Thursday, February 25, 2010

When the center cannot hold

***Author's note: This is a prequel to the story After the house of cards had fallen. The characters are completely different but it is set in the same universe.***

Lieutenant Jason Hall unconsciously clutched the hand guards around the barrel of his rifle tighter in despair as he saw the individual faces of the people along the side of the road he was passing by. Most of the dispossessed Americans he passed as they headed northwest along Route 60 had lost and fearful looks as the scattered bands fled the outlying suburbs of Glendale and Phoenix, Arizona for the relatively safer FEMA camps closer to Wickenburg. He and his undermanned platoon mounted in three armored humvees were at that moment heading in the same direction but would soon be heading west to a secured airbase to drop off a very important passenger.

Uneasy about the stream of refugees walking beside the road Lieutenant Hall grabbed and keyed the microphone off the radio mounted next him. “Road Warrior Two and Three,” he said, “keep watch on any people in distress. I don’t care if our special guest misses his presidentially ordered flight to Washington; I’m not leaving anyone to die on the side of the road.”

“Roger that One,” Sergeant First Class Nate Rhett, Hall’s platoon sergeant said radioing back promptly from the last vehicle in the small convoy.

“Sir, with all due respect my biggest desire is to get this little creep as far away from me as possible as soon as possible, but will do LT.” Corporal Valero radioed back from the middle vehicle carrying their guest vehicle. Valero, nervous about his comment, looked over his shoulder at the young man positioned in a special seat haphazardly mounted between the two rear seats of his humvee. Despite wearing full body armor and Kevlar helmet making him look like a soldier Valero sneered at the pudgy sleeping figure in disgust. The two privates sitting in the seats on either side of the sleeping civilian nodded their heads in quiet agreement.

Back in Hall’s vehicle, Private Morris asked the unspoken question that was on everyone’s mind. “Lieutenant, if shithead is so important why didn’t they just send a helicopter to pick his ass up back at the firebase or even at the mansion he and his friends were holding up in?”

Hall wondered that as well at first but the answer he got from the base commander before heading out on the mission was so disturbing he hadn’t wanted to think about it again, still though the private deserved the answer. “All available aviation assets are being used in the northeast deploying private security contractors to augment troops trying to quell the uprising. Shit has gotten so bad that the lack of money and shortages in supplies has grounded the Air Force and the just about all the navy has been recalled to port. We are so short in manpower that airmen and sailors have been assigned ground duties like us.”

Morris leaned back in shock. “Private security contractors? You mean the president actually went out and hired mercenaries’ to occupy part of the United States?”

Hall knew that the private was from Maine, which was part of the Group of Thirteen states that refused to recognize the legitimacy of the 2024 election results and because of that was receiving special attention from the president for challenging her power.

As the lieutenant and the soldiers of his small platoon watched for people in dire need of help it was easy to see that most of the civilians heading toward the FEMA camps had long since realized that their privileged position in the world had ended. Until restoration of some form of order to the country, allowing commerce to move unmolested again basic items like food and gas would be rare or nonexistent. Still though, West would occasionally see one of the refugees look his way with eyes outraged that he or she now had to walk like some homeless person they use to ridicule.

The lieutenant observed the hungry and bedraggled people stumble under the weight of hopefully just essential items carried in backpacks or shoulder bags marching toward the camps. However, countless items like laptops, bulky electronics, and even small kitchen appliances littered the road redundant to the newly emerging reality of an America tearing itself apart.

Former suburbanites hanging onto the fading middle class lifestyle, the disruption in the flow of fuel and food to the area stores caused by the civil unrest that had erupted after the 2024 election had quickly shattered their much-practiced sense of entitlement teaching some valuable lessons in the space of a year.

These lessons started on Election Day when the media that night announced the victory of the daughter of a former Vice President to the Presidency of the United States over the senator from, and former governor of, the state of Massachusetts; the second African-American nominated for the highest office of the land by a major party.

