A Good Day

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It was a good day. I felt it as I walked out of the liquor store, brown paper bag under my arm; the first time I’d been near a bottle of booze in fifteen years. It felt good, in a sick sort of way. Like a kid stealing a double chocolate chip cookie from the jar. Only this was grown up stuff, Mr Daniels was my liquid sugar fix.

I slipped my shades down over my eyes as I walked across the parking lot to the drug store. It didn’t take more than five minutes to get my prescription filled. Once in the car I emptied the contents into the larger jar I’d dumped all the other pills in before I’d left the apartment. There was quite the selection. Acetaminophen, Ibuprofen, Temazepam, some other sleeping pills I couldn’t remember the name of, and for some added colour, Benadryl. It had taken me six months to get my collection to this stage. Over five hundred assorted, over the counter narcotics; a rainbow of afterlife delights.

I didn’t think I’d need them all, unless for some unfathomable reason I’d mysteriously developed the constitution of an elephant. I wanted enough though to ensure my exit, and for it to be as painless as possible. Pain isn’t my thing.

I turned the key of the old Mustang. It roared into life and had never sounded sweeter. It rumbled for a few seconds then settled down to a steady throbbing, the exhaust popping every few seconds. I loved that sound.

I fastened my seat belt, adjusted my glasses so they sat just right on the bridge of my nose, and slipped the car into gear. The sun flashed off the store windows in the plaza as I turned onto the main road. It was just visible over the treetops, and cast a bright orange glow through the windshield and lit up the car’s interior like an amusement arcade.

I had the driver’s window all the way down, the sound of Terry Jacks’ Seasons in the Sun echoing off the houses on main street as I drove by. It was a good day. One of those days you want to last forever but you know isn’t going to. The kind of day you want to squeeze every last drop of joy out of, in case it’s a long time until you see another.

The drive out to the cove was uneventful. The only sound was the birds singing in the trees, in accompaniment to my poor and loud taste in sixties music. The road was virtually empty of traffic, just as I’d planned. There wouldn’t be many people, if any, out at the cove.

As the car crested the last hill before the steep drop down to the parking lot, I got a familiar whiff of the sea air. I closed my eyes for no more than a second and breathed in deeply, relishing the aroma. It was good to live by the sea.

I pulled into the almost empty lot just as a car was leaving. I took the space they vacated. It was as though they were leaving just so I could park in their spot. I took it to be divine intervention; everything going my way. It was a good day. That is, until I saw the empty car parked at the other end of the lot. Okay, what was that doing there? I expected to be alone. I’d planned it that way. No one else should be here, only me. Well at least there was no one in it. Maybe they’d gone off on the trail for a walk. They probably wouldn’t even notice me when they came back.

I picked my stuff up off the seat and got out of the car, leaving the keys in the ignition, and set off down the rough path to the shoreline. The sea was breaking on the rocks, spray flying in the air. It was rough out there, just the way I liked it. As I climbed over the wooden guard rails, past the warning signs and onto the rocks, I thought I saw movement down at the water’s edge. No, I thought, I couldn’t have. Who’d be stupid enough to be that close to the water with the sea being as high as it was today? Then I saw it again. Yes, there was something moving.

I strained to see what was out there as I stumbled over the uneven black boulders that made up this stretch of coastline. It was a person. The recognition instantly made me angry. There shouldn’t be anyone out there. That was my spot, where I was meant to be. I began to move faster, trying to negotiate the wet, black rocks, while keeping my eye on whoever the idiot was who had spoiled my perfect day.

By the time I’d reached the point where the waves were breaking, as near to the water as I could safely get, I was just in time to see the person, a woman, climb up on a particularly large rock, the one I’d chosen weeks ago as mine, and without any warning jump into the raging sea. Shit!

I half ran, half crawled over the few remaining rocks and climbed onto the boulder where she’d been standing a moment earlier. I whipped off my jacket and the bottle of Jack Daniels fell out of my pocket and splashed into the water. Fuck!  I dropped my jacket on the rocks and scanned the surface of the sea, looking for the woman. A few seconds passed and then she popped up, spluttering and gasping for breath between two large waves.

I don’t know what I was thinking but I leapt off that same boulder, and as I hit the water I was instantly chilled to the bone. I managed to half swim, half float out to where she was thrashing about in distress. She was screaming but I couldn’t hear a thing over the crashing waves. I grabbed hold of her shoulder, twisted around a gave her a shove toward shore. She looked shocked and utterly surprised to see me. I can’t say I’d have been any different under the circumstances.

