(Author's note: More Helium.com flash fiction, and you can read the four-hundred word version here.)
“Hey newbie, you're late,” Billy and Jack yelled almost in
unison from the old picnic table as I stepped out of the factory and
into the crisp night air. Except for my friends, the silent and calm nature of the empty
factory patio was a welcome relief to having
spent the last four and a half hours dealing with loud noises and
always demanding production quotas.
My two middle-aged friends have filled the rickety old table with
a literal late night feast of sugary soft drinks, overstuffed
sandwiches, potato chips that drip with fat, and high calorie snack
cakes. To them the overabundance of junk food is how they cope with
the circumstances of working nights for what must now close to twenty
years. Though both have paid a price with growing health problems
that range from simple obesity and high blood pressure to diabetes
“Yeah,” I said rushing over to join them for the all too short
period of time night shift was allowed for lunch.
“My new assistant
doesn't know his head from a hole in the ground. I had to recheck
most of my production run before Janice in Quality Control found the
defective items he let slip by.”
“Oh Christ,” Billy said while Jack shook his head in silence,
“you definitely don't want her running off to the new supervisor. I
saw those two try to sneak out of the supply room unnoticed last
“Doesn't this sound familiar?” Jack finally said after
swallowing a bite of his sandwich. “Seems like it was yesterday
that you and I were complaining about this new temp worker named
Chuck Barnes who messed up nearly every simple production run.”
I wanted to offer a retort, but I just bite into my own sandwich
because I was both hungry and wanted to ignore the truth in Jack's
statement. Because in fact it did seem such a short time ago that I
limped into the plant as a new hire still upset at the injury that
cost me my football scholarship. It all unraveled for me during last
game of the season when Clemson played the University pf South
Carolina. We were halfway through the fourth quarter playing offense
hoping to add to the small three point lead we struggled to hold. My teammates and could tell the Gamecocks were getting both pissy
and desperate with the clock edging ever closer to the end of the
game. I was one of the wide receivers and the play called for me to
run down field just enough for a first down since we wanted eat away
at the remaining time as much as possible. When the ball was snapped
everything went into super slow motion. I even remember how pretty
the football looked as it spiraled in my direction after the
quarterbacked released it. However that is the last thing I remember.
I still harbored a great deal of resentment against the hulking
linebacker that seemed to have a personal grudge against me. When he
and one of his buddies finally succeeded in ripping my knee apart all
they got was a fifteen yard penalty while I was carried out
unconscious on a stretcher. It only took three days after that for
the team doctors to decided I would never play again. At the same
time a university bureaucrat reduced my full ride scholarship to
half. They might as well have just pulled the entire thing since my
family couldn't afford that amount. I didn't go back to my hometown of Saluda, South Carolina
despondent though because I had a plan. It involved getting a job at
one of the nearby factories and working my ass off for two years
saving every cent. Instead I actually go and screw things up even
further. Not a month on the job my girlfriend comes to me in tears carrying
the pee stick from an in-home pregnancy test. With a baby on the way
and a new and disgruntled father-in-law looking over my shoulder a short time later I
found myself permanently exiled from the world of higher education
along with any chance of getting ahead in life. I had gone from a
life filed with possibilities to being condemned to living in what is
jokingly called a “right to work” state constantly under threat
of my job being outsourced overseas, benefits being reduced, to
smarmy management types looking score some points with the front
office by catching the workers doing something wrong.
It was Billy and Jack with all their years of experience that
showed me the ropes and forced me to learn enough to be useful to
management that was always circling the workers like vultures. I owe
those two wise old owls, forever condemned to night shift,
everything. Without them I wouldn't be able to feed my family or keep
a roof over their heads. At the same time, I passionately hate them
because they most certainly represent my future and I die a little
each night thinking I will live out the rest of my life eating lunch
under the stars while wondering how things could have been so
different for me.
