Friday, March 28, 2014

#FridayFlash - The Meaning of Tears

"What if there's no tomorrow?"

I reached down and raked my fingers through Randy's hair. Sweat greased my fingers and palm, and the energy from his fevered head seeped through my jeans.

"Shhh," I said.

Smoke hung heavy in the air around us. Most of the houses now were nothing more than crumbled stones and charred remains of black sticks rising defiantly to sky. We hated to set the town on fire, but it was the only way to keep the enemy from hiding in the shadows, from picking us off one by one. Randy had actually grown up a few kilometers from here, down in the small village of Felton. He even showed me the house on Frog Lane where he and his parents once lived—before the war, that is. We hated to burn that place to the ground, too, but we did. In fact, across the countryside, the landscaped looked like leopard spots where villages were burned as part of our scorched earth. Even cities like London, I've been told, paint the night sky red.

"I mean... I know there's no tomorrow," Randy said. "Not for me, anyway." He gulped at the air. "But what I'm trying to ask is what happens afterward."

I continued to stroke his brow. His head and body matched the heat that radiated around us.

"Really, Steve," he said. "Do you think there's a heaven or hell?"

"I don't know."

"But what if there is? What happens to buggers like me? Do we go to heaven or... or..."

I shushed him again, and then said, "Don't talk."

His wild eyes rolled back and forth, as if searching the hazy sky for an answer. Maybe if he waited long enough, the sun would give him one. His breathing turned ragged. His chest started to spasm as he fought for each breath, and I knew he wouldn't long.

So much death, I thought. So much pain and misery. The war had waged for going on two years now. So many lives had been lost, and now so many homes burned, that both Randy and I wondered if humanity had finally surrendered and given up its own last gasp. Were we even human anymore?



"Will you..." He squeezed his eyes tight and swallowed hard against the fire that burned in his throat. "I mean, will you..."

"Quiet now," I said. "I promised your mum and dad that I would. And I will."

A smiled pulled at the side of Randy's mouth. At least he had some comfort in that thought.

"You know," he said, "I think there is a heaven." He reached his hand to the sky. Three of the fingers had been reduced to bloody stumps, each of them a reminder that death played no favorites and can touch all of us, especially the careless. "And I...and..."

His chest hitched twice more as Randy struggled for one last breath. Then his arm fell. His head lolled to the side.

I sat there and looked to the sky, searching for my own answer. I don't know why I did. It wouldn't be there. No, the reality of our new existence now lay beside me. There was no way to avoid what had to happen next.

Randy's body started to shudder. His lifeless face, covered now in yellow and gray oxygen-deprived flesh, twitched from side to side. I rolled his head off my lap. I reach down, picked up the pistol, and then stood above him, watching as the disease that had started with the chewed-off fingers now claimed the rest of him. A guttural sound, feral and hungry, came somewhere deep within the body. Randy was gone, I knew, now replaced by something... un-human. That thought didn't make the task any easier.

"Goodbye, my friend," I said. "You were the best mate anyone could've ever had."

I raised the pistol and aimed it at his head. I squeezed the trigger. I squeezed it again and again.

The tears finally came then, tears I had thought no longer existed. Still, they were there, and a part of me rejoiced for what they said about me. Over the next day or two, I would make my journey back to Felton and lay Randy's body in the ground. He would rest along side his parents, just as I had promised. For the moment, though, I wanted to cry as long as I still could.

Friday, March 21, 2014

#FridayFlash - Don't Open Until Christmas

Tears filled his eyes as Mark looked at the last of his mother's things. He still didn't understand it, what she actually did. How could he? Growing up, living under her roof, he suffered through more than one conversation—more like sermons, really—about the Bible and all of its lessons, about how he should live, and about what were sins and what were not. And wasn't one of those so-called sins the taking of your own life? A one-way ticket to hell, she had told him. Do not pass Go. Do not collect a hundred dollars. But she had apparently done just that, hadn't she? It was in the police report. There may not have been an suicide letter, but all the evidence pointed to it.

She had taken out Mr. Tibbs first, the report noted. Whether or not the cat suffered, the detectives could not say, but it was a foregone conclusion the animal was dead because of Mark's mother. After all, how does a cat turn on the oven and then jump into it, closing the door behind itself? He'd asked if it was possible that she had killed the cat before throwing it in the oven. The two detectives simply stared at him for a moment. They looked like they were fresh out of the military, their hair cut so short, their all-business expressions. Then one of them shrugged his big shoulder.