That was the last I saw of her. I remember being slammed under the water by a giant wave, and then I must have hit my head on a rock. Everything went black. I woke up here on the cliff top, wet as a dish rag but feeling as warm as toast. It was then that I saw it. I laughed my ass off. There it was, tumbling along just below the surface of the grey, green water like a rag doll, the body of yours truly, one Frank James, formerly of Kilbride, Newfoundland; the newest resident of Davy Jones’ Locker.

It was a shock, I can tell you. Me, a ghost. The funny thing is, that woman got out of there alive and she said a guy  had given his life to save her. They called me a hero. Said I must have been one hell of a man to do that. I guess they never found my jacket or the jar of pills. Life’s funny like that, isn’t it? Tell you what though, death can be a whole lot funnier, and damn ironic too.

Widows Wall

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Pete Johnson tipped back his head and strained to separate the top of the sheer rock face from the grey skies high above him. His eyes watered as he stared at the distant point he knew he would be standing on in a few hours time. From his position at the foot of the thousand foot granite slab known as ‘Widow’s Wall’ he could see the many potential hand and foot holds he would need on his climb.

Hey Pete,” said his climbing partner Larry Haynes, as he joined him at the foot of the imposing slab of rock. “Today’s a good day to die, no?” Pete laughed.

Today’s a good day, yes.”

It was a superstitious ritual they went through before each climb. Neither of them could remember what first precipitated their funereal repartee but it was one of those things that stuck with them as they’d climbed some of the most treacherous rock faces on the planet. Call it superstition. Call it calming the nerves. Whatever it was, it worked. In ten years of climbing together they’d never come close to being in danger. Maybe their willingness to acknowledge the possible made it less probable.

You want to lead the first pitch or shall I?” Larry asked as he clipped a bunch of nuts, hexes and other equipment onto his climbing harness. Pete didn’t appear to hear him, so Larry tapped him on the shoulder.

You okay bud?” Pete turned away from the rock face and looked into Larry’s questioning eyes, holding his gaze.

Yeah, I’m okay. You lead. I’ll take the second and then we can keep that rhythm to the top. That means I’ll lead to the peak, if that’s okay with you.”

Sure. That’s okay with me bud.”

Okay, let’s rock and roll.”

Pete busied himself with the bundle of rope on the ground while Larry clipped himself onto the rope he had in his hand, which he then clipped into a nut he’d jammed into a crack in the rock face. All climbers have their weird superstitions or obsessions, and Larry’s was always to clip into the rock face while he was still standing on the ground. It made no sense, but then again most superstitions or good luck rituals rarely do. Larry’s little ritual literally and metaphorically tied him to the rock. He felt he could climb once he was connected to it.

It was a beautiful day. The sky was cloudy above the mountain but a deep blue a couple of miles away, down in the valley. By the time they finished their climb it would probably be clear skies and sunshine waiting for them at the top of the wall.

They finished the first three pitches in a little over two hours. Before Pete took over for the final part of the ascent, they stopped on a small ledge to eat. Larry took out some dried fruit bars and handed one to Pete, who gave him a small metal flask in return.

Enjoy this, Larry,” Pete said as he unscrewed the stopper of his own flask. “It’s a special drink for a special day.”

Larry took a sip of the clear, bubbly liquid. It was champagne or rather it tasted like champagne.

Jeez Pete, what are you trying to do, get us killed?” Pete laughed.

Don’t worry, it’s non-alcoholic. You don’t think I’d bring booze up here do you? I just wanted to celebrate this special day.”

What’s special about it?”

It’s a good day to die. Look at that view. Perfect, just perfect.”

Yes, it is a good day to die,” Larry echoed. They both laughed.

Pete took the lead for the last pitch of the climb. Carefully picking his way across the sheer rock face, searching for the best route and best holds. Every now and then he’d stop to clip the rope onto a nut he jammed into a crack in the rock. Then as Larry passed them he’d pull them out of the rock and clip them back onto the loop of his harness. The lead climber securing them to the face, the climber following removing them.

As Larry was busy trying to remove a stubborn hex nut from a particularly awkward crack, Pete shouted down to him.

So when were you going to tell me Larry? Or weren’t you ever going to?”

