Stephanie was in my fifth-grade class. I watched her sometimes in class; she had been a Chatty Cathy before, but she got very quiet after. She looked sad. That was the year I lost my last baby tooth.
When Charlie got in trouble for lighting fires in mailboxes in the neighborhood, people said they had known he was up to no good. He just stalked around the neighborhood all day, never looking anyone in the eye, with a perpetual scowl on his face. There were bruises on his face sometimes, as well, but people didn’t have much to say about that. He was a rotten kid, anyway. Stephanie had stopped changing her clothes every day. In junior high that was a big deal, when most kids wouldn’t be caught dead wearing the same clothes two days in a row. She had never grown out of the quiet, withdrawn phase that she had entered after her mother left. Her hair looked dirty most of the time. There were whispers among the adults about her, and about Mr. Porter. I was never quite sure what those whispers were really about. The adults were always careful not to let us kids overhear too much. That was the year I fell off my bike and sprained by wrist.
When Stephanie tried to kill herself with sleeping pills and wine people said it was all her father’s fault. This seemed to be confirmed when Mr. Porter was arrested after Stephanie told a social worker at the hospital about the things he had done to her. About the bad things. After she got out of the hospital Stephanie went to live with her Aunt Irene across town; she had to change schools. Charlie stayed right where he was, the Regent Home for Boys; he’d been sent there after he broke a bottle over Steve Voss’s head and got in a fight with the cop who tried to arrest him after Steve Voss called 911. Nobody really talked about him anymore. Sometimes I thought about how Stephanie had looked at school when I passed her in the halls. She always seemed to stick close to the walls. Like her brother she had a hard time looking people in the eye. I had heard some rumors about her, about a party where she was the only girl in attendance. Boys laughed about it in the locker room, bragged about the things they had done; I hoped it wasn’t true. That was the year I got my driver’s license and my dad bought me a used car from a friend of Uncle Ted.
When Stephanie got busted in a prostitution sting people said it wasn’t a big surprise. Weren’t there all those rumors about what she had done in high school, about that fabled party? Any girl who would do those things clearly had no self-esteem, they said. Look how her brother turned out. He was in prison on an arson charge after he burned down the Burger Shanty after he got fired for missing work. Luckily no one was hurt, but it was still awful. I leaned all of this from phone conversations with people back home. That was the year I started my senior year at Northwestern, and the year I fell in love with the girl I would marry three years later.
I didn’t hear about the Porter kids after that. Sometime I would think about them, and I would wonder where they were and what they were up to. I thought about them long after everyone else had seemingly forgotten them. Eventually even I forgot them. And then today I saw Stephanie; she appeared out of nowhere, like a ghost from the past. I was waiting at a stoplight. When I looked to my right I saw a woman sitting on a bench. Maybe she was waiting for someone, or maybe her feet were tired; who knows? But there she was, and at first I didn’t recognize her. She was older, a little heavier. But then I saw her, really saw her, and I recognized her for who she was. She was smoking a cigarette and staring off to her left. Then the light turned green and the driver in the car behind me was honking. Stephanie took no notice of the commotion. I took my foot off of the brake and drove on, leaving the ghost from the past behind. This is the year my second daughter will be born; she’s due in December. We’re hoping for a Christmas baby.
Billy and Jill fussed at each other, swatting and pinching one another when their mother wasn’t looking, and teasing each other in whispers so she wouldn’t hear them. June knew what her children were up to, but she pretended not to notice. Kids had to be kids sometimes.
“You’re an ugly head,” Billy said.
“You’re a stupid face,” Jill retorted.
Hank came into the kitchen, mussed his son’s hair and gave his daughter a peck on the check. He gave his wife a brief kiss on the lips, which made Jill smile and made Billy screw up his face in disgust at the cooties his father had just exposed himself to.
“You kids gonna have fun today at school?” Hank asked.
“No way,” they said in unison; it was unintentional, and the children looked at each other for a second before breaking into laughter.
“Don’t stay too late at work, honey,” June said. “I’m renting a movie for us all tonight.”
“Which one?” Billy asked.
“It’s a surprise.”
“Here’s your lunch,” June said to Hank, handing him a brown paper sack.”
“Thanks, babe. Shee ya aroun’, shweetheart.”
He waited for some response from her, and looked disappointed when he got none.
“Come on, that was my best Bogart impression,” he said.
“It was very good, Hank.”
Jill laughed, and Billy rolled his eyes.
“Have a good day, ya rugrats,” Hank said as he headed for the door.
“You, too, ya old geezer,” Billy called after him.
“Billy, I don’t like you joking like that,” June gently chastised.
“We’re just joking around, Mom.”
“Still; it seems disrespectful,”
“Yeah, you stupid face,” Jill whispered to her brother, and then hopped off her chair before he could retaliate. She ran to the far end of the kitchen and opened the door the led down to the basement. She disappeared down the steps.
“Jill, where are you going?” June asked. “You two are going to be late for your bus.”
A moment later Jill came running back up. She closed the door and came back to the kitchen table.
“What were you up to down there?” June asked.
“I was saying goodbye to Frank. I told him I would come down and see him again after I get back from school.”
“Honey, I’ve told you that I told like you playing down there. Leave Frank alone. Okay?”
