fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

The machine clicks to life, a soft humming sound whirring into a clacking drone of gears thumping together before easing into a steady turn. Somewhere deep within, a whistle squeals and chirps while the pistons sigh. Old timing belts moan as the heart of the engine exhales.


The floorboards reverberate with the startup, startling the guests, all gratified to feel a pulse once again. The yacht continues to roll across the ocean while winds and heavy waves batter it. I, the captain's son, at ease in the same chair that I always sit in, observe the lights flickering on overhead. As always, I begin watching. In just thirty minutes, people will begin dying.


I must be prepared.


It's a dim room, chandelier placed at an angle to amplify the room's red velvet overtone. Outside, sea spray crashes against the hull, providing a rocking motion to the chandelier that could render any man seasick if he stared at it long enough. My chair is situated to the right of the fireplace, where I can see every guest without taking too much notice on myself.


I am the youngest man in the room. Barely above my age and around the crowd, a dapper man with silvery blond hair and a spruced up, loaned black overcoat flirts with a woman in a scarlet dress. She is considerably older, but she hides it well (if stuffing one's age into a corset and covering it with makeup can pass for subtlety).  He is not as charming as he believes either, laughing more than social propriety merits while his twinkling, inebriated eyes flit down her neckline. He is Mr. Hair. She is Ms. Silky.


This rectangular room has three doors--two on the sides and one main door at the far end, opposite the fireplace. To the right of the main door, a young woman wearing a deep blue dress sits at a black, upright piano while staring at the ceiling board where the rain gets in and trickles behind the red wallpaper. She is watching the wallpaper pulse like a living artery, wondering whether she can play the piano without drawing too much attention to herself. Her mother, sitting on a sofa with an older man at her side, is watching her intently, crows feet skewing her vivid blue eyes so that her intent is all the more visible. Her mother's fingers are twitching against her teal blue, shimmering gown, counting years of paid tutoring towards a moment, a crowd like this. The mother wants her daughter to play, and the daughter wants to play, but their reasons are too different. The daughter is Ms. Piano. The mother is Ms. Twitch.


The older man cares little for the company and more for the comestibles, which are bountiful. To his right, he has carefully commandeered a golden tray of glacé petit fours, carefully arranged (by him), to cover the silver platter bereft of prosciutto wrapped melon slivers, pungent cheeses, and spicy sausages. No one is fooled of course. Ms. Silky has passed the low appetizer table twice, just to give him the benefit of the doubt. This man's sleek black shoes are off; his gouty feet snake through the coarse, sable fur of the panther skin rug. He is Mr. Walrus.


His son is situated on the couch opposite him with a young woman under his arm, champagne glass cradled in that same hand. This son's head is back, and his eyes are closed, moustache carefully groomed to always depict a restful smile. His ears are open to the woman seated at the piano, awaiting music. He thinks he likes music, but he really enjoys the sound of her body making music. He is a professor at a prominent university, the lowest caste person in the room besides his woman, although the woman under his arm would have him, and everyone else, think her a simple student in his classroom. In truth, her silver sequined dress, gaudy in the ruddy undertones of this mansion-yacht, covers her fervor and her wrath. In her leather purse, on her left hip facing me, her hand slips in and out of contact with a bible and a paring knife. He is Mr. Comfort. She is Ms. Church.


In any passive exchange, I am more the victim than the perpetrator. The surviving member of the onslaught in twenty minutes will finish me off before throwing herself overboard. That is a bad outcome.


Mr. Walrus will lean towards the table to "discreetly" grab the next platter of hors d'oeuvres when his right leg spasms, kicking hard against the couch and careening him towards the platter. His diabetic seizure contorts his head strangely as his head slaps the table, body girth providing the momentum to snap his neck. His son sits bolt upright, shaking champagne onto the hand and into the purse of the Ms. Church, soiling her bible if that ever really mattered in the first place. She reaches for the knife while these sounds are silenced by the piano beginning to play. She cuts Mr. Comfort's throat with a series of reckless jabs while Ms. Twitch heads for the main door. The piano is resolute, pouring out Chopin's "Revolutionary Étude," likely Ms. Piano's favorite song.  Ms. Church stands and twists, looking for someone. Mr. Hair has started screaming, though Ms. Silky fails to ascertain why, reflexively slapping him hard across the face. Neither of them can stop Ms. Church from ending Ms. Piano's song.


When Ms. Twitch returns, she has a revolver aimed at Ms. Church's chest, but the sight of her daughter at the piano sends her wild, firing into Ms. Silky directly behind Ms. Church's shoulder. The bullets skitter through and scrape gold coating off of the trim that lies between the red wallpaper and the maroon wood paneling beneath it. It is enough to rouse Mr. Hair, who moves to grapple with Ms. Church. He is stronger than he seems. Though Mr. Hair takes many cuts, she winds up with the knife in her stomach, sobbing for reasons only Mr. Comfort might have known as she drops to the floor. Ms. Twitch's nerves tremble against the trigger, firing again. It's one shot in the chamber, now, and I am the only one left in the room when the lights go out.


That is a bad outcome.


Twenty minutes before the outcome, I begin to loiter around the group more. I know their timing. The hum of their motions before they happen resonates within me, urgency kicking my nerves into action. The first objective is to take the knife. At nineteen minutes, the professor lifts his head and whispers something into Ms. Church's ear. At that moment, her hand twists out of her purse and begins to rest on her stomach. This gesture lasts approximately seven seconds, three of which are receiving direct eye contact from Ms. Twitch. When her glance lifts over their shoulders towards Mr. Hair once again, her real target, I have four seconds to reach down and snatch the knife.


The next step is more risky. The loss of Mr. Walrus is the instigating factor in the violence, not the knife itself. Worse, if Ms. Church realizes that she no longer possesses the knife, and she will at seventeen minutes and thirty seconds, she will begin to look for an alternative weapon. The silver spatula on the platter that Mr. Walrus will soon bash with his face will wind up in her hand in exactly three seconds after he dies. I have to do something with the petit fours.