Larry looked up at his climbing partner, the man he’d known since they were school-kids.

What?”

When were you and Lynn going to tell me, Larry?” Larry felt his stomach sink. He hesitated before answering.

How’d you find out?” It was no good denying anything. Pete wasn’t stupid, and he was leading the climb, which meant he could pull the rope up any time he wanted and leave Larry stranded there on the rock face, without any way up or down, clipped to a nut in the rock with only his safety line to secure him. He could die there in a matter of hours if the weather changed.

You sent that last text to my phone by mistake, my friend. You remember the one, I’m sure. The one that said ‘Fancy coming over to fool around while Pete’s busy on that Wilson job’. Lynn never answered you because you sent it to me, you fucking idiot.”

Larry didn’t say anything. He just waited.

So, Larry. When were you going to tell me and how long has it been going on?”

We had no intention of telling you, and it’s been going on, as you call it, for two years. Sorry Pete.”

Sorry just doesn’t cut it, Larry.” Pete said as he began climbing again. Larry followed, half expecting at any moment to find himself falling out of control down the sheer granite face of the aptly named Widow’s Wall. He wasn’t married but that gave him little comfort.

After forty agonising minutes Larry saw Pete disappear over the top of the rock. He quickened his pace, hoping against hope the rope would stay there until he reached the top. As he half climbed half crawled over the last ledge and up the small grassy slope that signified the top of Widows Wall, he saw Pete walking toward him, a blank expression on his face.

Larry managed to unclip himself from the rope still dangling over the edge just as Pete reached him. He was all ready for running, when instead of stopping, Pete walked right by him.

Goodbye Larry,” was all he said as he stepped out into space.

The Volunteer

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I thought I was just going in for some tests. ‘Clinical Trials’ is what it said on the notices posted around campus. It sounded harmless enough in a medical sort of way. I would try out some new drugs and they would pay me; simple really. It wasn’t like my body was a temple to clean living. I’d been known to partake of the odd doobie at weekends, and at parties I could be persuaded to pop a pill or two. Not that any arm twisting was necessary.

I went down to the lab in the science building, and filled out page after page of questions. Luckily there was a section all about illicit drug use. I was to answer truthfully, even if I was a heavy user. I was honest. It didn’t seem to matter.  It was so easy. I wondered what they’d give me.

It didn’t take long to find out. No messing around here. Lab tech guy number one told me to sit in the chair. Lab tech number two told me to roll up my sleeve. “This won’t hurt.” Bam!

Fuck, man. You gave him the goddamn lot, you moron! We’ve gotta get out of here, now!”

What about him?”

Fuck him. He came for some drugs. He got them.”

Shit man. Can we do that?”

Damn right we can. I can. You know what my old man will say if I fuck up my degree…”

I woke up here. Where is here? I don’t know. I’m not sure. But they keep coming and looking at me through that slot in the door. They wear white coats. I must be sick. Maybe I did too many drugs. I remember something about needles, or was it degrees?

Sweet n Sour

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Hoffa’s Emporium – All Things Sweet’, declared the sign on the front of the store on Main Street, in the town of Candy Rock. Sandwiched between the Sheriff’s Office and the chambers of one Judge Roy Benn, it looked a little out of place but did a brisk trade in ‘all things sweet’. Every kind of candy you could imagine was stocked at Hoffa’s. And if they didn’t have it old Mr Stanton would tell the customer to call back in a couple of days, and sure enough their order would be there; no matter how obscure or old fashioned the confectionery.

The store space itself was pretty small. Row upon row of wooden shelves and wooden boxes filled it from end to end, right up to the ceiling. The two front windows were packed with glass jars, each containing a different type and flavour of boiled candy which cast shimmering, rainbow coloured shadows across the store’s floor. On bright sunny days it was as if a person had stepped inside a kaleidoscope when they entered Hoffa’s. The intermittent flashes of sunlight reflecting off passing cars gave the added impression of the giant kaleidoscope turning, the candy in the jars moving across the floor like the pieces of plastic in the lens of a giant’s toy.

Behind the small store, the building spread out on both sides, forming a large warehouse sized space that ran along the back of both the Sheriff’s and Judge Benn’s offices. One third of this space was for storage, the other two thirds contained the machinery where Mr. Stanton, the owner of Hoffa’s, made his ‘special’ candy.