The huge national maps used by the networks to signify which states the candidates had won were overwhelmingly colored red causing several of the commentators to remark this was the biggest upset since Truman had defeated Dewey almost a century before. The surprised looks on their faces was caused by most national polls that even up to the start of voting suggested that the actual outcome was going to be the reverse of the huge red maps that hung above them.

During the campaign, the senator from Massachusetts had pulled together the fractious elements of his party and forged another alliance with the disenfranchised poor and minorities promising that nothing would stop them from restoring the promise of America to all her people. As much as the other party tried to destroy the man and his family, they could find nothing on him. The senator was even able to turn the tables on their attempts to discredit him to his advantage.

The senator’s party demoralized and in disarray long before the disaster of the 2012 election, began to rally with huge crowds swamping his events and drawing large numbers of independents upset with how the other side had over the intervening years had brought disaster to the country both domestically and overseas.

The day after the election the nation held its breath in surprise and dismay as the apparent victor spoke of continuing the country’s traditions and upholding cherished values. The apparent loser did his best calm his restless followers speaking of American unity and fairness of the democratic process. His words soon came back to haunt him and the nation as both unity and the fairness of the democratic process proved to be complete illusions.

The situation began to unravel when a video recorded from a cell phone and posted on the internet showed touch screen computer at a polling place that refused to register a vote for the senator from Massachusetts. Repeated attempts to clear the screen and start again only brought the same result with finally even the paper printout used in case of a recount showing a vote for the daughter of the former Vice President. The country adopted such voting computers nationwide after the 2014 midterms in an attempt to streamline and quicken the voting process. That one video started an avalanche of similar complaints that escalated as people who were standing in extremely long lines complained that as the mandatory federal poll closing time hit their time zone denied them a chance to vote.

Accusations and arguments quickly became fights, which grew into riots all across the country with the National Guard called out to restore order. In thirteen northeastern and Midwest states where the daughter of the former vice president won very surprising and lopsided victories the governors of those states signed a joint petition urging an independent investigation of the election in a hope to stem the violence. When the outgoing president refused and the new president-elect commented that this was just a ploy to steal her victory those governors, which eventually came to be called the “Group of Thirteen”, launched their own investigations. Huge and glaring irregularities soon became apparent but the big break came when an employee of the company that manufactured the voting computers found himself caught on video bragging about writing programming code for the computers in certain states to alter election results.

Law enforcement agents in several states seized suspected computers, in some cases detaining federal employees, and found the alleged programming code inside the computers. For anyone even remotely clear headed it was obvious that the 2024 election had been blatantly stolen.

Renewed rioting erupted and this time the National Guard in many areas was overwhelmed and in some cases joined the rioting. With National Guard troops ineffective at best active army troops were then deployed into the cities in an attempt to stop the violence but their numbers were far too small and the destruction and rage far too great for them to be successful.

Believing that her legitimacy was being challenged the new president declared martial law, mainly in the Group of Thirteen states and ordered dawn to dusk curfews and shoot to kill orders given to the troops. Protesters in those states refused to obey the curfew. Scenes of civilians dying in the streets soon played all across the nation on television screens until national security concerns shut down most of the satellite feeds. For many minorities they saw the election fix and the troops opening fire mainly in their neighborhoods as the final insults to their dignity and citizenship. Community organizers in defiance of martial law took the protests to the peaceful suburbs and the violence soon followed. Accusations went back and forth as to who fired the first shots in the suburbs, whether it was protesters, attacking the predominately-white homeowners or the opposite didn’t matter.

Troops did their best to contain the violence in the urban areas but with anarchy spreading beyond the city limits the new president decided to remove the federalized National Guard and active duty forces from more "reliable regions" and use them where the government had lost control. With travel unsafe commerce began to fail with store shelves and gas stations running empty. The spiral out of control continued to accelerate as those relatively peaceful sections of the country cut off from federal forces found themselves fighting increasingly desperate fellow citizens with some groups out to defend their way of life at all costs or some who were out to settle ancient scores. But lost amid all the fighting was that most were just struggling to survive.