Deep down I have an utterly ridiculous but nagging suspicion that the population of the United States is being subjected to what is either a diabolical social experiment or the most epic practical joke ever attempted. Now given the times we live in there are actually several possibilities to consider, a few being the unprecedented level of morons inhabiting the halls of Congress, the fact that the national infrastructure of roads and bridges are a joke, and that despite the best efforts of many dedicated teachers American education continues to decline. No, today I will concentrate my incredulous amazement on how the profession of American journalism seems to be failing as badly as any of the other problems this country faces. For a couple of years now I have strictly limited my viewing time of the 24/7 cable news channels. Each of the big three (CNN, MSNBC, and Fox) are in my opinion fatally flawed. Despite the fact CNN has the longest track record and is the least bias its coverage of the issues is often so superficial as to be worthless. Something Jon Stewart of Comedy Centrals “The Daily Show” has pointed out many times. As for MSNBC, yes it is the closest to my political leanings but in its own way it has become excessively personality driven along with devolving into a commentator channel instead of reporting the news. Plus, what little actual debate that occurs between the usual conservative/liberal viewpoints is often perfunctory with some minor Republican party minion offered up as a sacrificial lamb. This leaves Fox News, and all I can say is that I have no respect for any person who believes their slogan as to being “Fair and Balanced.” They have far more in common with the old Soviet Union's Pravda or Nazi Germany's propaganda than an actual news organization. In fact I firmly believe if there is cable access in hell Joesph Goebbels watches Hannity, or Bill O'Reilly with his toes curled in orgasmic glee. Wanting to stay informed my main television news outlet has been reduced to what is offered up on NBC or CBS but even they are sorely lacking. Over the last several weeks large segments of their broadcast have been devoted to what is at best fluff pieces but in my darker moods I believe to be mindless crap designed to distract and confuse an all too willing public. The first example was a segment about how a former sitcom actress was breaking away from the Church of Scientology. Needless to say it was messy but the kicker in all this was an almost blatant commercial endorsement of her upcoming tell-all book about how she realized the church was some big sham. The second was the outrage at how a former Disney teen star acted on the stage at some award show. Okay, I'll give and say both the former and the latter examples are in fact “news stories” but such frivolous fluff should be relegated to the likes of Entertainment Tonight or one of its lesser clones. The final example I will mention came last night on NBC Nightly News. Of all the stories they could have reported involving wars, political corruption, homelessness, environmental degradation, voter suppression, or the United States about to default on its debts due to the morons I mentioned above they spent several minutes on french fries. In glorious detail they explained how Burger King has over the course of several years finally perfected french fries that are just mildly bad to eat. Supposedly they contain slightly less fat-but still taste the same-extending the time to someone's first heart attack. Glory Be!!! All the prayers of obese Americans have been answered! Yes I admit, I am rather peculiar to make such an issue of this but I would much rather have had that time reporting on something like this.
(Author's note: Yes, if the song "Come Sail Away" starts playing in your head blame me for seeking inspiration from late 1970's pop music. Excuse the typos, its very late and I'll fix them later.)
It was morning on a dead world. Not long before the moon had set
leaving the stars alone on the dark, galactic stage. Had there been
anyone around to look up and noticed they would have most assuredly
seen an usually bright object supersede the younger celestial bodies
parading across the sky. The object defied many rules of the natural
universe for in actuality it was a ship that had not only sailed
between the galaxies for untold ages but had gone beyond to touch
other strange realms.
Inside that ship minds far more complex and wise than any human
could imagine reluctantly came to a decision. It was time for one of
their oldest members to fulfill its final duty. As with all previous
members of the group, when faced with the task there was much
preparation to be done. For these entities though, time in many
respects was meaningless but on these occasions the universe required
them to bow to its rules.
In a time span humans would have measured in hours since the ship entered orbit a loud crack sounded across the surface. Reality was ripped open and from that unnatural maw the
man finally returned home. He looked out across a desert that seemed
to stretch on forever only the dust-laden blue sky with a few thin
clouds gave any contrast to the environment.
It was the one avoidable constant that he and his fellow travelers
had to agree with before they were allowed to join the group. “All
journeys must end where they began,” he whispered to himself
slightly surprised at the sound of his voice. For uncountable years
the mantra had not really meant anything, a human failing he chided
himself, for the group did not make idle threats or promises. Many
times over the eons he had seen one of his compatriots returned to
their point of origin and now it was his turn to face the nature of
his restored human existence.
His mother had named him Thomas Kent, after his father although he
never knew the man. He had been killed in one of the final battles
between forces supporting the restored monarchy of Charles the Second
and a few diehard followers of Cromwell eager to be with their leader
in the afterlife. Concepts that seemed utterly alien to Thomas given
what he knew about the true nature of the universe. That was the very
reason the group eventually forced all their members to return home.