Stanton’s special candy was only made four or five times a year. It was never formally announced a batch was being made but the town always knew it was going to be on the shelves when the sugary aroma crept out of the warehouse. It usually took old Stanton a couple of days to prepare a new batch, and for two whole days the town smelled wonderful. The sweet scent of boiling sugar permeated everything. No one complained though, who would?

People could remember the day when a young Mr Stanton set up shop in town at the end of July 1975. Everyone thought he was crazy, starting a candy business in a small town but he had proven them wrong; he was still there over thirty years later. No one knew how he’d survived for so long. No one ever asked. They just assumed he did a lot of trade by mail or on the internet.

What people did know was that every couple of months a truck would pull up behind the store and unload several barrels of something mysterious. The next day the boilers would roar into sweet smelling life and a couple of days later there would be ‘special’ hard candy on sale.

The very first of the specials was way back in 1975, a few days after Mr Stanton opened for business. ‘Hoffa’s Special Blood Red Candy Twists’ were an instant hit. They were only ever made the one time. All the specials were only ever made once, and they all had strange names. Only Mr Stanton knew the secret recipes of the ‘specials’ and the origins behind the weird names; and he wasn’t about to tell anyone.

Rules

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Jimmy Swinson never did as he was told. As a child, if his parents told him not to touch something he would go ahead and touch it. At first, Jimmy’s flagrant disregard of the rules, any rules, was a source of amusement. His parents found it funny. Their friends found it funny. However, as Jimmy got older it became less so.

Jimmy was told not to leave the door open when he came in from playing outside. He left it open all the time. He thought it was funny. That is, until the day the dog ran out through the open door and was run over by a truck. Or the day Jimmy was twelve years old and helping his father fix the car. His father told him not to touch anything, especially the hydraulic jack. Jimmy touched the jack, dropping the car down on top of him. Rodney Swinson died that day. No one thought Jimmy was funny.

Jimmy flouted every rule and every regulation he ever came across. He never paid his taxes on time, never went to work on time. He lost every job he ever had. He drove without a licence, drove when he was drunk.

One day, Jimmy drove to the store but couldn’t be bothered looking for a parking space, so he parked in a disabled bay. The parking attendant came out to ask Jimmy to move.

Fuck you!” Jimmy shouted, and went into the store.

When Jimmy left the store he didn’t bother looking as he crossed the parking lot. It was just another rule that didn’t apply to him.

He never saw the car until it hit him, and he was flung up into he air and over the top of the black Buick. He felt his back snap as he hit the ground. He heard someone get out of the car and walk over to where he was lying. The face of the parking attendant loomed over him.

You can park there all you want now,” the attendant said.

Rotary Club

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Bob Pruitt had been on my back all week. We were short a couple of guys on the crew, as Jimmy Jones and Jeff Collins had gone off on one of their fishing trips down the Colorado. Of course Bob hadn’t arranged any cover for their absence, so it fell to me and the other guys to do all the work, as usual.

We couldn’t, of course, do all the work, so Bob was getting shit from higher management. He couldn’t organise anything, but his skills in being a dick head were without equal. Jimmy and Jeff were off for two whole weeks, which meant we had Bob working alongside us for, yes, two whole weeks. He actually had to get his hands dirty which made him madder than ever. It also meant we never got a break from him, which wasn’t good for us and certainly didn’t end up being good for him; hence the reason I’m sitting here in this cell waiting for the psychiatrist’s report to come through. They want to see if I’m insane before they send me to trial. I’m mad yes, still mad as hell, but insane? What do you think?

That Friday afternoon was hot and humid, not my favourite kind of weather. It was bad enough sweating on the job, never mind sweating before you actually even started work. And of course there he was, ‘Big Bob’ the ringmaster, cracking the whip and barking orders. We never listened to him of course, just pretended to. We couldn’t work any faster than the manual allowed. Doing mechanical maintenance on airliners had to be by the book, lives were at risk. Bob however, thought if he screamed at us we’d get the job done faster.

You get more flies with honey than vinegar,” my old Ma used to say. I guess Bob didn’t have a Ma like mine or he would have known that. Every time he screamed we’d drop a nut or bolt, usually inside the engine cowling, and have to strip the god-damn panels off again to retrieve them. This made Bob really mad but he never clued in to what he was doing. Like I said, a dick head.