As blood flowed in the streets only a very few understood that the bonds of kinship and trust that were the true foundations of a country were dissolving with the very meaning of the United States of America quickly becoming a memory.

“I hate that fat bastard,” the young private said out loud knocking the lieutenant out of his reflection.

Hall did as well, the easy mission described to him by the colonel commanding the firebase outside Phoenix had long since worn thin first having to rescue then transport the spoiled son of a United States senator. This mission was suppose to be a reward for intercepting a truck load of enhanced RPG’s and assault rifles that an egotistical and deranged blowhard of a Latin American dictator had begun smuggling into the United States now that ethnic and class warfare had erupted. Previous shipments had made parts of the Southwest stretching from San Diego to Brownsville absolute war zones. In the space of a few months the street gangs that use to be confined to the troubled inner cities had exploded outward into the suburbs becoming excellent guerrilla fighters even engaging in firefights with army troops.

The basic plan had been simple, taking relatively secure roads Hall’s platoon was to drive to the desert estate of the senior United States Senator from the state of Connecticut and her big corporate CEO husband just south of Apache Junction and rescue their son who had been holding up there since the violence in the country had gone from bad to Hell on earth.

The trip down was without incident and the small convoy arrived at the main house not to find college kids cringing in fear from the violence suffering from the lack of food or water but young adults whose only reason for asking for rescue was because the estate’s backup generator had ran out of fuel. The trouble began as the collection of children of the rich and famous gathered outside the main house realizing that the three small humvees had nothing in the way to fuel or supplies to allow them to continue their party.

The addition of the senator’s son, who came stumbling outside minutes later still drunk, only made matters worse when it was explained to him that this was a rescue mission. The pudgy, spoiled product of America’s elite became irate and refused to leave upon learning that there would be no limousines for him to ride back to civilization much less for his friends. Having close to a small riot on his hands and given their collective social standing among the powerful Hall radioed back to the firebase as to whether he needed more vehicles for the extra people. Coming straight down from the fortress that Washington DC had become Hall was told to grab the senator’s son and leave the rest behind.

With .50 caliber machine guns mounted on two of the humvees and an automatic grenade launcher mounted on the other the senator’s son accepted his rescue while his friends retreated inside the mansion pleading for some sort of help to get the generator going.

Given the suffering Hall had seen since the country began to tear itself apart, he left the group behind with a clear conscious. The trip to the secured airbase became a living Hell with several encounters with armed roving bands giving strong evidence that the situation was continuing to deteriorate. All the while their civilian passenger taunted them saying how they would pay for leaving his friends behind once he talked with his powerful mother and father who was personal friends with the president. His arrogance and condescension seemed to know no bounds, especially since he was surrounded by men with loaded automatic weapons.

As the collection of FEMA camps outside Wickenburg appeared Route 60 turned west and the final leg of their journey brought a small lift in the morale to the group. Even with the likelihood of being reassigned into the chaotic streets of Phoenix at least they would be actively engaged and not babysitting a pathetic individual.

The flat terrain they had been traveling on was slowly giving way to rolling hills, low ridgelines, and numerous washouts, all perfect places for an ambush. “Road warriors,” Hall said over the radio, “watch the ridgeline on our right. It’s close enough to be a perfect hiding place. Warrior Three make sure the .50 gunner is covering our rear. ”

The words hadn’t been out of Hall’s mouth for a second when the convoy’s first sign of trouble was the glint of metal along the same ridgeline that had first raised the hairs on the back of the lieutenant’s neck. For those looking in the right direction they would have saw the smoke trails of three RPG’s heading for the convoy. The trailing humvee carrying the platoon sergeant and three other soldiers went up in a ball of flame with the RPG scoring a direct hit. The burning vehicle spun around and flipped off the road coming to rest in a gully.