"Mr. Patterson," he had said, "I really can't say one way or the other." He patted Mark on the shoulder, a strange and gentle jester. "I'm sorry for your loss."

That his mother did everything had been clear in their minds, though. That much they could say. According to the report, after she placed the cat in the oven (dead or alive), she then tied a rope to one of the garage rafters and, using a white plastic step ladder, hung herself.

Mark stared at the last of her things now littering the living room floor of his own house. He shook his head and closed his eyes, once again asking how she could have done it. And so close to the holidays, too.

He took a deep breath and pressed on. This stuff wouldn't take care of itself. It had taken him a couple of months just to reach this point. Most of the items would end up like the rest, donations to United Way or some such organization, though some things he might keep for himself, memories of much better times. Sorting through her things, his eyes spotted one box that looked out of the ordinary. In fact, it didn't look like it belonged to his mother at all. It was something that had apparently been delivered to her in the mail. On the outside, images of alien spacecrafts flittered around cratered moons. Little green triangular heads, with black orbs for eyes, filled the glass canopies of each craft. On the lid, he saw a message: Don't Open Until Christmas.

Mark frowned. A Christmas gift? In the mail?

He pulled the lid off the box. Green vapors slithered out and wrapped around his fingers, his wrists, his arms. Inside a wrinkled face stared back at him. It looked sort of like... an alien? It was hard to say, but it certainly had the same triangular shape as the faces on the outside of the box. And those eyes...

A high-pitched ringing filled his head. A voice, buried deep within his brain, spoke to him.

Kill them all.

He looked from the face in the box to the faces in the photos above the fireplace mantel. A woman and three children. His family.

Mark's face went slack as he stared back into the box.

"All of them?" he asked.

It repeated its order.

Kill them all.

Slowly, Mark nodded his assent. He placed the open box on the floor and walked down the hallway. There was a gun in the back bedroom. Yes, that would do it.


Sergeant Joseph Buchler, "Joe" to all the men in the department, stared at the items placed on the counter. A pistol. A box of cartridges. A strange box with flying aliens printed on the side.

"What's this?"

The aging police officer on the other side of the counter gave him a dismissive look, as if to say, What's it look like?

"Evidence in the Patterson murders," the officer said, his tone sounding bored with life in general.

"The Patterson murders?"

"You know, the one who went nutso after his mother hung herself, and then he offs his whole family? Didn't do so good on himself, though. The doctors say he could make it, but the odds aren't that good, so the detectives asked me to bring this stuff here. 'Just in case the looney-bird pulls through,' they said."

Joe nodded. He'd heard the story. Then he shook his head.

"What's this world coming to?" Joe said.

"You ask me, it's going to all the nutters and crazies. Pretty soon, there'll be none of us left."

Joe looked down at the box. He read the label on the lid: Don't Open Until Christmas.

"What's inside?" he asked.

"Beats me." The old officer turned and walked away. "The suits tell me to bring it to evidence, I bring it. I don't ask questions, and I don't look inside boxes."

Joe continued to stare at the box. Don't open until Christmas? He looked left and then right, a silly thing to do since there was nobody else around. It was just him and all the knives and guns and ammo collected from various crime scenes. He looked at the box again, at the label. Finally, he gripped the sides of the lid.

Really, what could it hurt?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

#FridayFlash - The Strange and Curious History of Edward Brenham

By eight-fifteen on August 23rd, a bright morning without a cloud in the sky, Professor Edward Brenham had already eaten breakfast, read the Sunday edition of The Boston Globe, and then returned to the sanctuary of his campus office to drink one last cup of coffee. He gazed out through his window, a bar of sunlight warming the side of his grizzled face, and looked down on Vassar Street, wondering, as he often did, how it would look afterwards. There wasn't anything he could find to indicate one way or the other, no pictures or sketches, so its relative condition was unknown. There were many unknowns, but in a few hours the curtain would be pulled back, the mysteries revealed, and Edward would see them all for himself. It was too bad he wouldn't be able to share them with anyone else here.