Any being separated long enough from their kind would lose that
distinctiveness the group relished above all else. It was a testament
to the human character that Thomas had gone as long as he did, now
his final task was a solitary one. He had to reconnect to the true
meaning of such things as an individual identity, death, and a past
he did not truly understand.
From where the man now stood his world consisted of an endless dry
and sterile plain dominated from above by a sun turned red and angry
by old age. From recently restored memories he recalled the times as
a child he would sneak into the old church close to the dilapidated
building he and his mother lived, and climb to the top of the bell
tower to watch the sun rise above a sleepy London. The yellow and
much kinder sun of that age reminded him of his mother while the one
that he stood under now was very much like the aunt he was forced to
live with after she died in the Great Plague. His aunt's one gift in
the years he spent with her had been teaching him to read and write,
even though the punishments she dolled out for not meeting her
standards were so severe as to make that education almost too costly.
Without any ceremony Thomas began the long trek to his
destination, in real terms it was microscopically short journey
compared to his travels with the group that had literally taken him
across the universe and beyond. But this one was a journey of
rediscovery which in many ways made it more difficult. The red and
bloated sun above and its terrestrial child, the relentless wind were
his only companions. While he had been forced to return to his human
form the group had fashioned him a suit that recycled the water from
his body and kept him cool. While temperatures on the surface would
still allow him to survive a short time without it the utter lack of
water on what had once been a wet and green world would have killed
him in a few hours.
Still there was life on this elderly and dry world. As Thomas
walked he noticed subtle movement under the red gravel and dust.
Using sensors implanted in his head he detected an entire underground biosphere long
evolved to the now inhospitable environment. Thomas' sensors were
able to differentiate between various species of insects, reptiles,
and even tiny mammals that lived out their entire lives under the
sand. All evolved to sense the world exclusively through touch and
vibration because vision required exposure to the light of the harsh
moisture stealing sun. It was far better for survival to live,
reproduce, and hunt underneath the cool and dark earth because water
was a far too precious a thing to leave to chance.
Thomas' life after his aunt had passed away was something similar.
Never wealthy to begin with, what money his aunt possessed
disappeared with her forcing him to join the underbelly of seventieth
century London. He became part of a group that preyed on those
leaving the relatively safe confines of urban London for the rural
English countryside. While Thomas and his comrades preferred to steal
from wealthy lords along with paying special attention to any fair
maidens that traveled with them ultimately there was no real honor
among thieves and during especially lean times even commoners would
feel their blades.
Thomas' life stayed this way until he and his partners happened
upon someone leaving London alone in the middle of the night on
horseback. “Please, good sir,” the leader of Thomas' band of
criminals called out as they ambushed the man, “allow us to safely
guide you to the next village. It will only cost you your coin and
As if on cue Thomas and the others laughed at the wit of their
leader. “What is my fate if I decline your services?” The man
asked in return.
“Then your loved ones will not see your face again.” The
leader responded placing his hand on the hilt of an old sword taken
from another of their victims years before.
The man slowly slide off his horse but with a blinding speed after
setting foot on the ground he pulled out his own sword and ended the
lives of all seven of Thomas' friends. But the swordsman stopped when
he turned his attention to Thomas. “Who might you be son?” he
asked with his blade touching Thomas' neck.
“Thomas Kent,” he murmured certain that his life was soon be
“I have use of someone who can read and write. If you have the
ability I will spare your life and offer you a way to make an honest
living.” With his spare hand the swordsman pulled out a book from a
pocket and tossed it to the ground.
Thomas, knowing he could not match the man in combat, quickly
retrieved the book and began to read using the light of the moon to
see the printed words.
“Well done son,” the swordsman said as he sheathed his sword
and got back up on his horse. “I can use a man like you as part of
my crew. Now follow along and I will describe your duties.”
Believing Fate may have shown him some kindness Thomas ran beside
the horse listening to the strange man.
As Thomas walked the perpetual desert he felt no sadness at being
the last human on Earth. Though his group had never returned to the
world of his birth as he sailed between the galaxies he learned his
species had eventually shed their barbaric ways and colonized a large
portion of the Milky Way. But time and circumstance can weather away
even the strong and the wise.