The last job that day was a routine check of the fan blades on a 747 that had recently had a bird go through the engine. After all the visual checks were completed Bob insisted on doing a start up test. He knew it was my darts night and I wanted to get away early but he said it had to be done.

Frank said he had to leave. His wife was in the hospital, having their first child. Bob had no choice but to let him go; company policy. So I had him all to myself, what joy.

We ran the engine slowly at first, then got it up to a percentage of thrust where it wouldn’t be in any danger of moving the plane but would spin fast enough to create a jet wash out the back and suck air in from the front, and anything else that wasn’t fastened down. Bob liked to listen to the engines. He said he could tell if something was wrong, no matter how small, just by the sound of the blades turning. I have to say, he was damn good at diagnosing problems that way.

Anyway, as he was listening, I tripped on the boarding steps we’d set up in front of the engine, making one hell of a noise as I dropped my tool bag. I immediately rolled onto the bag to stop anything that fell out from rolling into the engine, the platform being level with the bottom of the engine cowling.

You god-damn fucking idiot!” Bob screamed like a madman. “Now we’re going to have to start again!” The swearing I didn’t mind. It was what he did next that really pissed me off. He threw a god-damn fucking screwdriver at me. Not only did it hit me, it stuck in my fucking leg. Shit, did that fucker hurt.

I saw red. Then I saw the blades spinning behind him. Yep, I know what you’re thinking; and I did it. I grabbed his legs, wrapped my arms around them just below the knees and yanked them forwards. He tipped backwards, and hell, it was a real mess. He went in a whole ‘Big Bob’, and flew out the back, tiny little pieces of Bob. I didn’t feel a thing.

So yes, you can say I did it. And no, I’m not sorry. Will I tell them that in court? Hell no! He tripped and fell.

Rock On

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Roger Ellison had climbed with his partner, Jeffrey Bell, for many years. They’d  met at university and remained close friends ever since. Today’s climb was supposed to be a simple two hour ascent of the Devil’s Back, a sheer face of granite with the added bonus of a waterfall tumbling down the rock as they climbed. Luckily, at this time of year, the water was more of a mist than a torrent.

All started well, with Jeffrey leading for the first hour; then Roger took over. Half an hour into his pitch Roger heard Jeffrey scream below him. He looked down to see Jeffrey’s rope snaking  away down the cliff face, with a helpless Jeffrey flailing around, trying to grab  hold of something solid.

Somehow the rope had come out of one of the metal hoops secured into the rock with a wedge. So had his lifeline. It was zipping past. Roger made a split second decision, letting go of his climbing rope and free falling down the rock face, hoping his life line would stop his fall as he tried to grab the quickly disappearing rope of his friend.

As they fell, Jeffrey’s rope snagged in a crevice in the rock, just long enough for Roger to grab it. He quickly wrapped it around his arm. Then it slithered out of the crack in the rock. Roger screamed as his lifeline stopped his fall at the precise moment Jeffrey’s rope went taut, almost yanking his arm out of its socket. He  hit his face hard against the granite wall.

The rope around Roger’s arm cut into his flesh, tearing it open. Blood began running down his hand and onto the rope. He called to Jeffrey but got no reply. He looked down but couldn’t see his friend. He was below an overhang they’d struggled to get past on their way up the face. Roger lost consciousness.

When he awoke it was almost dark. Both his arms were numb and he felt as if he was being torn apart at the shoulders. He called out in the dark but Jeffrey didn’t answer. For the first time in his life he was afraid, terribly afraid. As he hung there  he felt the rope below him begin to pull even more  on his arm and shoulder. Every now and then it would jerk, then jump a little, as if someone was climbing up it.

My God, he thought, maybe Jeffrey’s okay. The he heard the most blood curdling scream he’d ever heard in his life. The rope jerked this way and that, then bounced upward, relieving the pressure on Roger’s arm. Almost at once it yanked down on his injured arm again. Roger strained to see in the darkness.

He saw something move below him. A flash of white. Was that Jeffrey’s hair? Yes it was. He must have lost his helmet when he fell. He never fastened it.

Oh my God, Jeffrey. You’re okay!” Roger shouted as he listened to the sound of his friend climbing ever nearer. A few more feet and they would be able to help each other out of this awful mess they were in.

Jeffrey?” Roger said as he saw the mop of white hair less than six feet away, shimmering in the light of the rising full moon. His friend didn’t answer as he climbed the last few feet but Roger could hear his heavy breathing. When he reached  Roger he looked up.