I use the paring knife to spear and eat as many petit fours as I can manage. The objective is to counter his capability to eat himself into a seizure. I target the cakes that I know he will go after, in the order that I know he will go after them, carving those that I cannot eat into tiny pieces that his fat fingers cannot pick up. As the time draws near, with a full knife stacked with miniature cakes, I let Ms. Church see me from behind Mr. Walrus' couch. I let her watch as I intently gaze into her eyes, licking the cakes off the end of her vengeful knife, one by one. She cannot hide her horrified expression as I pocket the knife and return to my seat. As dangerous as Ms. Twitch can be, she receives no instigating factor in standing when her daughter starts to play the piano, except that Ms. Twitch truly doesn't like the "Revolutionary Étude," beginning to squirm in her seat. Ms. Church is pinned by the fact that her chair is facing away from me, the most dangerous thing in the room, and Mr. Comfort is too much in the moment of listening to let go of her. Mr. Hair and Ms. Silky are getting along fine.


Mr. Walrus does not spasm and fall towards the table. He falls asleep on the arm of his chair, propping his head up with one large fist. Ms. Church does not budge, as much as she wants to look over her shoulder and ascertain my location. As the time ticks forward, counting to thirty-five minutes, I know my victory. I stand up and exit the room through the right door, so that she cannot see me leave.


I walk through the hallway and out onto the deck, where the sheets of wind and rain dance across in elegant arcs. I embrace the rain on my face and overcoat. No one died. In five minutes, I will be free.


"Release me! I solved your riddle!" I shout to the sky even as my mouth fills with water.


Unrelenting, the rain continues to beat down upon my face as those familiar sounds begin anew. The lights, as they always do, flicker and die in the cabin and on the prow.


"Release me!" I gasp, sputtering water. "I performed your task! I saved everyone, and I did it in only two steps! What do you need now? What else could you possibly need?"


No reaction other than that the distinct sound, continuing as always from the forty minute mark.


The machine clicks to life, a soft humming sound whirring into a clacking drone of gears thumping together before easing into a steady turn. Somewhere deep within, a whistle squeals and chirps while the pistons sigh. Old timing belts moan as the heart of the engine exhales.


The floorboards reverberate with the startup, startling the guests, all gratified to feel a pulse once again. The yacht continues to roll across the ocean while winds and heavy waves batter it. I, the captain's son, at ease in the same chair that I always sit in, observe the lights flickering on overhead. As always, I begin watching. In just thirty minutes, people will begin dying.


I must be prepared.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

The car slammed against an oncoming pickup truck after drunkenly swerving into the left lane, catching the front bumper with the right headlight, unbuckled driver soaring through the windshield and exploding across the branches of a sycamore tree in someone's front yard.


By the time I reached the scene, coming from the 7-11 on the other side of Shields Street, there was no one left to whom  I could issue a moving violation. The ambulance arrived and scooped up the damaged, sobbing passenger, clawing her face at the giant hole in the windshield, the pristinely green grass of a front yard, and the tree where someone she knew was scattered. The truck was totaled, certainly, but the people inside it were uninjured. It fell to me to escort them home, as other police officers showed up, and the entire block was sealed off.  I was grateful for it. The scent of the man in the tree made it hard to breathe without vomiting.


Later that night, a curious lack of radio communication left me with little to do, so I took my second break at the end of my shift. I returned to that 7-11 to idle and observe the cleanup. The "Lights Out" ordinance, put in place to cut energy bills for the city, felt darker on that night; the only glow came from my dashboard and the phosphorescent wash from the 7-11's broad windows.


Across Shields and further down Mulberry, two patrol cars with no lights on were parked underneath that sycamore tree. Two men stood next to these cars, slowly turning in opposite directions, scanning the whole block for passersby or people snooping from their windows. I could not see anyone cleaning the tree.


The leaves of the tree, almost impossible to see at this distance, swayed even though the night was calm, no breeze rustling any other trees. I stared hard, cupping my hands around my eyes, before I saw them--dark shapes crawling over branches. Big bodies shuffled up and down the tree, stopping at regular intervals for a second before continuing to move. The same bodies crossed over the same parts of the tree multiple times. Eventually, they stopped moving in unison and began crawling out of the tree. They were all men in uniform. How did they move like that?


Each car filled  with four officers- one in the front, three in the back. The last of the officers who had been crawling in the tree stopped before getting in the car and stared down Mulberry until he was looking at me directly.  I couldn't see his eyes or mouth, but I could feel his gaze as if he was in the car with me.


*****


Michael, my only son, was very sick. He caught a virus from school that closed up his lungs almost completely, spending a week in a hospital bed before finally being allowed to return home. Even at that, he was in and out of consciousness constantly, confined to his bed for fear that he might be walking up or down the stairs, lose control of his breathing and pass out. I took what little leave I could muster to be by his side and await his needs. Money was tight, however. I knew that, between hospital bills and being off work, food was going to be scarce this month.


He was asleep, and I was nodding my head into an automotive magazine when I heard the scratching at the window the first time. When I stood up and threw back the curtain, no one was there. I am not a superstitious person, and I pride myself on my attention to detail, so it bothered me that I was unable to identify the source of the sound. If the wind made the sound once, it would surely happen again. I leaned back, stretched my arms and waited, staring at the window.


The next time I heard that scratching, I was ready. I leapt out of my chair and threw back the curtain.


A man in a police officer's uniform sat hunched on the sloped ledge of roof over the garage, right in front of the window. His fingers were long and thin, one hand crossed across a knee, the other hand drawing back from the window frame. He had no sidearm that I could see, and his uniform was consistent with the Fort Collins Police Department, but he was no one that I knew. He had a long face with no hair on it. Red eyes with no whites gleamed from underneath his cap. He grimaced, revealing bright, straight teeth, before leaping off of the roof and disappearing.


I guess I had an unusual reaction to this. Blame it on me being a police officer. I was livid. Either a man had stolen the uniform of a member of the department, or someone I had never met was investigating me or my comatose son. I grabbed my aluminum baseball bat and sat next to the window again, cracking it just a little bit this time, hoping that the man with the red contact lenses would be stupid enough to try it again.