Humanity adapted to their new worlds and eventually took full
control of their evolutionary destiny. As these posthumans emerged
over the course of the ages they too were superseded as even more
advanced forms evolved. So much that of the final two groups left on Earth,
one chose existence in the dark, timeless void inside black holes
while another ascended to a higher realm outside the three normal
spatial dimensions of the universe. Despite it all Thomas was sure
that on some young wet and green world the species called Homo sapien
still lived, probably seeded there by a sentimental version of
posthuman in a desire to rekindle the flame of original humanity
despite its often disastrous flaws.
The mysterious swordsman was true to his word, he in fact owned
not just one ship but several with Thomas becoming the master of one
of them a few years later. After taking command of his own ship he
sailed away from port of Charles Town watching the man who had
changed his life disappear. His voyage was suppose to be a short one
just going to Jamaica to retrieve a supply of rum.
But a sudden hurricane a few days out radically changed Thomas'
life yet again by sinking his ship and killing all of his crew. He
had been adrift for weeks and only barely clung to life when he
noticed a bright object in the sky one night that came so close he
came to believe it hovered directly over the small piece of his
destroyed ship that kept him afloat.
Fearing insanity he almost threw himself in the unforgiving ocean
to end it all but stopped as angel-like beings emerged. They called
to Thomas claiming kinship as mariners and asked if he wanted to join
their group. Since being recruited by the swordsman Thomas had come
to love the sea and quickly yielded to the temptation of sailing an
even vaster ocean. They brought him aboard their ship and left the
Thomas Kent's journey was finally over. Even though the aging sun
had turned a once lush Earth into a dry and desolate place it still
possessed something of an ocean. The magnificent life that once
flourished had been reduced to just single-celled creatures that
could tolerate the excessive salt content and the staggering
temperatures that relentlessly evaporated away Earth's greatest gift.
Thomas stood at the edge of that sad remnant and smiled. While his
travels were over in a way only a true human could understand it was
also just beginning.
The group Thomas traveled with did not worry about the distance
between the stars or the galaxies. Along those same lines neither did
they worry about time for to them it was all part of the simple
equation that reality danced upon. Thomas Kent reached out and with
his mind twisted the fabric of space-time.
For months he had traveled the old roads of England enjoying
sensations and experiences long buried. It was strange to be around
his kind, he found them savage beyond description and so ignorant it
was a stretch to call them an intelligent species. But Thomas knew
all that would change over time. His true purpose was to find the
individual that he once was and in a paradoxically irony that he
would be again.
Even that journey ended one night as he encountered a group of
dirty men several miles outside London.
“Please, good sir,” the leader called out, “allow us to
safely guide you to the next village. It will only cost you your coin
“What is my fate if I decline your services?” Thomas Kent
responded feeling the course of destiny move through him and his
younger self standing nearby.
To paraphrase a character from "The Big Bang
Theory" I am not opposed to the concept of an all powerful deity. But I
am baffled by one that gives a damn about anything except how humans treat
each other and the other living creatures on the planet we all share.
I have had quite the reaction to my last post concerning guns. Several emails and one especially asinine comment have lead me to believe I touched a nerve with a few people. Please understand I truly endeavored to be fair but if I offended anyone it was not my intention. But if I have, Master Yoda's words speaks for me. Don't let the metaphysical door hit you in the ass on your way out.
My idle speculations and observations on the American gun culture have never won me any friends and in fact the issue has played a large part in my combination of self-imposed exile/disownment from several members of my family here in South Carolina. Truthfully, and this will most definitely seem unkind, I have become enough of a curmudgeon already that having not to suffer through the idle chit chat of those who prance about waving “Don’t Tread on Me” flags along with episodes of holding their favorite weapon in a lover’s embrace is something of a relief. I have always been the family’s black sheep on most issues everyone else held in near total unanimity. After all these years I have actually come to relish what must be a mutant, anti-conformist gene lodged somewhere in my DNA.
While many have the idea that since the Newtown elementary school massacre I have become a hysterical ant-gun nut out to ban all civilian ownership of firearms nothing of the sort is true. Personally, I do not think a total ban will work. There are just too many damn weapons floating around this country and all someone has to do is read how badly Prohibition failed back in the early part of the Twentieth century to get an idea of what a similar piece of legislation on guns would accomplish. And while having a gun in the home considerably raises the chances of a tragic accident or domestic abuse I would be remiss if I did not mention that there are rare times having a weapon nearby has saved the lives of those about to be the victim of a crime.