Roger screamed. It was the last sound he made as the terrible, white haired creature that wasn’t Jeffrey pounced on him, tearing out his throat.

Mirror Mirror

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James Robertson woke up, stretched and climbed out of bed just as the alarm started beeping. He slammed his hand down on the clock and the irritating beeps stopped. Rubbing his eyes and yawning, he shuffled over to the window and opened the curtains. The light momentarily hurt his eyes and he blinked, the outside world slowly coming into focus.

He hated Monday mornings. He hated all mornings, especially that period between waking and stepping out of the shower refreshed and invigorated. He called it the ‘morning zombies’, when everything was out of sync and he felt like shit. He wasn’t a morning person. He hated morning people; those irritating bastards who were as chirpy as the birds as soon as they opened their eyes.

Grabbing his towel from the hook on the back of the bedroom door, James shuffled into the bathroom and turned on the shower. As soon as it was warm he stepped in and let the hot jets massage his tired muscles. He always felt tired lately; one of the many negative aspects of being fifty years old. He could vaguely remember a time when he was full of energy and never tired but those days were far behind him.

When he’d finished showering he grabbed his towel and began drying his hair, absent-mindedly stepping out of the tub while simultaneously rubbing at his head with the towel. In an instant he knew he should have been more careful as his foot slid from underneath him on the wet tiles.

Shiiiiit!” He yelled, as he went tumbling into the bathroom closet. Only he didn’t actually hit the bathroom closet. He went sailing through it, literally, landing on his backside on what appeared to be his instantly extended bathroom floor.

James pulled the towel from his head, breathing heavily, wondering what the hell had just happened. Maybe I got disoriented when I slipped, he thought. Maybe I’m just facing the wrong way and the closet is behind me.

But when he looked around, James saw that in fact he wasn’t in his bathroom or rather he was in his bathroom but everything was the wrong way around. He looked to where the closet should be and he saw a shimmering, mirror like opening. It was exactly the size of his closet, and in the exact place his closet was supposed to be, but it wasn’t his closet. It was a weirdly undulating window back into his real bathroom. He knew this because he could see his bathroom, a mirror image of the one he was now in.

He got up off the floor and stepped gingerly toward the mirrored window object. He reached out to touch it and his hand disappeared in a rippling mercury haze. He pulled it back. Everything looked normal. Oh well, here goes, he thought as he sucked in his breath and stepped into and through the ‘portal’.

He found himself back in his own bathroom. He looked in the mirror over the sink. His reflection looked good. In fact he had never looked better, never looked healthier. Then he saw it. He looked younger, a good few years younger. Is it possible, he thought, that I got younger by going through that thing?

He turned around and walked back to the closet. It looked just like it always did, a green bathroom closet. He reached out to touch the door and his hand disappeared again, this time in a shimmering green haze. He stepped through, waited a few minutes and then stepped back into his own bathroom. Trembling with excitement, he looked in the mirror again.

My God,” he said out loud. “I can’t be more than twenty years old.” He started laughing, stepped back and slapped his bare thigh in excitement. He didn’t even see the bar of soap he’d knocked onto the floor when he had fallen the first time. He slipped backwards and before he knew it had once again fallen through the shimmering doorway and on to the hard tiled floor. This time though, without the towel to protect his head, he fell unconscious on the cold tiles.

Half an hour later James’s friend, Rob, called by to give him a ride to work. He got no answer so let himself in with the key James had given him. Rob knew his friend had a problem with mornings so he agreed to wake him if he overslept.

James!’ Rob shouted as he opened the door. “You’re gonna’ be real late if you don’t get a move on!” There was no answer so he went to the bedroom, expecting to see his friend asleep in bed. He wasn’t there. Next he tried the bathroom, where the bath was wet and the mirror partly streamed. There was no sign of James. “C’mon James, where the hell are you?” Still no reply.

If Rob had been able to see through the closet and into the ‘other’ bathroom where James had fallen, he would have seen a small baby lying on the tiles. If he had been able to see through the closet and see the baby, he’d have noticed it was a boy. The baby boy could see Rob. He tried to call out to Rob, but he was just a baby; he couldn’t speak. A few more minutes in the bathroom and he wouldn’t exist at all, wouldn’t be coming out of the closet.