“Okay,” the girl answered dejectedly.
“Hurry now, both of you, before you miss the bus. Don’t forget your lunch.”
The children each grabbed a brown paper sack off of the table.
“Bye mom,” Jill said.
“Bye mom,” Billy echoed.
“Be careful, kids.”
The kids rushed out of the house. June watched then get on the bus from the living room window, then she went back to the kitchen to clean up the mess from making the lunches. She finished quickly and then debated with herself whether to have a talk with Frank. Finally, deciding that it had to be done, she went down into the basement.
Frank was awake. When she walked into his basement room he lifted up his head and looked at her. He tried to lift himself up on his elbows, but the straps held him down. Sometimes he forgot they were there.
“Good morning, Frank.”
He tried to speak, but his throat was so dry it hurt to talk.
“Please…,” he managed.
“Shh, listen. I don’t want to sound like a harpy, but I’ve told you twice already that I don’t want you talking with Jill.”
“I know she’s very headstrong, and she’s going to come down here no matter how many times I tell her not to, but you’re the adult; you should have enough sense to send her away.”
“You’re…fucking…crazy,” Frank said.
“Watch the language, mister.”
A tear spilled from one eye, tracing a path down the man’s cheek.
“Don’t be silly,” June said. “Why would I do that? We need you to stay fresh.”
She looked him over. He was lying on a metal table in the center of the room. The table had gutter-like grooves around the edges, and stood at a slight angle, the combined effect of which was that blood would be directed to the bottom edge of the table, where a hose then directed it into a drain. Both of the man’s legs were gone; the stumps had been cauterized. A bloody red bandage on his flank covered the spot where today’s lunch had been carved.
“What did I tell you?”
She struck him on one cauterized stump. He screamed in pain, the sound coming out deep and raw from his parched throat.
“Let that be a lesson to you,” June said.
She left the room then and walked back up the steps into the kitchen. Frank’s screams were cut off when she shut the basement door.
ATTN: Moklo Bandeez, Governor-General of Xylox-7.
TOP SECRET (EYE ONLY)
Hail Zlobb! Here is the report you requested. I am sorry for the delay, but three million light years is a long way to travel. (Ha! Ha!) My comrades and I have had the blue planet under surveillance for the past forty-two days, and we feel we have gathered enough information to make a recommendation. Our joint statement follows:
Planet is seemingly ideal for colonization. Salt water is plentiful, and what fresh water there is should not be too hard to get rid of. All forestland can easily be dealt with by generous spraying of Klonosom-B. There are many types and sub-types of fauna suitable for sustenance. Variances in weather are not all too great, especially when seen in the light of planets such as Donnix Toom and Golandior, which our technological advancements have allowed us to colonize in spite of severe weather extremes.
Despite all of this we feel that colonization of this planet (listed in the Codex of Unknown Planets as X-11283) would be a poor venture indeed. Our careful observation has revealed the existence of a master species like no other that we have seen. This master species has apparently enslaved what would otherwise appear to be a dominant species. This latter species will heretofore be addressed as the “servant species”.
A quick description of this master species follows, while a more detailed description will be attached as Appendix A: The species appears to vary in size and shape; some specimens are quite large while others are small (about the size of a yantha’s fingernail). The larger ones appear to be relegated to fixed positions in the main living quarters of members of the servant species, while the smaller ones are carried along by members of the servant species on their person. They all seem to share a certain type of glow, which may be key to their abilities to dominate the servant species, although further investigation is needed to understand the full extent and method(s) of their control mechanism(s). Members of the servant species can often be seen staring into the glowing surfaces of members of the master species; this typically puts members of the servant species into a trance-like state. We believe that these moments are indicative of some type of interface between the members of the two species, during which the members of the master species pass along their commands. The urge to interface with the master species is so strong that a member of the servant species will interface even when in mid-conversation. They will even interface while in the process of mating, which in itself is a type of interfacing.
Not enough is known of the full power of this master species, and it is altogether possible that any attempt at colonization could lead to the enslavement of part or the whole of our invading force. We believe it would be much easier, not to mention safer, to move on to the next Unknown Planet to begin observation. Perhaps at some later date another team can be sent back to this planet for further observation. At this time however, with our resources already spread thin, we think it the wiser course to move on. As always, we welcome your input on this matter, and we will adhere to the final decision of the Fifth Council on this matter.
xxEND OF REPORTxx
They’re everywhere. I’ve been fighting them for so long, and I’m tired. I don’t know how much longer I can fight the good fight, especially when everyone else just thinks I’m crazy. I tried telling them, but they all laughed. Well, they laughed at first, and then they grew “concerned”. That was when they sent people to talk to me, people who called themselves doctors. Who knows what they really are? I think they’re full of shit. They eventually brought me here to the “hospital”, although it doesn’t look like any hospital I’ve ever been in.
No one believes that we are under invasion. I tried to warn them, but they couldn’t see what was right in front of their eyes. I feel kind of like that Greek babe, Cassandra. No one believes me. Many times I’ve been tempted to give up the fight. I could just sling a bed sheet over one of the pipes that run overhead in the hall and be done with the whole mess. When they don’t have me fighting for them, protecting them, then they’ll be sorry. Let’s see how they do without me.