So let me be clear, yes there is such an animal as a responsible gun owner. Target shooting is a sport, those that hunt often do it to put meat on the table for their families, and home protection is a legitimate concern. And in the case of full disclosure, I still own a Colt .45 semiautomatic and a nifty little rifle based on an old survival weapon designed by the United States Air Force. Both are safely stored away and have not been fired in years, the main reason I still keep them is that taking them out is a serious hassle.
That being said and having pissed off any of my friends who do support such a ban I have to state I do not believe civilians should own any military-style assault weapons. In simple terms those weapons are designed less to outright kill a soldier and more to shred the body requiring others to care for the often critically injured person. If someone feels so incomplete without having an assault weapon in their lives such people need to proceed to the nearest army or marine recruiting station and sign up. Such training in weapons and their upkeep as they will be exposed to for years will eventually end all the romance associated with such devices. That is what happened in my case, after twenty-one years in the military if I ever have to fire another version of the M-16 rifle in my remaining years on Earth it will be too soon.
Speaking more tongue in cheek but with a serious side the only reasonable reason I have ever heard for the civilian ownership of assault weapons came from a old hippie I once knew named Phil. “Ron,” he confided in me once, “given all the apocalyptic morons running around with AR-15’s and a couple of thousand rounds of ammo buried underneath their homes the only reason I keep my AK-47 is because those fuckers scare the living Hell out of me.”
I also believe the purchase of ammunition should be closely monitored and heavily taxed. I cannot buy one package of extra strength sinus medicine without a record of the purchase being made, how anyone can go out and buy thousands of rounds of ammo like it’s toilet paper from Costco boggles the mind.
To finish up this part and get to the meat of my latest rant I also believe there should be extensive background checks along with a significant waiting period for the purchase of all firearms. The last thing would be mandatory training and safety programs for all gun owners with them acknowledging they are completely responsible for the proper use of their weapons along with being both criminally and civilly libel for any misuse. Not surprisingly because of these viewsI have been condemned by both sides of the gun debate for either being out to take away the weapons of law-abiding citizens or a raging gun nut ready to shoot first and ask questions later.
My biggest problem with the current state of American gun culture comes from the near hysterical dependency members of that group place on their weapons. For reasons that cross the political and societal spectrum many in this country feel the deep need to embrace their weapons in an attempt secure their position in a rapidly evolving country.
To them civility, common courtesy, and safety have decayed to the point that they cannot go outside without openly carrying some sort of handgun. All sort of NRA backed laws and regulations now allow weapons in parks, many businesses, and very curiously, even churches all because of some vague, unnamed fear which now permeates our society. This is not a trivial change in viewpoint. I am old enough to remember when people, especially here in the south, took great pride in the preservation and enhancement of civil society.
I truly believe part of this comes in large part from the glamorization of military style weapons in movies and television which equally promotes the mindset that all problems, both foreign and domestic, can be solved with the right amount of high caliber firepower. Another factor I have heard and agree with is that the average American existence has become a daily assault of stomach turning uncertainties like job security, terrorism, and fear of the stranger. Back when your average Joe could get hired at a nearby factory and be reasonably certain he would have job for life and be able to put his kids through college things looked a lot more stable. Now throw in a changing geo-political landscape with the good old USA not necessarily the economic and military top dog anymore and all sort of fruits and nuts start speculating about the collapse of the Republic caused by unseen enemies lurking in the shadows. Another factor related to the previous one is the multitude of conniving little agents of chaos on both the television and radio that use wholesale fear to earn a buck while undermining society as a whole. Fear is a primal instinct and the common way to counter it is by the display or use of power, and for Americans nothings says power like weapon with a high capacity magazine and a rapid rate of fire.
The problem in this approach is that you cannot build a civil society based on fear and the certain use of power to maintain order. Whatever the past faults of American society the general idea was that it would be made better through rational behavior, reason, and the spread of justice and dignity to as many people as possible. That simply cannot be done through the fear and intimidation supplied by those who base their existence on being able to carry a weapon everywhere because they feel scared of some unknown adversary. Unfortunately, civilized society depends greatly on the simple matter of trust and the idea that no matter what we are all in this together so we must get along.