He turned and looked over at his desk, a metal grey relic of academia, and then at the letter he had received from the Foundation. After two years of trial and errors and successes, they decided to "...more aggressively explore other visions as well as his own," a nice euphemism to say they were basically tightening down the financial spigot. Of course there would be some funding left for his vision, a trickle for papers and speaking opportunities, but that was more like life support in case the patient made a miraculous turn for the better. For all intents and purposes, his dream and vision were dead. Edward turned back to the window. What a lack of faith they showed.

To Edward, faith was more a metaphor than an actual spiritual confidence. He wasn't religious. Over the course of his life, being the professional skeptic that he was, Edward had made his own explorations into the various beliefs—from the pudgy Buddha to the centipede-like Shiva to the suffering Christ, and on and on—and found each one lacking. They were nothing like science, where theorems could be proved or disproved; all it took was some determination and testing. A lot of testing at times. But reincarnation or the existence of heaven and hell? Well, those things weren't quite as easy to scratch out as a formula on a chalkboard, now were they? No, religions didn't fit into the equations of the educated, rational man any more than truth fit into a politician's vernacular. About the only thing Edward did believe in was the reality of fate. The letter on his desk was a perfect example. Just as he had made a break-through, they had pulled the funding. If that wasn't proof of bad karma, then what was?

He tried to convince the Foundation about his successes, he even tried to show a few of them on one occasion with the disappearance of a coffee mug and then a whole tea set. They thought he was crazy. He saw it in their eyes. In their questions, too. Where did the items go? How could he be sure? Where was the evidence, the data? And that was the rub: once things left this realm, they never came back, so he couldn't prove it. As such, from the Foundation's perspective the disappearance of a couple of items was a neat trick. What would he do next, perhaps give the illusion of walking on water? Really, was this what the Foundation paid an MIT professor for?

Edward sighed and looked at his watch. Eight-twenty-five. A good enough time if any, he supposed. He placed the coffee mug on top of the Foundation's letter and left the office. Fifteen minutes later, he entered the lab on the other side of the building and locked the door. For this, his exit strategy, there would be no interruptions. In the next few minutes, he would walk through the portal, exchanging one realm, one time, for another. He would leave a world of ridicule and enter another as a god, with a capital G. Armed with his knowledge and wisdom, he would show them all. He would re-write history. He would be the one to offer the world relativity and the power of the atomic bomb. Einstein would be nothing but a piker.

The dials turned up, the capacitors at full charge—it was going to take everything to push a live human through—Edward set the timer for one minute. Once the portal opened, he would only have three seconds. After that, he doubted if anything here could ever be used again.

By nine-fifteen, almost thirty minutes after Edward left this time, first responders surrounded the facility, their emergency lights bathing nearby campus buildings in bursts of red and blue. An early morning jogger told detectives what he saw, strange as it was. A ball of blue light, humming and crackling with electricity, enveloped the building's corner. He heard a pop as the sphere imploded. Then what sounded like a blast of thunder shook the earth, as if God Almighty had slammed down His fist. Windows belched out glass, covering the lawn in a blanket of shards. Car alarms cried out like whimpering dogs. After that, the corner of the building was gone. Just gone. They all stared at the dangling wires, the perfectly-cut brick, like a wrecking ball had come out of nowhere and took out the bottom two floors, as quick and easy as a finger flick through soft butter. Some in the media were already calling it an act of terrorism.

Thirty miles away, in a small museum in the city of Salem, on a plaque listing the names of those either burned at the stake or hung from the gallows, Edward's own name mysteriously appeared. Of those who had testified against him, one claimed that he came out of nowhere, "...the blue flames of hell licking the ground beneath his feet."

No one in this time ever knew the difference.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

#FridayFlash - The Interview

To say I was surprised to see Diane at the interview table would be an understatement. I still couldn't get last night out of my mind. How do you forget a woman, a perfect stranger, who makes conversation at a bar, then makes love to you, and then, after learning about your "private security" interview in the morning, reaches into her purse to give you a .45 caliber round. "So you can study and be prepared," she said "Good luck."

But that was last night. Now she looked all business.

A heavy man with a crewcut sat next to her. His facial expression said he was either pissed off at being here or just pissed off in general. I couldn't tell which. As I sat, Diane picked up a pen and scratched a few lines on a notepad.


Last night, I told her my name was Richard. Today, the truth would be no less evasive.