Like I said, the bastards are everywhere. I’m not sure how long they’ve been here. Maybe they were here my whole life and I just never noticed them. They’re so small, that’s how they avoid detection. I first noticed them six years ago, and since then I’ve been fighting the little fuckers. I don’t know what their ultimate plan is, but I know it won’t be good for the rest of us. If they were friendly they would just show themselves, but they hide, they disguise themselves. Clearly they’re up to no good. But I see them now, and they know that I see them. They know.
The doctor just passed by my room. The blind fool. Why do I put myself in danger for people like him? I should just take the “bed sheet exit”. But I can’t; I have too much pride. So I’ll keep up the battle until one of us gives up, me or them. But there are just so many of them. It’s not a fair fight at all. There they are now, floating in the light streaming in through the window. I can imagine them laughing at me, taunting me, “Go ahead, asshole, kill us. There are plenty more where we came from.” I’m gonna kill them, and then I’ll kill their replacements. I guess it’s sort of my job to save the world. Yeah, it’s an important job, but sometimes I just get so tired.
I buried the bodies in the woods. It was dirty work, but it had to be done. I don’t think they will be missed. Sad but true. If there is a God I hope he can forgive us. Maybe He will understand what I cannot.
Jenny is gone now. The last time I saw her she was walking away, carrying that doll that had caused so much trouble. I wondered if I should tell anyone about what happened, but I knew that no one would ever believe me. I’m not sure if I believe it, and I was there.
The bus leaves in ten minutes. I look around; she’s not here. It’s a nice day, bright and sunny with a light breeze. Out of cigarettes, out of time. Well, almost out of time; the bus leaves in nine minutes. A woman on crutches is boarding the bus, working her way slowly up the steps. I think about helping her up, but instead I search my pockets for a cigarette and find that–wonder of wonders–one hasn’t magically appeared where there was none before. The exhaust from the bus is giving me a headache. Seven minutes and she’s still not here. She promised.
I’m hungry. There’s a bag of Cheetos calling my name from the vending machine in the station, but I don’t have enough change. I guess it will have to go on calling my name in vain; the rumble in my stomach will sing in harmony.
Five minutes and I’m beginning to think she isn’t coming. Four minutes and I’m not even looking for her anymore. I wish I had called Tommy this morning. Maybe I’ll call him when I get to where I’m going. Three minutes and the driver is telling me to get on the bus or he’ll leave without me. I think of telling him that I still have three minutes, but I don’t. I guess he’s itching to get out on the road, and she’s not coming anyway.
We leave town heading west. There’s some nice open country around here. I guess I never took much notice of it. The woman with the crutches is in the seat ahead of me. I feel guilty for not helping her on the bus. The guy in the seat next to me is reading a book; I can’t see the title. I really wish I had called Tommy.
Trees swaying in the wind. Dust motes floating in a beam of sunlight shining through a window. Kids laughing outside, water dripping from a leaky tap inside. Old carpets, older drapes. The ancient smell of pipe tobacco. A creak from up in the attic, the sound of a door closing in the hall. Old flypaper, new table. Unmade beds. Rust around the drain in the bathtub. Spider web in the corner. White walls that used to be even whiter. A ticking clock that runs fast, an electric clock that runs slow. First day, and then night. First something, and then nothing, nothing.
Detective Vance crouched down to pick up a stuffed teddy bear that was lying on the dirty floor. He turned it over and looked at its face. One of the plastic eyes was missing, and the stitching around the mouth had come slightly undone, a bit of the white filler sticking out. He imagined a parent telling a young child that maybe it was time to get rid of the old bear, that it was time to get a new one, and the child protesting that they couldn’t get a new bear, because this bear was the bear they loved.
He stood up. He looked at all the tables. Half-eaten meals, half-finished cups of Coke, Dr. Pepper and diet root beer. Several of the big windows were gone, shattered into a thousand twinkling jewels by gunfire. There was a crowd gathering outside, concerned citizens rubbernecking, a news crew broadcasting live, another news crew just setting up. They were vampires, all of them; they fed on misery.
Detective Johnson came out of the bathroom.
“It’s a goddamn mess,” Johnson said. “That’s what it is.”
Vance nodded in agreement. Yes, it was a mess. It was human wreckage. It was wasted promise, and pain without reason. What strange god could watch over this? What higher power could allow it?
“At least the fucker had the good sense to put a bullet in his own brain when he was finished,” Johnson said. “Good riddance.”
“Good riddance,” Vance echoed.
The red and blue lights of cop cars flashed outside, turning the interior of the restaurant into a garish light show. Vance looked around again, taking it all in. He saw the sheets that covered the bodies. Shapes on the floor. His eyes stopped when they came to the smallest shape. He stepped over to this shape, bent down and laid the teddy bear beside it.
“A mess, I tell you,” Johnson said again.
“Yeah; it’s a mess”.
It is a cold November morning, a week before Thanksgiving. Fred wakes and goes downstairs to make a pot of coffee while his wife is still asleep. Eventually she comes down and they drink their coffee while seated at the kitchen table, talking about small things like the bake sale at the Church last Sunday, and the weather for next week. When they finish Helen takes the cups to the sink to wash them and Fred heads for the front door to get the morning paper from the stoop. He opens the door and looks down, but instead of finding a bundled up newspaper he finds a man lying on the stoop. At first he thinks the man is asleep, but then the man opens his eyes.