In less than an hour, just as dawn was starting to break, the window slid open and the man leapt into the room. I slammed my bat against his face so hard that it seemed to adhere to him, dragging the bat to the floor as he fell. I closed the window behind him and then bent down to retrieve the bat. I couldn't remove it from his face. I flicked the light switch on and saw the man's tongue wrapped fully around the bat twice, flicking and licking drops of his own blood that were scattered along that length while his head shuddered, red eyes blinking away pain. His nose appeared to have been broken, his tongue casually flicking at it while streams of blood and tears rolled down his face. He was screaming, but he sound only came out like a hiss with a high, shrill pitch behind it. I placed my boot against his head and pried the bat away from his tongue, which began to flail wildly once free, slapping the hairs on my leg. The tongue was darker than a normal tongue, substantially longer, and abrasive like that of a cat. My sense of wrong twisted my judgment as I brought the bat down on his head three more times.


I thought I had killed him, but he still had a pulse. His tongue was still now, rolled across the carpet that he was quickly staining with blood. My fervor had not ended. I needed to know what this man-shaped thing was. I handcuffed him, threw a Toy Story pillowcase over his head and fastened it to his neck with bungee cables. Luckily, throughout this whole endeavor, I never woke my son.


I lifted him and shoved him in the back of my car, driving as quickly as I could to the station. When I arrived, I ignored all procedure, so mad and scared I was, carrying him over my shoulder to the back room where Major Jenkins' office was located. I didn't knock.


The Major was a white man, likely in his forties, with a carefully trimmed goatee. He was not startled by this early morning intrusion, as I tossed the unconscious thing into the chair directly in front of him.


"What is this?" he asked slowly, as if he was waking up.


"I would very much like to know the answer to that question, Major," I replied. My face was hot and my nerves were twitchy, as if I was not finished fighting yet.


"It looks like you've captured Officer Daniels and bound him in a Toy Story pillow case, Paulson."


"I had no idea our force even had an Officer Daniels, and when this--" I snapped the pillow case off of the thing's head, letting his head nod to the side with the tongue lolling all the way down to his chest, "--man showed up at my window, trying to get inside, I took care of him. Can you please tell me who or what he is, sir? Is he an officer?"


"Take a seat."


I sat a reasonable distance away from the unconscious creature. I could feel the pent up tension beginning to spiral out of control as reflexes gave way to clear thoughts. What the hell is going on? I wondered.


"You have just witnessed something that few on our force and even fewer in our community are even aware exists." The Major stitched his fingers together and spoke with an almost reassuring calm. "This is called a Gasp. Our station has been working with them for about two years."


"How did we not know--"


"Let me finish, officer. I know you are stressed, and you have good reason to be. But you need to hear me out completely, because what I will tell you is extremely important."


"Sorry, sir."


"Good." The Major took a sip of black coffee before continuing. "Two years ago, we started to catch people in situations similar to that which you have described. It was about the time the 'Lights Out' ordinance took effect, and it is my belief that these events are somewhat connected. Homes would be broken into without contents disturbed, except that people would go missing in their sleep. No signs of struggle or prints of the individuals exist outside of these crime scenes. You were lucky. Somehow, your intuition as a police officer enabled you to see the Gasp before it attacked. If you hadn't, your son would likely be dead."


"How do you know it was my son and not me?"


"I know all of my officers better than you think. I know you've been on leave for about two weeks now, and I know that your son is sick. I know the results of your last physical, performed only a month ago--I know your health is just fine. Furthermore, I know that the Gasps smell the imminence of death."


"That is not comforting to know."


"No, you're right. It makes them hungry until inevitably they snap and consume that which is dead or dying. They feed on every dying aspect of a human. Their teeth are much stronger than they seem, and they can easily crush bone with their jaws."


"Why are we working with them?" I asked, too shocked to process all of the details he was conveying.


"A sensitivity to death can prove highly useful. Once we began to identify these elements that were invading homes throughout our city and managed to catch a few, mostly after the deed had already been done and post-meal sluggishness had set in, we received a classified order from a superior. All officers that had been involved in capturing these creatures were to be employed in a very particular way in incorporating the creatures as officers themselves."


"How does that even work?"


"We reserve them for night projects. A month ago, right around your beat, I believe, a car crashed and a man died. We used the Gasps then, to clean up the extensive ensuing mess. It was very efficient, and it kept them from having blood urges."


"Blood urges?"


"When a Gasp goes too long without feeding, his risk of breaking routine becomes great. They comprehend ideas and follow directions like people just as long as they've been fed recently. So you see, we serve a dual purpose by maintaining these officers: they help us clear away blood and gore, and we keep them away from our citizens. Do you understand?"


"Mostly, sir."


"Very well." The Major paused, sliding out one of his steel desk drawers after unlocking it with a key, pulling out a manila folder before calmly opening it and sliding a paper towards me. "I will need you to sign on this line, please."


It read: Change of Job Status--Overwatch


"What does this mean, sir?" I asked.


"It means that you are now responsible for what you have seen and heard. I am putting you on Overwatch, a taskforce designed to monitor and carry Gasps wherever they are needed. You will notice a substantial pay grade increase."


Indeed, I briefly considered that this month might not be that tight after all. Then I shook my head and said, "I'm sorry, I refuse. I can't be in charge of a monster," I said, gesturing to the empty seat to my left. "What? Where did--"


"I am sure you will find them eager to work with you, Paulson," the Major stated, looking at me and then looking to the doorway behind me where the Gasp stood, arms crossed and tongue flicking across his face and head to clear away dried blood. "If you don't sign, how will you go home to tend to your son?"


"What do you mean?" I demanded, standing up.


"They sense death, Paulson. If this one broke away from his unit just to come to your house, it's a strong smell. Likely one of your son's organs is failing. You may be able to save him if you sign this paper and join the Overwatch. You will not leave this room without signing. Otherwise, I can't imagine having to find something to do with your clothes after the Gasp is finished with you. You had the advantage last time. Not now."


I looked at the Gasp. His eyes, blood red in entirety, were smiling back at me.


I signed the line.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

It was a cool, late October afternoon when I was finally dismissed from my "duties" at the reassignment center. The rubber room's plastic chairs and dank asbestos aroma were gone for good. The air outside was calm yet bracing. Rather than hop on a bus, I decided to walk the twenty blocks back to my apartment while I savored this new, hesitant freedom.