Hot Dog

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I was sweating like a pig when I walked in through the First Savings Bank’s doors. It was from that moment everything began to go wrong. I should have turned back. He came out of nowhere and we ran right into each other. He was eating a hot dog, in the bank of all places! Anyway, we collided, he dropped his hot dog, started crying and all hell broke loose. Of course, I couldn’t keep my big mouth shut. “Get outta my way kid!” I snarled at him.

I hadn’t realised my jacket had come unbuttoned at that point but as soon as the commotion was over and that damn kid and his mother left the bank I knew I was in trouble. The other customers were all staring, shooting their ‘blame dagger’ looks at me. No bank robber wants to be noticed.

Then one of them shouted, “Look out, he’s got a gun!”

Damn kid,” I said to myself as I looked down at my open jacket, the gun sticking out of the waistband of my jeans. I had to make a decision, quickly.

I chose to get the hell out of there, and started running back toward the doors. I reached them before the guard reacted to the shouts. Then I stepped on that damn kid’s hot dog and slipped. I went head over heals and into the doors, just as another customer was entering the bank.

I hit them head first. I heard my neck snap. Now I can’t move. I can hear people around me. Someone called an ambulance. The only thing I can see down here is that damn kid’s hot dog.

I can see the headlines now. “No Bread For Hot Dog Robber.”

Unity

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Joe was seven when his sister was taken. He remembered them coming. It was late at night. The family were watching a vintage movie, 2001 A Space Odyssey, from the ‘thousand years or older’ category, on the view-screen. There was a bang on the door, followed a few seconds later by the sound of the ‘lectro-switch’ opening. The Unity Government could unlock any door anywhere in the world with the ‘lectro-switch’ but this was the first time Joe had seen it done, although he and his friends had heard about it many times from older kids.

A Unity officer walked into the room and straight over to where Emily was sitting. Joe’s mother began crying and his father put his arms around her shoulders. Joe began to cry but didn’t know why. The officer pulled up the sleeve of Emily’s nightdress, to just above the elbow, then he straightened out her arm until the row of black numbers tattooed there stretched evenly across her skin. Then he ran a scanner over them and waited until the unit beeped, confirming the result.

Your number’s up, my dear,” was all he said. He gestured to one of the other men who had followed him into the room. The man walked forward and scooped Emily up off the couch and quickly walked out of the door with her in his arms. Joe’s mum screamed and fell onto the floor. His dad had tears running down his cheeks. Joe cried uncontrollably. That was fourteen years ago. The night Joe’s world changed forever.

The Unity Government had emerged from out of the ashes of the third world war. The ‘nuclear’ war. The one war everyone had said would never happen because ‘people aren’t that stupid’. Well, they were that stupid. They’d very nearly wiped out the human race with their stupidity. It had taken fifteen hundred years since the war for the world to recover to the point where it had been before the first bomb was dropped. Then another thousand years for all the countries that were left to agree on a united government to rule over the planet, to avoid another conflict. Thus, the Unity Government was formed.

Joe knew it wasn’t as simple as just bringing the people of the world together to avoid conflict. It was about business. It was about the business of the ‘Barrier’. The barrier had been developed by scientists, after the war, to minimise the effects of the radiation that had been released in the conflict. Some parts of the earth were uninhabitable, would be for thousands of years. The cleanest parts had been marked out for inclusion in the ‘Barrier’ project. The Barrier project consisted of millions of ‘station points’ all linked together in a giant, web like structure. When activated, the Barrier formed a protective shield over all lands and seas within its perimeter. The scientists had discovered how to clean the air inside the Barrier of all radiation, and as a result all radiation induced genetic abnormalities had slowly disappeared from the human race.

Of course, not all people wanted to live under the Unity Government. Those people were free to do as they wished, but when the Barrier was finally activated they were left outside. Eventually the effects of radiation had either killed everyone or so adversely affected the fertility of those left that there was no life outside the Barrier after a period of four or five hundred years.

For those inside the Barrier though, there was one inescapable fact of life the proponents of the ‘Utopian’ future that awaited them when the Barrier was activated had failed to mention. If they had, then maybe, just maybe, the Barrier would not have been built. Who knows?

As it stood, Utopia came with a price, and the numbers weren’t small. You could say the cost of life was life itself. On that fateful night Emily was taken, Joe made it his mission to find out all he could about the Unity Government, the Barrier and the numbers game.