If the open display of weapons in a society promoted civilized behavior places like Somalia, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, and all the other nightmarish failed states dominated by petty warlords would be bastions of peace, freedom, and reason.
(Author's note: More Helium.com inspired flash fiction. The prompt this time was "Black Coffee.")
The cold November winds whipped through the narrow streets of the Marais district of Paris like angry hornets bent on revenge. A fitting analogy Duncan Archer thought as he sat alone at a small table outside the Café Charlot nursing a cup of black American style coffee. From his carefully chosen spot Duncan quietly watched the throngs of native Parisians and tourists stroll up and down the Rue de Bretagne lost in the wonder of being in one of the most beautiful cities on earth. A small part of Duncan’s mind wished that he could be one of those oblivious masses enjoying the simple pleasures of life.
His purpose for being in the City of Light had nothing to do with pleasure or joy, for Duncan was the purest form of predator patiently waiting for his quarry to stray within his range. Outwardly relaxed, Duncan nonetheless sat coiled, ready to strike like a snake with his right hand inside his coat pocket comfortably gripping his pistol. For Duncan this occasion held a grim satisfaction for all the years he spent in pursuit of a man responsible for the death of hundreds of innocent people, his team, and the only woman he ever loved.
The toll for his single minded pursuit of one man had cost Duncan his professional career, his family back home in the States, and more importantly, his soul. Staring down at his cup he caught a reflection of himself in the dark liquid and almost didn’t recognize the face looking back at him.
For a month Duncan had watched the man he sought to terminate casually stroll within inches of his current spot acting as if he was just a common human being. There was even a day when as Duncan followed his target too closely the jostle of the hectic crowds walking down the street caused the two to bump into each other and make eye contact. Years of careful detective work could have evaporated in that moment alerting his long time foe that he was being stalked.
Somehow his enemy did not recognize him and went about his usual affairs, it was enough to send chills down Duncan’s spine and cause him for a short time to reevaluate everything he believed about what he was doing. Something about the situation just did not add up, had his quarry become so engrossed in his civilian life that he could ignore his surroundings and past? Or, Duncan thought, had he sacrificed so much of himself that not even his enemy could recognized him now.
Once Duncan understood his enemy would not run he spent the rest of his time in Paris carefully honing all the elements of the equation that would allow him to successfully kill his target without harming anyone else. With everything in place the long awaited day arrived, for the first time in all the years of searching some small surviving part of Duncan’s soul understood everything would finally end one way or the other. Sitting at that small table all that was left was for his prey to come to him.
“Is this seat taken?” Someone asked in a strangely familiar female voice.
Duncan looked up to see a ghost take the empty seat across from him. “Hello Victoria,” he said realizing every part of his reality and existence now meant nothing. “You look as beautiful as the day you supposedly died.”
“Duncan you need to understand this quickly,” she said, “I cannot allow you to kill Sergei, I turned him to our side years ago and he is the most vital deep cover asset we have. My team spotted you the first day you setup your position here. I was hoping someone at Langley would come and force you home but I was disappointed when I finally got word you had gone rogue. Russian Federal Security cannot for an instant believe Sergei is anything but a valuable operative, far too much is at stake.”
“Victoria,” that bastard killed my team, I saw the video of him shooting Anthony, Mary, and Daniel in the back of their heads. Dammit, I thought he killed you!”
The two former lovers looked at each other across a gulf of time and circumstance that was impossible to bridge.
“Duncan,” she whispered, “I never wanted this but we both made a commitment when we joined the Agency. Please, go home, or find an island someplace and rebuild your life.”
“You know I can’t let this go.” Duncan said actually surprised that this day would end not in bloody satisfaction but in a totally unexpected impasse with the love of his life he thought long dead.
Victoria always had remarkable reflexes and he barely felt the needle she held enter his leg. The poison was relentless but Duncan was able to stay upright in the chair. When Sergei finally came into view Duncan saw no lingering animosity from his ancient foe or glee in his impending death. As his vision faded he did notice the look of love Victoria and Sergei exchanged with each other, it was enough to make Duncan chuckle before everything went blacker than the coffee he had been drinking.