He was sitting on concrete steps leading up to a brick apartment when I walked past. He asked me for a cigarette, to which I replied, no, I don't smoke. His outstretched palm was smooth and adorned with a glistening wrist watch, his navy blue blazer cuff betraying a lighter hued  shirt beneath with a mother-of-pearl button. I marveled that he didn't have the money to buy his own smokes.

Oh, this? He replied, pulling up the collar of his blazer with a flick of each wrist, noticing my glance. Yes, I had money once, he said, staring down at my ragged sneakers.


Once? I asked, stopping to hear a story. It was a good night for a story. The fancy sitter's coarse brown hair, ruffled by the wind and likely many days without a shower, disguised a pair of slicing pale blue eyes.


The man sighed and said, I used to work as an assessor for charter schools, opening, closing, redeveloping programs. People felt like they could trust my words even though my words were sometimes harsh, sometimes damning. At the end of the day, I was like a magician whose only trick was his enthusiasm and sincerity. When I said they would work, they believed they could. This whole nation believed.


At this, he grew silent and stared at the sidewalk. I felt little sympathy for the man until he unbuttoned his sleeves and rolled them up to his elbows.


I started to change, the man whispered. Slowly, patterns of words began to show up in black ink all over my body, twisting the words I knew and loved so well. When I presented, the words were in my way, shifting every second before I could speak them, revealing me for the charlatan I am--again, he fell silent.


I leaned in closer to examine his arm. Undulating lines of text snaked together in a sea of information like a living tattoo. At first, I could discern nothing. And then, ever so slowly, I discovered the nascent threads of a tale rippling into a single line.


*****


The wolf huddled beneath the sheets, eagerly awaiting his feast. Months in planning: hunters eaten, mobile devices scrutinized for all possible scraps of language, houses spotted, grandmothers "sorted out." The wolf knew that issues were possible; he considered himself the brightest of all of his species and would doubtlessly overcome any obstacle set in his path.

All of this for one young morsel. "Oh, the things wolves must do!" the literate wolf chuckled to himself. Unfortunately, the chuckling was a scary sound, coming from a wolf, and the wolf knew this, so he quickly silenced himself.

Knock-knock, the door reverberated, making the wolf's heart pound quicker than ever before. It was time. He fastened his pink, polka dot, "hand-me-down" bonnet to his head and adjusted himself in bed before rasping "Come in!"

The door opened and in pranced a young, lithe body in a red hood carrying a wicker basket. She is older than she seems, the wolf thought, but so chaste and guileless at heart! He wrapped his own hairy arms around himself to avoid squealing with delight, since wolf squeals are terrifying sounds.

The girl immediately regarded him with suspicion. Surely her grandmother was not covered in so much fur, unless that was the disease that had forced the girl's mother to extoll upon her the virtues of looking after the elderly. That must be it, the girl thought. Her mother must be incapable of looking at such an insufferably hairy grandma.

"Come closer, my darling," the wolf-grandma whispered.

The girl edged towards him slowly, worried that she might accidentally get grandma  fur on her Sunday best.

"My, what big arms you have, grandma!" the girl stated, noting that her grandmother was remarkably well built for a sick woman.

"The better to hang you with, my darling," said grandma, spreading her arms wide.

Ignoring the odd word choice and her own extreme desire to not be hugged by a furry, powerful woman, the girl obliged. "Wow, what big eyes you have!"

"The better to cease you with, my darling," said grandma.

"Pardon?" asked the girl.

"See you with. Darling."

"And what big ears you have!"

"The better to hearse you with, love."

Chilling implications began to form in the girl's brain, but she brushed them aside. "Hearse, grandma?"

"Hearse? Hare? Hear, hear. It's hear, dear. Oh me, my ears are not quite what they… oh dear," wolf-grandma stuttered revealing sharp teeth beneath her black lips.

"My, what sharp teeth you have!" the girl exclaimed, shocked at the level of deformity caused by her grandmother's ailment, wondering whether the biscuits she had purchased would even be digestible with a mouth that sharp and pointy.

"The better to abate you with, my sweetling!" the wolf roared.

The girl winced. Talking to her grandma had become quite difficult with her sickness.

"Abate, abet, teat, ta-ta!" the wolf attempted.

"Ta-ta?" the girl asked incredulously.

"EAT!"

And then he garbled her up.


*****


What the hell did I just read, I asked, dumbfounded and rubbing my weary eyes.


The man began to cry. It gets worse, he said, and he unbuttoned the top buttons of his shirt and exposed the upper part of his breast bone, words crossing across it seemingly at random. Can you see why I was fired? Can you see why it was a stretch for me to get even the words I needed to say to be effective at my job out?


I could see the myriad dreams of a convoluted society rippling across his skin. I could see every future, every frustration, and every poorly worded sex scene that would ever assail the bestseller list with feverish over-acceptance. Nauseously, I began to drift amongst the words like a barrel tossed into an ocean.


*****


Geoffrey, on stage in less than one minute, found himself awestruck in the possibility that he might wet himself with nervousness, and that the very first speech on the subject of post-human development, with a real technological product to validate it, would be one where the speaker wet himself. No make-up story would ever save his company from the humiliation and the news briefs targeted purely at his soaked trousers. The people would laugh at him and the future as if his stained crotch had determined the destiny of the entire human race.


Then the reverie broke with the thunderous applause of the tech convention's assembly hall. Time to put on a show, he thought as a microphone was thrust into his face.


"Hello, ladies and gentlemen," he began. "In 2037, a mere two years time, we will be testing our first public models of the EXCEL 21, the world's first thought-to-spreadsheet tool."


Rapturous applause shook the broad auditorium; although, Geoffrey nervously noted the significant number of paired glowing orbs in the audience. The proliferation of eye-implant hardware had been the precursor to EXCEL 21; he would simply have to sell the audience on the notion that their I-Spies and Googly Eyes were worth replacing. He wondered, in a small part of his brain, how his company's new technology would help support a crowd worth of people who felt like their tools entitled them to ignore a speaker. He shoved it aside.


"Our system scans all the matrices of your brain for all of the relevant data points that you could possibly need. You can speed-process data while constructing your charts and figures on the fly. Never before has such an articulate breakdown of that old 'you only use 10% of your brain at any given time' myth been uttered or demonstrated."