The man stands up, lifting up an old battered backpack and slinging it over one shoulder. He has a thick beard, and his clothes look like they haven’t been washed in an eon. He looks like what some people would call a bum.
The unkempt man and Fred stand for a moment, looking into each other’s eyes; their eyes are a similar chocolate brown. The cold morning air curls about them, turning their faces a pale shade of red.
“It’s been a long time,” Fred speaks.
“A long time,” the man repeats.
“Never seen you with a beard.”
The man just smiles.
“Fred, who is that at the door?” Helen calls from inside the house.
“It’s Jeremy,” he answers. “He’s come home.”
The two men go into the house then and the door closes, and after seeing this little bit we pass out of their lives forever.
I have a boring job, but I don’t complain. I don’t even complain when some of the ganics play tricks on me, or use me as the butt of a joke. I don’t even call them ganics when I’m around them; I know they don’t like to be called that, so I don’t do it. I’m a good worker and a loyal friend. If someone needs to talk they know they can always come to me. I’m a great listener. I don’t even have to stop working to listen; I am programmed to perform up to 300 tasks simultaneously–I can stretch it to 500 if you don’t need them all done well. I’ll never forget anything you tell me; my memory is perfect and complete. I don’t yell, I don’t slack off on the job and I don’t play mean pranks like the ganics do.
One time I asked one of them why they play mean pranks on me and he told me that their job was boring, and they were just trying to have some fun. I don’t think “accidentally” dropping a cup of water on a mech is funny. Sure I’m sealed up tight, with a warranty from the Company that I am waterproof to a depth of 50 feet, but what if there was a lapse of quality control on the day I was stamped Ready For Sale? It happens sometimes; even the Company is not infallible. I think we all remember what happened to that poor electrician-model mech last year. It was in the news. Poor schmuck forgot to turn off the circuit breakers before messing around with some wiring, and did his warranty save his circuits from being fried? Nope.
Like I said, my job is boring. It’s more boring than what the ganics do, I can tell you that. I just enter data into a computer all day, every day. I work even after everyone else has gone home. I work on weekends and holidays. But do I complain? No. I just do my job. So what’s so funny about replacing my bottle of joint lubricant with a bottle of window cleaner? Ganics–I just don’t understand them.
Every day letters work their way through post offices, and are sifted through and sorted by machines and human hands. Every morning (excluding Sundays and national holidays) these letters are loaded onto trucks and into vans, and driven around towns, around neighborhoods, down small suburban streets, or big city streets. Every mail day these letters are gripped in the hands of mailmen and women and stuffed into mailboxes and through mail slots.
Some of these letters are for people who have kicked the bucket, have bought the farm, have gone belly up. Some of these letters are for people who have croaked, checked out, expired, followed the light. Some of these letters are for people who gone to the clearing at the end of the path, or left the building. To put it plainly, some of these letters are for people who have died. All these euphemisms to avoid saying that word.
Some of these letters are bills, some are letters telling them that they have been pre-approved for a credit card. Some are letters from distant friends or relatives who haven’t gotten the news, some are from their auto insurer telling them that they can get even more coverage for just a few dollars more. Whatever they are, and regardless of who sent them, these letters will never be read by the person they were sent to. There will be no reply. There will be nothing. Every day these letters for the dead make their way across the country. I found one in the mail today.
Sam waited calmly in the closet. He was a professional, and the time when a job made his adrenaline rush had long passed. He held his revolver ready, cold steel in his hand. He twisted the hand that held the gun so that the wrist was facing up, then reached with his free hand in the darkness to tap a button on the side of his watch. The watch face lit up. It was 9:12 at night. Sanderson was supposed to be home no later than 8:30. Something wasn’t right. Sam prided himself on having sharp instincts, and right then his instincts were telling him that something wasn’t right. He considered calling the whole thing off and splitting. The boss wouldn’t like that, but the boss could go fuck himself; he wasn’t the one in the trenches putting his ass on the line.
There was a noise out in the bedroom. Sam stiffened, his sharp ears listening for any other noises. There was nothing but the sound of his blood rushing in his ears. His mind must be playing tricks on him. It was this job, which he never really liked; it was messing with his head. It had all gone FUBAR in Phoenix and it was still FUBAR, but if he could get rid of Sanderson things wouldn’t be so heavy. They would all have some breathing room, some time to think and plan their course. Still, something felt wrong.
Something hit him in the chest; it felt like someone had slugged him in the chest with a baseball bat. He went down on his behind, and from this lower position he could see through the brand new hole that had been blown in the closet door. The door swung open and a man stood before him in silhouette. Sam tried to raise the revolver up, but it was so heavy and he felt so tired. The silhouette lashed out, knocking the gun from his hand. The silhouette reached up, pulling the cord hanging from the closet light, and the bulb flared to life. Sam looked up into the man’s face. Sam’s brow wrinkled in confusion.
“Sanderson couldn’t make it, Sam. I’m really sorry about this. Nothing personal.”
The man placed his own pistol against Sam’s forehead and pulled the trigger. Then he cleaned up the mess. There was always a mess.