“Warrior Three is gone!” someone screamed over the radio.

By instinct, the drivers in the two remaining humvees floored their vehicles while the gunners opened up with the .50 caliber and the automatic grenade launcher raking the ridgeline giving the convoy a few seconds before the attackers could get off the next volley of RPG’s.

“Keep hitting that ridge, we are still in range for those rockets, and as soon as we pass that next washout turn southwest off the road. We are screwed if we can’t lose these guys among the hills!” Hall screamed over the radio.

“What if there is a second ambush waiting out there?” Hall’s driver, Private First Class Ross, asked as he struggled to control both his fear and the humvee.

“We have no choice; we have no support and no other options.” He said angling his rifle out the window to fire off a few rounds just to burn off frustration over this mission, the loss of his men in the rear humvee, and the fucking situation in general.

Hall knew it was a good idea until the first mortar round impacted in front of his humvee sending a wave of shrapnel into the front window creating a chaotic spider web of cracks that made it impossible for Private Ross to see anything. The shit really hit the fan as the second and third mortar rounds impacted in front of his vehicle and beside the second.

Hours later Lieutenant Hall and the last survivor of his platoon, the young Private Morris, are hiding in an abandoned farmhouse miles off the main road they had been traveling. While no other ambushes awaited the two remaining vehicles in Hall’s platoon as they tried to escape off the main road the guerrillas had three of their own humvees and gave chase. The lieutenant didn’t have much time to wonder if the humvees had been captured off other soldiers or were they the latest evidence that desertion rates in the army were escalating with the deserters often joining the guerillas.

A vicious game of hide and seek among the hills and gullies started that cost Hall his men just to protect the worthless slug cowering in the corner of the darken room they were all hiding in. The guerillas had more than likely given up after losing two of their humvees but by that time Hall and Morris were on foot dragging their charge who had lost all his arrogance and soiled himself several times as the small group sought some sort of refuge.

Out of the wreckage of the last two vehicles the surviving soldiers had pulled out a man-portable radio and called for help. Despite the overwhelming desire of Fortress Washington to have the senator’s son safely delivered to the secured airbase it was still over two hours away and the base had nothing at that time that could be sent to retrieve the civilian and the two soldiers. Orders were given for them to find a hiding place and await rescue sometime the next day.

Finding the deserted farmhouse was viewed as a blessing by all three. A well provided water for drinking, there was a small stash of canned goods for food, and the biggest prize of all was a hand-cranked emergency radio. Drinking canteens filled with cold well water and eating cold beans they tuned into a BBC news shortwave broadcast.

“…..leader of the South Carolina militias captured the state house in Columbia today and declared himself provisional governor. Fighting continued in the southern part of the state but General Jacobs said he was confident that order could be restored to the entire state within a few weeks. Jacobs went on to call for joint meetings with other militias in nearby states that had suffered from the pullout of federal forces. Militia forces in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi quickly responded favorably to the idea.

In Utah, state leaders defended their decision to seal the borders to the rest of the nation and begin sending away refugees. The governor and Mormon Church leaders could not be reached and were reported to be in secret conference in the state capital. No word was given over the subject of their closed meeting.

Finally, the US president made a brief appearance today leaving her undisclosed location and arriving in Fortress Washington. The president announced that she had received the support of the senior senator from the state of Connecticut for her policy of hiring foreign military contractors to assist American troops and American military contractors in quelling the uprising that has been going on in the Group of Thirteen States. The senior senator, not a member of the president’s political party, called on her state to accept the election results so Connecticut could lead the nation back to peace…”

Private Morris could not take his eyes off the grown child of the senator and after turning down the volume of the radio found his hands reaching for his rifle. “Lieutenant, when did they say we could expect a pick up?” He asked feeling strangely numb but certain.