"What if your knowledge of data and what works in analysis is wrong?" one young statistician asked.


"We have exhaustively mined the brains of today's most brilliant mathematicians and statistical scientists to derive the formulae for our program. You can make the program do what you choose, but it works at its best when you focus on one real world problem. May I perform a demonstration?" Geoffrey asked.


Again, applause. Is this real? Geoffrey wondered. Am I really here with this many people , selling a future?


He put the Protocol Helmet over his head and flexed his fingers against the white touch screen in front of him, sending live feeds of his actions to the devices of all of the concerned audience. "OK everyone," he said. "I will begin to think about the aggregated attendance data of all TEXPO conferences ever, just to give you an idea of how quickly I can consolidate information."


It worked! Within seconds of finger flicking and concentration, Geoffrey had organized a nice, reliable and valid proof of all attendance data simultaneously. It was a little boring to look at, but the crowd--


--started tittering nervously, with some gasps and plenty of laugher. What's going on, Geoffrey wondered, and found the spreadsheet he had created become populated with things that he knew would end his career.

Women's "ideal" bust sizes began to be listed in their own column as if they were their own yearly event. What the hell? Geoffrey thought. But as other columns like "ratio of female attention to level of degree," and  "relative tightness of sex organs relative to age and location,"  and "quotient of pudding required to suffice as a lubricant " began to emerge, the problem became incredibly clear.


All of those famous mathematicians whose brains were used to create the program's knowledge of data accumulation had inadvertently filled the machine with the most grievously geeky notions of sex that had ever been conceived, which was now exploding across the screen in line graphs that were made to look like naked women. Even if they would not normally be expected to openly talk about raunchy subjects, somewhere, in the backs of all of their minds, a towering libido scowled from behind a thick textbook.

Geoffrey's rising star died immediately, but the device received millions of dollars in backing that same night, eventually being marketed as a "imagine them naked" program that could realistically use bodily profiles, combined with the power of your own imagination, to produce a realistic naked picture of anyone. Naturally teens picked it up, and a new era of personal privacy violations and cyber-bullying began.


*****


I shuddered involuntarily. This man is a monster, I thought. Then,  I wondered how long I had been staring at his chest. It must have become awkward, because he was now tipped back against the steps and sleeping. I witnessed the last story, creeping up his neck and slithering into his nose as if it was running away from the rest.


Where are you going, I asked, talking to the seemingly alive body text as it crawled up there.


*****


The fancy-sitter with the word tattoos is strangling me while muttering foreign syllables. All of the words twist up his wrists and then finger tips and then across my body as I gradually feel the language slide into my mouth. I feel the gripping realities and the duplicity and everything he is and has been, elongating my soul as if the rubber room is now in my veins. As if I will never be free again.


And as I begin to die, I hear him sing--oh say can you sieve by the donzerly light? And it's the "Star Spangled Banger" taken out of context so completely that all I can do is gasp my death rattle while he moves on to mangling the "Prattle Hyman of the Old Republican."


*****


Is this my fate? To perish in the hands of a lifelong dissembler turned shaman of nonsense? With what passes for sympathy, I tuck a twenty dollar bill into the collar of his shirt while he sleeps and walk as quickly as I can towards my house, knowing that my wife will be waiting for me, the lights will be on, and hot food can be made soon. Tomorrow will be a better day, I say, while the dark city hearkens to me with intermittent lamp posts and headlights.

Snowball

Oct. 2nd, 2014 01:07 am
fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

It all begins when he flushes his toothbrush down the toilet at 6 A.M. in the morning.  Too bleary-eyed to distinguish a lost cause from a potential biohazard, he shoves his arm into the porcelain orifice up to his elbow, flicking fingertips at the darkness until he feels it wedged against the curve. With a tug he pries it free, careening backwards, sending a fountain of water all over his blue button-up work shirt.  He is still trying to decide if the toothbrush fell into the toilet in slow motion or like an old-timey film reel with someone stricken with palsy operating the camera's hand crank when the back-up phone alarm targeted at his pre-work-ready-to-go-right-now nap howls in the bedroom where she is sleeping.


He knows not to wake her. Every moment depends on not waking her.


Every morning motion is more ninja-like in her hearing, every action performed in darkness, every deed a secret. He opens the bedroom door by twisting the knob and rolling his forehead from the door frame to the door itself to minimize creaking, all while pushing back eager cats with his right heel. It's there, and it's face up as if the sun is sitting right next to the bed, and it's playing the "Chacarron" song, which roughly means "Cocaine Party" and sounds like the death of a human through various "bleabudeeahbeebuhdeeabdiebubudeeabdeeilldieilldie" sounds with cowbell backup, a song that she must never hear because she will not go back to sleep. He dives across the room, slapping the phone with the palm of his hand repeatedly while walking towards the closet to discard his toilet juice coated blue shirt. The vacuum cleaner leaps in front of him, kicking him in the gut, tumbling him into the closet, dragging three hangers full of clothes on top of him and snapping two of the plastic ones. Now the closet is shrieking Spanish syllables underneath a pile of sweater vests and khaki pants and how does he put out the noise fires, he simply slaps everything in the closet until it all stops.


Somehow the vacuum has cut his hand--his toilet reaching hand. Somehow ancient lessons in contamination preclude all thought of the shirt he is not yet wearing, and he goes to the kitchen to retrieve a bandage and Neosporin from the high cabinet, and the bandage is easily retrieved; the Neosporin is back there so far that it makes him squint, and he claws at cabinet space blindly, sweeping the dust with the palm of his hand, sending dirt into his eyes. In this sensation, a burning induced by bacon grease particles mixed with human skin and cat hair into a single grey lump tossed into an eye, he forgets the home fried doughnut oil leftovers from the previous weekend in the tall, top-heavy olive oil bottle next to the pills, knocking it out of the cabinet with a sweep of his fist.


He knows the fall. He has saved glass objects plummeting to their demise before. He can see it in slow motion, careening to a cracking crash, but he is lucky because he is so talented and graceful and strong that he will simply stop it mid-fall with his foot like a World Cup Champion with too much time on his feet. Here it comes!


Fix applied.