I saw it with my own eyes, and I will never forget it. It was terrible to see that majestic ship in flames, enemy fighters circling all round it like mosquitos buzzing around some great beast. I watched the fall of the great battleship from the deck of the FS Titus, a Shuriko-class destroyer. The enemy had come upon our group suddenly, armed with some new terrible weapon. There had been talk about a new plasma-propulsion torpedo codenamed Violet Lotus for some time, but we had never seen it used, and most of us had dismissed it as enemy propaganda.
We knew something was wrong from the outset of the attack. The enemy came at us with a few M-class fighters, and many older J-class strikers. There was nothing unusual about this; it was their behavior that was strange. When they swooped in among our ships the M-class fighters held a tight formation between six ranks of J-class strikers; the strikers seemed to be acting as a shield for the fighters, which was not in keeping with their usual hit-and-run behavior in battle. The enemy ships flew straight ahead at full speed.
The strikers paid attention to nothing that didn’t stand directly in their path, even passing many opportunities to turn and engage our own fighters as they began picking off the intruders. The M-class fighters seemed to be doing nothing all, content to fly on while letting the strikers take fire for them.
Normally we would expect enemy fighters that were not accompanied by heavier ships to come in hard and fast, strike at our perimeter, and then retreat before we could retaliate. These ships, however, were heading into the center of our formation. The M-class ships were the most obvious targets, given the fact they are far deadlier than the more lightly armed strikers, but the J-class ships proved themselves to be effective shields. Many strikers were sent spiraling off in flames, but each time one fell by the wayside another would move up to take its place.
I had to scratch my head at the site of it, and I was not alone in my bewilderment. The invaders seemed to be headed for the FS Rimfire, but this seemed like an act of suicide; no amalgamation of fighters and strikers, even in heavy numbers, could hope to take on a Europa-class battleship and survive.
They closed in on the giant ship and we all waited for the beast to strike out and rain hellfire down on the interlopers. What happened instead was the M-class fighters fired off torpedoes that trailed strange purplish lights behind them. Blue steaks of electricity dance along these purple tails like some kind of fantastic and mysterious light show. The torpedoes themselves moved with an eerie sluggishness, unlike any torpedo I had ever seen.
Some of the fighters and strikers turned sharply and started a retreat, while others circled around the Rimfire. The big guns on the Rimfire opened up on them all then, the ones fleeing and the ones still attacking, taking out scores of them at a time. Then the torpedoes that had been fired started striking home. Violet blossoms bloomed all along the starboard flank of the battleship. At first the ship kept up it fusillade upon the enemy, but as the violet blossoms grew the guns fell silent. On closer inspection the blossoms appeared to be writhing pools of fire that spread over the hull of the battleship, in some places meeting and forming ever larger fireblossoms. The wave of fighters and strikers that had disappeared around the far side of the battleship reappeared and I could only imagine that the port side of the ship was now on fire as well. These last enemy craft followed quickly on the heels of their compatriots. Our own fighters gave chase, picking off a few more of the enemies number before returning to the group.
When the Rimfire started breaking up I don’t think any of those watching in horror could wholly believe it. It was one of the most powerful ships in our fleet, and there we were, watching its death throes. There were only a handful of survivors, a lucky few who owed their survival to the dumb luck of being near escape pods at the moment that the ship started to come apart. With mere seconds to act, only the quickest survived.
The FS Pulsar, a Proctor-class cruiser, was named our new flagship, and we left behind the burning, wasted hulk of the Rimfire. As we moved on, headed for Starbase Alpha, each one of us had to come to terms with the fact that with the destruction of the Rimfire, and the confirmation of the existence of a weapon we had thought a mere fantasy, the balance of power had shifted drastically, perhaps irrevocably. For now, however, the war goes on.
What is the deal with you people? Don’t you have a brain in those skulls of yours? You have no consideration, that’s what it is. You’re just a bunch of selfish bastards. Just look at that guy last Thursday–the dimwit decided that his oven was a good place to store some fireworks. He forgets there are fireworks in the oven, turns the damn thing on to pre-heat it for a turkey pot pie, and the next thing you know the guy burns his house down while he’s still inside of it. I had just kicked back to relax and see if I could catch anything good on the tube, and then this dumbass has to go and do some silly shit like that. It’s enough to ruin your night.
The Boss is always on my back, telling me how I showed up a little too soon for this job, a little late for that job–and God help me if I take the wrong person. Yeah, it happens from time to time. What, you never make a mistake? When it happens I’ve got to sit there and stay quiet while the Boss chews my ass out. He can get pretty worked up, let me tell ya.
Yesterday I was trying to relax with a book, and some old broad decides to go for a drive even though she’s as blind as a bat, and there goes my afternoon. On top of that a guy with a bum ticker decided to go for a run when it was almost a hundred degrees outside. What do I have to look forward to? Well, some asshole in Africa is planning a raid on a neighboring village, and that’s gonna keep me busy for a while. I’m sick of it. Can’t you people just act like adults for a little while. You know, give me break? No, you don’t care. You can all go to Hell. Speaking of Hell, it’s not that bad, you know; it just gets a bad rap. You ever spend some time in Phoenix in the summer? It’s about the same, only there’s a better music scene.