The rumours began soon after the Barrier was activated. At first they were ignored, as people were just happy knowing they were breathing clean air and there was no longer the threat from radiation. Soon the stories began to be taken more seriously though, as people started disappearing. At first there were suggestions that only old people were being taken. The Unity Government did nothing to quash the rumours, as the reality of what was actually happening was far worse than a few old people going missing. However, the ‘Insiders’, a group of people, Joe among them, who liked to ask questions of the government, had pressed for the truth until Unity had no choice but to respond.

On a pre-arranged night, the entire population of the world sat down to watch the Unity announcement on the view-screen. The Overlord himself, Joshua T Williams appeared, sitting behind his impressive desk, the Unity logo behind his shoulders looking like the halo of an imaginary angel, framing his head in a white glow. He began talking.

Citizens of earth, members of the Singledom of Unity, I appear before you to address concerns raised by many groups regarding the alleged disappearance of members of our Unity family. The ‘Insiders’ group have impressed upon me and the Unity government the need to be completely open and forthcoming with the facts. Lessons learned after the Great Third War must not be forgotten. I will now give you those facts, and every citizen will receive a written log of my statement with all the relevant information in a special factfax immediately after this broadcast. Please be warned, the truth is sometimes a hard thing to accept. However, I have confidence in you, dear citizens. Confidence in your desire to maintain the lives we have built for each other since the Great Third War. I know you will do nothing to jeopardise what we have achieved in the years since those terrible times.”

Joe knew what was coming but most people had only heard rumours, nothing had been made concrete for them, so they could bury their heads in the sand up until this point. After the broadcast, the whole world, the entire population within the barrier, would know the truth. What would they do? Nothing, that’s what. People were completely dependent on Unity. They were dependent for food, housing, clothing, even work, such as it was in their robotic technological utopia. Unity were going to tell the truth only because they were being forced to. The alternative would probably be dissent. Dissent that would lead to anger. Anger to conflict. Conflict to war. They couldn’t afford another war. No one wanted another war. That much was clear. The Overlord began speaking again.

Dear citizens, what you have heard is true. The Unity government is indeed responsible for the disappearance of members of your communities, our world community. However, it is not as insidious as it first appears. Once you know the facts you will have to decide what you want to happen. We have done our best under trying circumstances, and what we have achieved is frankly quite remarkable, considering the legacy our forebears left us.” Beads of sweat began to form on the Overlord’s forehead as he continued.

As you know, the Barrier was our best, last defence against the continuing problems with radiation from the wastelands. The best minds in the world came up with the idea. However, they forgot to factor in one crucial statistic. They were working on the mistaken assumption that fertility rates would never recover to pre-war levels; an assumption we now know was incorrect. As a direct result of that mis-calculation, Unity never put in place a system to monitor the birth, death ratio of our population. The only record we kept were the numbers you received at birth as an identifier.” He rolled up his sleeve to show the number tattooed on his arm, then quickly covered it again.

Then, some years ago, the scientists came to me and notified me of a problem. A problem no one had the foresight to think of until it became apparent and irreversible.” He shook his head as he went on. “Apparently, our most brilliant of minds had forgotten to think about what would happen when they permanently sealed the Barrier, with us inside, specifically the need for procreation to ensure the survival of the human race.” For a moment the Overlord looked angry, then dejected but regained his composure and went on.

What I am trying to tell you, dear citizens, friends, is that we messed up and allowed, encouraged, the growth of our population until it became apparent there was a problem. The air was beginning to run out. This is where it gets messy.” He lowered his head and paused for a moment before looking directly into the camera with tears in his eyes.

So we came up with a system to ensure our survival. We called it the numbers game. I know it’s sounds cold and crass but it was the only way to avoid our extinction as a race. We took the numbers of every person born and put them in to the government computers. Then when a new baby is born, and a new number issued, the computer selects a random number from all those stored in the system. That person is then marked for termination and  taken to a holding compound where they are painlessly euthanized.” The Overlord began to cry. “I’m so sorry.”

At that moment, the doors behind Joshua T Williams, Overlord of the Unity Government, opened and two Unity officers, dressed in their black uniforms and ignoring the cameras, stepped up to the leader’s desk, one of them addressing him directly. “Please roll up your sleeve.” He then grabbed his bare arm, straightened it out and scanned the number. The unit beeped.

Your number’s up, Joshua T Williams.”