Crewcut scoffed. "That's original."

"I'm an original kind of guy."

"Mm-mmm, ain't we all?"

Dianne shot Crewcut a look. "Why don't you tell us about yourself?"

I frowned. In this line of work, people usually handled things direct. They never turned to squishy, pseudo-intimate questions like "Why don't you tell us about yourself?" or "What's your five-year plan?" or the half-baked question that sometimes came up when an interviewer had no original thought of his own: "If you're reincarnated as an animal, what kind would it be?" Interviewers like that deserved to be shot, no questions asked.

"Like I told you," I said. "I'm an original—"

"Yeah, yeah, we got it." Crewcut rolled his eyes. "What the lady's asking, though, is tell us your story. What makes you think you're qualified?"

Diane touched Crewcut's arm to shut him down. He stiffened, and I knew then why he was angry: she was the boss. She looked at me, and my mind flashed to last night, her hair streaming down around my face, our eyes inches apart. I blinked away the thought.

"I have more than ten years' experience," I said.

"At what?" Crewcut asked. "Playing the piano?"

I gave him a quick glance and reminded myself that he was the one with a problem, not me.

"Two years in Afghanistan," I said. "The rest just outside of Fallujah."

"What were your duties in the Corps?" Diane asked.

So she knew I was a Marine. Did she also know about my dishonorable discharge? I figured she did.

"My primary function was to engage the enemy when and where I found them," I told her. "Before they found me."

Diane smiled. "That's one way to put it." She wrote more notes. "Any major accomplishments? Anything you're proud of?"

I nodded. "Sixty-four kills and countless lives saved."

Crewcut leaned forward. "Can anyone confirm that?"

"Yeah. I could give you sixty-four, but don't ask me to spell their names. And I don't think they'll tell you much."

Crewcut leaned back. He muttered something, but I didn't catch it.

"Let's put you in a situational," Diane said. "You're in a room with two men and a woman. One has a gun to the woman's head. The other has his pistol pointed at you. The first tells you to drop your weapon or the girl dies. What're you going to do?"

"I first take out the man with the gun to the woman's head. Then I take out the second one."

Crewcut leaned forward again. "And risk the girl? Why don't you just lay down the gun?"

"Because they're going to kill us anyway. They just want to make it easy on themselves. And because they're scared."

"What makes you so sure?"

"They wouldn't try to negotiate otherwise."

Diane wrote some more. "Okay," she said. "Let's deal with your competencies."

Finally, I thought.

She tilted her head toward Crewcut. "Mike here carries a Glock G30S. You familiar with it?"

I nodded.

"Then you'll also know how to disassemble and re-assemble it."

I nodded again.

She turned to Crewcut. "Mike? Your gun."

He looked at her for a moment, but then unholstered his weapon. He released the clip, thumbed out all of the rounds, and then ratcheted the gun to clear out the bullet already in the chamber. Finally, he placed the gun and clip on the table.

"Show us," Diane said.

I disassembled the gun, placing the various pieces on the table. Diane stopped me before I could re-assemble it.

"What's your best time?" she asked.

"Thirty-five seconds." A lie, but did she know that, too?

She nodded. "Mike? Use your watch." She looked at me. "Do it in less than thirty."

Mike raised his wrist. He clicked a few buttons, and then said, "Whenever you're ready, hoss."

My hands gripped the pieces, fitting each one together. Almost finished, I knocked the clip off the table and cursed. Mike smiled. I reached down, careful to slip the bullet from my coat pocket. It was the same bullet Diane had given me last night, her words now on my mind. I thumbed in the round and pushed the clip into the grip. I laid the gun down.

Mike pushed a button on his watch. "Twenty-nine."

Diane glanced at Mike, then at me. "But does it work?"

I picked it up, chambered the round, and pointed the gun. Mike's head snapped back as I squeezed the trigger. Blood splattered the wall behind him.

Diane looked at the dead man for a moment. Turning to me, she said, "So you are a quick study. That's good. The job's yours if you want it." She stood. "Oh yeah. Last night was fun, but it won't ever happen again. We clear?"

I nodded my understanding. Screw the boss once, you might be forgiven; do it again, you're dead. One thing bothered me, though.

"What if I hadn't been a quick study?"

Diane gave me a half-smile. "I guess we'll never know."