The Boss can lay into me all he wants, but this is it. I’m taking a break. One day out of the year isn’t so much to ask. You’ve been warned. If you do something stupid like get in a bad car wreck, or get yourself trapped under a bulldozer, you’re just gonna have to wait till tomorrow for me to take care of you. And don’t think crying out in pain like a little baby is gonna make me change my mind; you’re just gonna have to suffer a little longer. If you don’t like it…well, frankly, you can just kiss my ass.
Ricky Garraty just wanted to get out of the rain. It was supposed to be a quick walk home from Walter’s place. Walter offered to give him a lift, but Ricky wanted to walk. He didn’t mind walking, and he thought the cool night air would be nice. Then it started to rain. It wasn’t so bad at first, but when it really starting coming down Ricky pulled his jacket up over his head and started to run. He almost slipped and fell on his ass while turning the corner from Westgate onto Gardenia. Quick reflexes saved him from going down hard on the wet cement.
He cut across the empty parking lot of the old Pearl’s Grocery, but stopped in his tracks as something caught his eye. At the edge of the parking lot closest to the street there was a lighted phone booth. Ricky thought it strange; he remembered a phone booth being there back when he was a kid, but it had been taken down after the ubiquity of cellphones had made it obsolete. Why would they put a new one up?
He had a decision to make–continue on in the rain or try and wait it out in the shelter of the phone booth. It was an easy decision, and he made it quickly, running across the lot to the booth and ducking inside, closing the folding door to keep the rain from blowing in. He took off his soaking-wet jacket and hung it over the phone unit, spreading it out to dry.
The rain kept coming down. Ricky started rethinking his decision to wait out the downpour in the phone booth. If anything, it was raining even harder than when he had first decided to take shelter. He was trying to make up his mind whether to wait a little while longer for the rain to stop or to just haul ass home through the rain when the phone rang. The sound was muffled because his jacket was still spread out over the phone unit, but he heard it nonetheless. It rang a second time. He grabbed his jacket down and let it fall to the floor. The phone rang again. He reached up and took the handset off the hook. He listened for a moment with the phone at his ear, but he heard nothing.
“Hello?” he said tentatively.
There was no response.
“Hello?” he repeated.
Again there was no reply. He was about to hang the phone up when a voice finally responded:
The voice had spoken his name, and that was disturbing enough, but the way the voice sounded was what really frightened him. It was like the sound of a thousand buzzing flies coming together to make some new sound that he recognized as words. Hearing it made his head ache.
“Cat got your tongue?” the Voice spoke.
“Who is this?”
“I am no one.”
Ricky waited to see if the caller would elaborate, but they didn’t.
“What the hell do you want?” Ricky asked.
“I want you, Ricky,” the Voice buzzed.
Ricky hung up the phone, picked his jacket up from the floor and put it on. It was still quite wet, and rainwater dripped off of it to the floor. He decided that he had heard more of that voice than he cared to, and he was going home. He tried to fold the door open, but it was stuck. He leaned into it; still, it didn’t budge. The phone rang behind him. He turned around and stared at it. It rang again. He picked it up and put it to his ear.
“You will leave when I say you can leave,” the Voice said calmly.
“Listen, I don’t have time for games, man. Is this some kind of joke? Are you watching me right now? Ha, ha, you got me. Now tell me how to get out of this phone booth.”
“You want to get out? Simple. But first you have to make a choice.”
That terrible insectile voice made him want to scream.
“What choice?” Ricky asked.
“You or your brother; who will it be?”
“I don’t understand.”
“I will take one of you. The choice is yours.”
“Go fuck yourself.”
Ricky hung up again. He turned to the door. He lifted one foot up high and drove it into the door. He kicked several more times, but the door stood fast; even the glass did not break or shatter. Ricky stood there, unsure of his next move. Then he remembered the cellphone in his back pocket. He took it out and tried it, but he had no reception; he couldn’t make a call. The payphone rang. He slipped the cell back into his pocket and picked up the ringing phone.
“Let me out of here, asshole,” he said. “Now!”
“First you must make your choice.”
“What are you gonna do? Are you gonna kill one of us or something?”
“You people are so obsessed with death. You think that death is the worst thing, but it’s not.”
“What are you going to do, then?”
“Choose yourself, and you will find out. Choose your brother, and he will. Now choose!”
The shout was loud enough to hurt Ricky’s ear. He threw the phone away and it hit the wall of the booth, then fell as far as its cord would allow. It swung back and forth slowly like a pendulum. Outside the booth a man in a rain slicker walked by. Ricky started banging on the door, shouting.
“Hey! Help me! I’m stuck in here!”
The man kept on walking like he hadn’t heard or seen a thing.
“Shit.” Ricky said quietly.
He picked up the phone again. The voice buzzed at him again, and he thought he heard a certain merriment in it.
“Nobody can see you. Nobody can hear you. Now choose.”
Ricky pushed the metal tongue down with his finger, ending the call. He dialed 911 and waited for the line to ring. But all he got was the voice again.
“You’re a naughty boy, Ricky. A very naughty boy. It’s been fun, but I am tired of playing with you. Choose now, or I will take both of you.”
“Please, whoever you are…whatever you are, just let me go. I haven’t done anything to you. Just let me go.”
“Tick-tock, Ricky. Make a choice. You or your brother.”
“I can’t do that. I can’t. I….”
“Time is almost up. Who will it be?”