The doughnut oil bottle flies across the room before cracking against a wall and falling to pieces on the floor. The glass scatters many times this distance , sneaking into crevices where it shall never be found again. The scent of aging pastries creeps through the cracks of tile floor while he immediately begins to recite the mantra of broken glass cleanups, all compounded because he needs to get to work now. All pretenses of happy wife are utterly abandoned at this point. Just as he begins to get greasy with the details of the murky dough-odor oil apocalypse, the terrible song starts again. He only put it on snooze! He failed to deactivate the snooze! Oil covered hands cannot touch the nice grey pants he is wearing, wherein the phone now rests. He is busy wiping and making malapropisms out of oil and apocalypse for later usage. Oilocalypse, apoilcalypse? What is malapropism?


It never ends. The phone is a top concern, but he needs to turn on the faucet to rinse his hands of the oil, and he can't grip it enough. The paper towels thrown at the spill are ineffective, so he switches to cat litter, accidentally using the litter from the box itself to make a genuine scent of urine-soaked week-old doughnuts. And when she comes out of the bedroom with her arms and brow crossed, he misses the only chance to give her a warning.


He doesn't realize it until he has driven most of the way to work. It was purple. The toothbrush he used this morning was purple. His toothbrush is blue.



fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

Although we have spent so many years apart, you know me. You know that I love the wrinkles on your face and the smoothness of your neck, and I hope you know that I would never betray those features or the mind behind them with deceit. There is a reason that we ride now for Sainenji. A reason that I can only express to you with a story about your husband's secret life. What I had to do to keep us fed now forces us to flee.


It started when our daimyo, Ieyasu Tokugawa, was quite young. He was celebrating a warm summer and an auspicious harvest down by the river next to his castle. My master, Hattori Hanzo, and the daimyo were having a contest to see who could hold the breath in their lungs the longest underwater. Of course my master won, stating after that he could hold breath in his lungs for several days at a time. The daimyo was intrigued, and the contest was immediately set.


To ensure that my master could not cheat the system, the daimyo appointed two close friends to hold his head under the water until he gave a frantic signal to release. Mind you, the river was just strong enough in flow to obstruct the shape of anyone under its surface.


And ninjutsu, the skill that my master has passed to me, is all about the power of suggestion and how to exploit the weaknesses inherent in the human mind.


After the two men traded turns holding my master's head under the water for a day and a half, my master eventually reached up and calmly tapped on the arm of the man holding him. He emerged clutching the daimyo's short sword, forcing the young ruler to check his side sash where the sword had been stowed. The daimyo laughed and clapped his hands, asking how the deed was done.


"I have collaborated with your guards since the first day of my employment with you," my master replied. "When I slipped a moss covered rock into their grasp, they knew not to react or question my movements with any obvious motions. I swam down the river and emerged, slept for a while, and snuck up behind you to steal your sword while you were sleeping."


This, my wife, is essentially what I did for the seven years we were apart. After this event, the daimyo appointed many ninja to serve his purposes.  Some leaders have minds that are very like the ninjas they employ. In a sense, Hattori Hanzo was trying to impart this wisdom to the daimyo, who could easily have been killed had he lacked such a loyal servant. It was a lesson well received by the daimyo; however, it was not conveyed to his young son. I was hired to serve this son, Matsudaira Nobuyasa.


I was hired to serve as figure in another ruler's house. Trickery, subterfuge, and careful planning put me in a favorable position in Oda Nobunaga's court. My disguise was as a guard and companion. If I had possessed the presence of mind to guess what I know now, I would have seriously questioned the subtlety on the part of my daimyo's son. How was I employed in such a place? For what purpose had I been installed in the household of a man whose guile and ambition surpassed any who were alive at that point in time? How could I leave my young wife for all those years, forcing her to live past an age where she could give birth before I returned?


There are things that we can never get back, you know. I only hope that we can live peacefully where we are going.


Nobunaga had a serious limp caused by a series of leg infections he received as a child. Often, he would clutch his leg and howl with pain while I gave him a hand to hold on to in the early hours of the morning before a doctor could rush to his side. This condition enabled me to be as close as his own kin when fighting broke out. I alone could shoulder his body away from combat when the spasms occurred. I could swipe away enemy strikes with my long spear, while my poor, false lord eyed my skill and the bodies of those I had slain for him.


We were close, like brothers. I cared for him so much that I sometimes forgot my duty and the dire responsibilities implicit in my duplicitous role.


One night, I received a missive. Kill Oda Nobunaga and escape, it stated. It was decorated with the yellow, hollyhock crest of the Tokugawa clan. I thought it strange and unfortunate that my young lord Nobuyasa would go so far as to attempt to kill the man whose own daughter he had married, but I was a tool. I was a knife that had led itself to believe that it was something more.


The next night, as I escorted Nobunaga to bed in halting, stuttering steps, I waited until we had worked our way past the creaking nightingale floors to his bedroom door before lashing at his weak leg with a kick to the back of his knee. Dagger drawn, I scrambled to plunge the blade into his throat as he fell, silencing his scream of pain and ending his life.


Nobunaga was a shrewd, cunning man. Later, after he had chained me to a wall in his house, he calmly explained that he had faked the weakness in his leg all along. Even the doctors that aided him were part of the diversion. Simple martial training as well as an advanced notice of political motivation from Nobuyasa had been more than enough to crush the chances of murder.


To my luck and ultimately my disgrace, he allowed me to go free. My services to him over several years excused, according to his words, my foolish attempt to take his life. I was sent away, to return to you again. When I returned home, I found that Nobunaga had requested that the leader of Tokugawa force his own son to commit seppuku for plotting against the Oda clan. Hattori Hanzo, my aging master, was now asked to supervise Nobuyasa while the twenty year old man plunged the knife into his own gut.


I was stunned. My failure to act on the request given to me had resulted in the death of one of my daimyo's children. I also believed that I would have to kill myself. My master split my dishonor with me, having taught me the skills that I failed to practice.


That awful time, as you know, was about ten years ago. In the years since then, our daimyo has kept a close eye on me. I wear the blood of his son on my honor, as does my master Hanzo. Oda Nobunaga is dead and gone, while our daimyo is poised to unify all of Japan soon.