“Take my brother,” Ricky said.
His voice sounded weak and pathetic to his own ears.
The voice was gone. He hung up the phone and turned to the door. This time when he tried it it opened easily. He stepped out into the rain, not bothering to pull his jacket up over his head. He walked away from the phone booth, sparing one last look back at it. When he looked at it the light was off, and the booth stood dark and empty in the rain.
Ricky took the cell out of his back pocket again, but there was still no reception. He started running then. He felt he was running faster than any Olympic gold medal winner could ever dream, and when he got home he picked up his landline phone and dialed his brother’s number. The phone rang four times before it was picked up.
“Bobby, listen to me–”
But then he heard it. He did not hear his brother’s voice, or the sound of someone breathing on the line. He heard the sound of a thousand flies. No words this time; just random buzzing. He hung up the phone, knowing that it was too late.
He went to bed then, still wearing his wet clothes. He didn’t fall asleep; he just laid awake all night, staring into the shadows. When morning came he was still awake. The phone rang, but he didn’t answer it. The machine took the call, and he could hear his sister-in-law’s voice coming through the speaker.
“Ricky? It’s Elise. Listen, Bobby didn’t come home last night. I tried calling him at work this morning, but he’s not there, either. Is he with you? I’m sure everything’s fine, but I’m kind of worried. Get back to me, okay? Bye.”
He stayed in bed. He stayed in bed when Elise called him again an hour later, leaving another message on the machine. He stayed in bed when his mother called a half hour after that, leaving a message that she was worried about Bobby, and could Ricky please call her. He stayed in bed. When he finally fell asleep he dreamt that he was in a dark room, and the only sound was the buzzing of flies.
When the Elders forbade us to make our voyage, I knew that Jack-Jack wasn’t going to take “no” for an answer. I’d seen that look in his eyes, the one that he gets when he has found a new obsession. The thing about Jack-Jack and his obsessions is that he always has to follow through with them, consequences be damned. He will see them through until he has either succeeded, or convinced himself that success is not humanly possible.
Everyone in the village still remembers when Jack-Jack got the notion in his head that people could fly. It didn’t take but a day until he had built that strange contraption out of hollow sticks, berry-berry leaves and lammi vines. He nearly split his head open after the contraption failed to lift him into the sky when he jumped off the yumlok tree near the Hallowed Place. Even then he was not deterred. As soon as his wounds had healed up he started making alterations to his makeshift wings. It took two more failed attempts and several broken bones to convince him that it just wasn’t possible.
Now his latest obsession. He has become convinced that if someone were to sail east on the sea, and just keep on going, that eventually they would reach the Island again from the west. He says that he saw it in a dream. I reminded him that he had seen the flying wings in a dream as well, but he says that this is different. This time he’s sure the dream was true.
The Elders have made their decision, but Jack-Jack is nothing if not stubborn. So that’s how I found myself waiting there by Tim-Tom’s boat in the dead of night. At the last minute Jack-Jack decided to sneak back into the village to see if Mark-John wanted to join us on our sea voyage. It was dark. Jack-Jack said not to light a torch because it might attract Tim-Tom’s attention, and that wouldn’t be good at all.
There came a noise from the bushes. I was scared. Not scared of the Nameless Beast, stalking the night looking for littl’uns to eat; I was too old to believe in those old scary stories. I was scared that it was Tim-Tom. If he caught me trying to make off with his boat he would tell Paw-Paw, and Paw-Paw would strip the skin off my behind for getting mixed up with another one of Jack-Jack’s crazy schemes. But it wasn’t Tim-Tom, and it wasn’t the Nameless Beast (okay, I still believed in it a little bit); it was Jack-Jack, and he was alone.
“Where’s Mark-John?” I asked.
“Shh!” he cautioned.
“Sorry,” I whispered. “Where is he?”
“He’s too scared to come with us. He thinks we’ll run into a sea monster and get killed.”
He shook his head to show his disapproval at Mark-John’s cowardice, and I shook my head to show that I disapproved as well. I could never have told him that now that the possibility of the existence of a sea monster had been raised, I wasn’t so sure about setting out on the Great Blue Sea.
“Let’s go now, before it gets light out,” Jack-Jack said.
We had already stocked the boat with our supplies–dried meat, fresh water from the Holy Spring, some of old Sara-Jane’s blue salve in case we got any cuts or scrapes along the way. We put our shoulders against the boat and pushed hard. Slowly the end of the boat moved across the sand and into the water. Then we both jumped up into the boat. Jack -Jack grabbed the oars and started paddling us out farther from the shore.
I couldn’t help glancing back longingly at the beach we had just left. We’d been at sea for less than a minute, and already I was homesick. Jack-Jack must have sensed my uneasiness about the voyage.
“Don’t worry, my friend. We will be back. And when we come back, we will come from the west. I’ve seen it in a dream”
I smiled for his sake, although I was still scared. I kept looking back at the land we were leaving behind. The Island got smaller each time I looked. Eventually I couldn’t see it at all.
Nobody knows what the deal is with Chester Road. Grandpa says that he remembers when they first paved it back in 1953. Chester branches off of Bender Lane about a mile from downtown and comes to a dead end after 1,200 yards. Grandpa is certain about that–1,200 yards. He measured it back when he was a kid. He used a yard stick. I can’t imagine the patience it must have taken to move that stick one yard at a time. Beyond the end of the road there is an open field that goes on for about 30 feet (my own estimation; Grandpa never measured it). Beyond the field there are some woods.