We will not be a part of that world. We go to Sainenji to commemorate my master. We go to pay our dues to the young man that I murdered with my inadequacy as a ninja. We go to tend to graves, grow trees, grow flowers, and grow old together. We go to reflect on the tempestuous nature of human life, drinking tea under the shade of the shrine that we build, sipping until the storm takes us.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)

Lovely Lucio would at last face the firing squad.

It was dawn, orange glows seeping in through the steel bars on the cell they had prepared for him. The glow, which he watched illuminate his own ghoulishly gaunt face in the tarnished mirror hanging over his straw covered bed, did little for his complexion or fear. There was once a time when he had been love--now he looked like a cow come too late to a slaughter, killed after all semblance of purpose had fled from his bones.


When he was love, he was a fire. Always, he waited to find new kindling for his blaze. Lovers disappeared into his dark eyes like dry brush struck by lightning, there and then gone; these same eyes were now elevated upon dark pouches and sallow cheekbones. Art, as well, was always something within the heats of his passions.


Art quickly turned into awareness, which erupted into purpose. In purpose, Lucio had been a volcano, spitting ash upon the heads of those who ran the government. Immortal and untroubled by threats, he reigned as an omnipresent rumbling voice, bellowing smoke at the foul deeds of police officers or government officials.


Like any volcano would be, Lucio considered with what could only now be a grin, he was quite surprised when they found a mountain sized prison and a pacifier to stop up the howling heat within him. And now they would stop it up for good. His hubris had overwhelmed his logical efforts to hide himself, and he had quickly been caught by the same police he protested against, forced into this prison to await a very certain outcome.


"It's time," the stoic guard rattled, opening the iron door to his cell. Lucio, wearing nothing that could pass for a grin any longer, gave the guard his wrists to be cuffed. "No need," the guard replied, following Lucio as he climbed the stairs towards his death.


Time to face the music.


Arising into the courtyard, Lucio finds himself immediately shot with terror followed by delighted surprise as riflemen uncork twenty bottles of champagne in his direction. As the froth falls upon the yellow sand, a team of mariachi players emerges from the ramparts high above his head, filling the air with the sound of trumpets and guitar and percussion. Jarabe Tapatío dancers whirl between the ranks of the champagne men, frills of dresses flashing brightly in the dawn's sun, while kicking dust excitedly with leather boots in stomping motions. Banners unfurl from the ramparts hailing Lucio's government pardon while the commandant personally shakes Lucio's hand, giving him a large, warming hug.


Lucio, with tears streaming down his face, sits down to at a freshly prepared table covered in a white cloth. He can feel the strength returning to his body as he begins to eat the suckling pig that they bring to him.


He can feel the fire again.


*****


Thorton would soon confront his manager, a fact which played out in his twitching fingers tapping against his plastic desk.


"Could you stop that, please?" Martha begged. Her cubicle was right next to his. He wanted to stand up and scream his problems into her ear, but adults don't do that. She could surely hear his paranoia, his deeply sighing breaths, the rapid motions of his eyes as he thought of some way to save this. Anything would be a start at this point.


Thorton was guilty of many sins: making too many photocopies of things he needed, making too many photocopies of things he didn't need, making too many photocopies that had printed wrong, making too many photocopies of pages with blank backsides, clocking out for lunch too late, clocking back in from lunch too early, clocking out for the day too late, clocking in for the day too early, clocking too many hours, clocking too many days, not being a team player who actively contributes at meetings, being too much of a team player who actively contributes at meetings, drawing too many pictures at meetings, drawing a blank at meetings…


The list could honestly go on forever. Between Thorton's mother, who was on hospice care, and Thorton's wife who probably worked harder than him at a job that paid considerably less, Thorton had no excuse for not doing everything in his power to stay employed. He knew that the end was near. He could smell the brimstone and ash of his career smoldering in the next room as the clock clicked down to 4 PM. Every moment, the odor of sulfur seeped under the crack of the manager's glass door.


Then, the door opened and out stepped the secretary.


"Mr. Marshall?" she asked. Deep down in his subconscious, Thorton Marshall was glad that they at least allowed him one more day, even if that day was spent with him shivering in fear of the predicted career apocalypse that was e-mailed to him several hours ago.


He walked over to her, arms held out for the clipboard she clutched. It took him a long moment to realize she had no intention of giving it to him (she really looked like she was holding it like she wanted to give it to him), he shook his head, muttered "Sorry" in a language that could never be English, and trudged into the manager's office.


Time to face the music.


Someone blows a whistle that shoots paper out away from his or her mouth. The idea is immediately foreign to Thorton, who had been expecting no less than to sign his name on a line before riding the bus home. The crowd, no less than twenty people from around his office begins to clap their hands and make shrill noises while wearing conical hats with ribbons strung about them while the manager, bearing an unusually bemused face sings along. It's the "Happy Birthday" song, Thorton realizes as he sees the same words written on the giant "Happy Birthday You Hard Worker" vanilla iced cake in front of him. Someone claps him on the back and offers him a cigar while another person tucks a flower into his front shirt pocket while another person hands him a knife and forces his trembling hand to cut the cake. Thorton is weeping so hard that he cannot see the cake, and he is getting worried that he'll cry into the slices he's serving, but it's OK because he is only serving himself right now. His mother is with him, sitting beside him and enjoying her own piece of cake while tenderly rubbing his shoulder, and his wife is amusing herself at the punch bowl.


Thorton thinks things aren't so bad after all.


*****


We have expectations. One of these expectations that we share, as a society, is that misdeeds come with a consequence. Errors are met with terrors beyond the feeble understanding that we now allow many children to have.


I have met students that slide into advanced classes on little more than their desire to try them, in spite of a history filled with failing grades. I've met children who find themselves in summer school simply because they had a disagreement with an adult. I've met college students who still labor under the assumption that life is free and only stops when the cakes and beers are fully depleted, which will never happen in their minds. I've met adults who still believe that a wink and a smile will wither any consequences that could possibly perturb them.

Worst of all, I've met adults who have explored the deep recesses of personal failure, only to emerge from the immensity of their spelunking with nothing at all that they are willing and/or able to share. It is not unlike asking a world renowned food taster to describe the best dish they ever tasted only to hear them state that it was "pretty good."