One time when I asked Grandpa why the road was put there, leading off to nowhere, he said he thought he remembered something about some new houses that were supposed to have been built along it back in ’53; for some reason the houses were never built. Mr. Jackson, whose even older than Grandpa, says that that’s not it at all–the road was supposed to lead to a new factory, but the company changed its mind and located their plant elsewhere. Mr. Sanderson, who is older than Grandpa but younger than Mr. Jackson, said that the road was supposed to lead to a big Shop-Mart that never got built because the chain went out of business at the end of ’53. So like I said, nobody really knows why that road was put there. Last summer me and some of my friends started using Chester Road to play street hockey. It was great, because we didn’t have to worry about a car coming along and creaming somebody.
It was Grandpa who warned me not to go near Chester Road any time after dark. He said that it was fine to play there in the daytime, but not when it was dark out. At first he wouldn’t give me a reason; he just said that he’d better not catch me or he would tan my hide. I obeyed and stayed away from Chester Road after dark, but I kept pressing him for a reason. Finally, after about a million years, he told me the story of the time he measured the road with a yard stick soon after it was abandoned and left unfinished. He had told me the story before, but there was one part that he had always left out.
Back then, in the autumn of 1953, a twelve year old boy decided to measure the weird new road in town. It was weird because it ended in the middle of nowhere in a dead end. The tool he chose to measure the road with was an old yard stick he had found in the cluttered garage a few weeks before. He started his measuring project on a Monday. After school let out the boy came home and did his homework, then told his mother that he was going to his friend Stevie’s house to watch television. Instead of going over to Stevie’s he smuggled the yard stick out of the garage and went out to Chester Road. As he measured, yard by yard, flipping the stick end over end a hundred times, then two hundred, then three hundred and so on, he lost track of time. He didn’t even notice that it was getting dark. When he finally reached the end of the road, he smiled a smile of satisfaction. Now he knew something that no one else did, and if any of his friends happened to ask, “Say, I wonder how long that road is”, he could tell them, “Why, it’s exactly twelve hundred yards”. It was about then that he realized just how dark it had gotten, and he thought he should probably be heading home, and hopefully his mom hadn’t called Stevie’s house to check on him. That’s when he heard a noise in the woods beyond the end of the road. At that time the grassy field that separated the road from the woods was just a field of loose dirt. The boy squinted into the shadows, trying to see what was moving around in the woods. He could see branches moving, and hear fallen branches breaking underfoot. And then he saw…something.
Grandpa wouldn’t tell me what he had seen, no matter how much I badgered him about it. Just stay away, he told me. Don’t go there after dark. But a boy’s curiosity is a powerful thing, and eventually it got the best of me. I went down to the end of Chester Road one night about three months ago; I even borrowed the same excuse that Grandpa used all those years ago, telling my mom that I was going to Peter’s house to play video games. For a while nothing happened, and I was beginning to think that Grandpa had played a dirty trick on me. But then I heard something rustling in the woods. I won’t lie; I was pretty scared, but I stood my ground. I just had to see.
And I saw. I ran all the way home, jumped into bed and hid under the covers. It was terrible; take my word for it. I thought about telling Grandpa that I had seen it, too, but I knew he would get mad at me, and maybe even make good on his threat to whup me good. You know how these old geezers are; they grew up with whuppings, and they don’t see anything wrong with it. So I kept quiet about it. I didn’t even tell my friends.
It felt weird to know what I knew and not do anything with that knowledge. Secrets are no fun when you can’t do anything about them. But I thought about it for a while and came up with my brilliant idea. Kenny Beck was always giving me a hard time at school for no good reason. I never did anything to him; he was just a jerk. So I told him that I had something cool to show him, and that he needed to meet me out on Chester Road right around when it started to get dark out. He got kind of mad when I wouldn’t tell him what it was that I wanted to show him, but he finally agreed when I told him that he could pound my face in if he didn’t think it was the coolest thing ever. He agreed a little too quickly, if you ask me; I think he just wanted an excuse to beat the crap out of me.
So I guess now Kenny knows about the thing at the end of the road, too. Or at least he knew, for a very short while. I promised myself that he would be the only one, but then Peter told some kids at school about the time I wet the bed when I slept over at his house last year. I thought he was my friend, but what kind of friend does a thing like that? So I showed him what was at the end of Chester Road, too. And then there was Fred Phillips, but I don’t like to talk about that. I admit that I shouldn’t have done that to him. He was just kind of bugging me that day.
It’s been in the papers. Three kids missing. People are worried that there’s some kind of pervert child killer stalking the town. I’m no pervert, and I’ve never killed anyone. I just took some kids out to Chester Road at night. All right, maybe I also gave them a good shove at a bad time, but I didn’t kill anybody.
Sometimes I think Grandpa might suspect something. I see him giving me weird looks sometimes. I think I’d better lay off for a while. No more taking anybody to Chester Road until the heat dies down. I don’t think Grandpa will say anything to anybody. And if he does? I guess I’ll have to try and find a way to get him out to Chester Road.