Life is, unfortunately, filled with grim realities. We, as a society, should decide if that's the way we want it, training our children and young adults towards that inevitable, biting future if that is what we choose to have. We could live in a kinder, gentler world and utilize real consequences only for the most awful atrocities, but can we convince ourselves that such a thing can exist?


Will it be the axe, the firing squad, or the notice of termination?

Or will it be cakes and punch and love and happiness and forgiveness everlasting?

Choose and take action to speak plainly about it to children. Speak the truth about the way adults live. If we cannot be honest and decisive in how we share our society with our younger generations, then we too shall face the music when they come of age.

fodschwazzle: (Sandy hole)
"Monster in Love"

She could never love him, he decided.

Even as he continued to demand things from her, scaly feet impatiently tapping on the bridge over his house, powerful arms crossed to affect a temperamental authority, Yora was staring at the wrinkles around her eyes and marveling at the kindness those eyes carried. The old woman had smooth hands too, as knotted as the knuckles on those hands seemed to be. When those hands cupped together to present Yora with a gift for safe passage across the bridge, Yora took time to notice how those hands felt in his. The palm, though, was something he had never touched.  How does that feel? He wondered.


He could not know. He could only know the things she had touched, stacked in piles around his bed of moist grass: combs, scraps of silk, lockets of hair, bags of rice, coins from different regions, pearl jewelry, ornate boxes with unfamiliar words painted onto them, tea cups, pictures of her lost or far away family members. Initially, he had required certain things from her, forcing her to return home. One day, she had said, "I am but a woman, dear troll, and an old woman at that. My legs and back find it difficult to return home. And how do you know that you can trust me to return?"


From then on, she brought whatever she chose to bring. If Yora did not find her gifts acceptable, he threw them into the river. Little did she know the hours he spent fishing for those items when the sunset's shimmering river glow had at last fled behind the tall mountains. Yora relished these things, the silks in particular, smoother to the touch then he had ever thought an object could be, idly pondering if the taut, unwrinkled skin on her palms was the same.

Yora scooped algae blooms out of the river and picked out single strands with his coarse, pincher-shaped fingers. "She loves me?" he asked himself, setting aside one strand at a time across the top of one of those ornate chests with inlaid mother-of-pearl handles and panels. He only knew what these things were because she told him.


"She loves me not," he responded, before asking himself again as if the strands were wrapped around his heart.

*****


One night, his grass bed tangled around his ankles with his twisting attempts at sleep. Even though it was dark, and he couldn't see the things he had collected, he knew he needed something more from her. Something he could touch.


So he walked. Sleeplessly following the trail the old woman walked down as it twisted through tall oak trees. As the oak trees began to be lined with sunny-looking flowers of a variety of colors, he knew that he was close.


Her house was a small cottage with mossy stepping stones leading up to the door. Yora walked carefully on the stones, eager to leave no trace of his giant feet and long toenails. Once he reached the door, he slid around the perimeter, quiet for his weight and size, looking for windows.


When he found one, he stared through. Yora knew he would know what he needed to see when he saw it, which made no sense to him whatsoever. He was a troll--he should never have needed more than the cool shadow of his bridge and the occasional goat for dinner.


Yora's yellow eyes grew large when he looked through, shaking off layers of monstrousness as if they were sheets of ice on tree branches. Everything changed with that one glance.


*****


Accidentally, many months later when snows had silenced the town and its commerce, the old woman looked at Yora's home as well.  She had walked down to the river bank to try catching fish out of the partially frozen waters when she hazarded a glance at Yora's habitat. What she witnessed made her drop her late husband's ice fishing gear into the snow.


While half-heartedly scrambling to pick it up, she rubbed her wide eyes at Yora, who had not heard her approach with the heavy quietude of winter. His home, with the exception of lacking a roof, looked exactly like her own living room. The ornate chests that she had given him, which she was certain he had discarded into the river, were arranged to create the illusion of a wall, while the center of the space was adorned with a simple table that she had not given him. The boxes were topped with  items, like the thick handled comb that he had asked for the first time they had encountered each other.

The setup of his habitat was serene in a way she had not imagined he could conceive. The table, she guessed, he crafted himself from oak wood. Considering his lack of tools, it could not have been easy. It was imperfect in shape and contour but ideal for Yora's home. The space lacked walls but used the colors of grasses and shadows to create a comforting effect. It was the same as her home, but why?


Before she could begin considering what it all meant, he spotted her and howled a deep, resonant cry. She quickly grabbed her tools and climbed to the trail, returning home, moving as fast as her old legs could carry her.


*****


Yora lived in fear then. She knew. Yora knew that she was a sharp old woman, and everything would be different in their meetings now. Like his boxes or table, she was the imperfect thing that he needed where he had her.


Now it was obvious: she filled his life with her person. Yora shuddered against the possibility that the civility would be gone from her eyes, or the warmth of her hands would vanish. He needed her on that bridge in the early mornings on her way towards town, genially offering some new glimpse of her life.

Fears melted like the snowfall sloughing off rooftops in the morning sun. There she was, working her way towards town with her cart. Yora felt a sting of anxiety when he noticed that she was empty handed. It really is different, now, he thought.

She stopped, as always, at the end of the bridge where he waited. This time, his arms were not crossed, and he was not tapping his foot impatiently, but he was not aware of these things.


She extended both hands towards him and opened them, palms up. In her hands there was nothing.


"What do you need from me now?" she asked, hesitance creeping through her voice. In a way, she felt like a child again.


Slowly, gently, he touched the palms of her hands. The skin was different from his expectations. Not soft like silk. It was more like touching perfection. Different, he thought, but interesting.


And although they each went back to their routines as normal the next day, there was a trace more of geniality in her eyes and more tenderness in his touch. She also savored the regularity of his intrusions into her life. Being a widow, isolated from the rest of town as she was, she started to look at him as a crucial part of the harmony in her life.


Because they knew that they could always count on each other to be at the bridge, they found fulfillment in each other even though they would never be more than strangers mutually drawn to comfortable imperfection.





See the linked work from the marvelous [livejournal.com profile] sorchawench by clicking on the link in the title.

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