Lieutenant Hall looked over at the private and carefully made him lower his weapon back down. “Sometime tomorrow afternoon Morris,” he said. It was then that all the images that had collected in Hall’s mind began to play out. The bloodshed and the suffering of the many while the rich continued to live their lives untouched and the powerful still played their games. In spite of himself Hall felt his hand reaching for his sidearm, part of his mind knew what he was about to do was cold-blooded murder but he knew enough of history to understand for decades craven little cowards like the civilian they rescued, even now whimpering in the corner had played games with the country oblivious to the effects. For so long they were protected by money and power and now with both spent the bills were coming due, but the innocent were having to pay the price for their greed and arrogance.

No one heard the single shot that rang out in the night and the next afternoon when a corporate helicopter carrying private military contractors landed close to the farmhouse, a search inside found nothing except fresh blood covering a wall in one of the bedrooms. After an investigation of the surrounding area several burned and damaged humvees were found along with the bodies of several soldiers and suspected guerrillas. The body of a civilian, determined to be the missing senator's son, was found next one of the burned out humvees dead from a single shot to the head. Nothing and no one else was found and due to the deteriorating situation in the state orders came down from Fortress Washington that all further searches were to be abandoned.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Tremble in fear for I now have writing goals

The writing class I am taking has been a real catalyst in focusing my concentration and sharpening my skills as a writer. Hey, don’t laugh I mean it. My instructor, Professor Ann has used her considerable talents as an educator and writer and has taken the quivering gray mass that exists between my ears and managed to massage some information into it. She has actually taught me how to deal with the most irritating of things in English grammar called “passive voice” which my inability to comprehend sent every English teacher I had in high school to college into a tizzy of frustration.
I’m sure the rumors that Professor Ann will take a yearlong sabbatical after this class are completely unconnected to her exhaustion at teaching me. The most recent assignment for me was a bombshell since I never really thought much in the way of my long-term goals as a writer.
Being honest here but the first time I read the assignment the voices in my head cried out in unison “TOTAL WORLD DOMINATION” as my goal using armies of cybernetic zombie chickens that even now live under my house awaiting orders to bring all the nations of the world to their knees. The voices in my head are a droll bunch and since that goal was unconnected to writing, I ignored them and they settled for pizza, beer, and a good movie on DVD this Friday night. On a less maniacal note my far-fetched but highly desirable writing goals are far easier on the environment, trust me cybernetic zombie chickens can make quite the mess.

The beginning steps of my ultimate goal would have my blog recognized by the true leader of America and a good portion of the Western world, Oprah Winfield. She would have one of her shows totally devoted to the wit and wisdom that I put forth on my blog when my muse strikes and my kids let me have the computer for longer than a few minutes. They both have Facebook pages and dear old dad has been bodily threaten over their need to tell their sixty jillion close personal friends what they are thinking. It’s gotten so bad my uppity crumb snatchers are even stealing the Chips Ahoy cookies as they update their statuses.

The next step as my fame grew would be a multi-million dollar contract with a publishing house to turn my various forms of posted pomposity into semi-intelligent stories that would climb the best selling charts all across the nation. Stephen King, Jimmy Buffett, and I would then pal around and make fun of Dean Koontz and his toupee that I swear he must have stolen from William Shatner. I understand the reason Koontz’s golden retrievers are so well behaved is that they are terrified of his toupee, which gives them commands in frequencies too high for humans to hear.

After that, I would tour the country signing autographs with a small entourage of say two-hundred. A staff of twenty would be devoted just to removing all the green colored peanut M&M’s from the candy bowls in my swanky suites and making my aluminum foil hats to protect my inspired ideas from evil leprechauns. By this time, politicians of all strips would be beating down my doors for me to show the least little approval of them and their policies. The price of my support would be their acceptance of wearing clown clothes, including those huge clown shoes, and clown makeup at all times while serving as elected officials. The second thing would be them voting ladies beach volleyball as the national spectators sport.

As the years continued to roll on, I would tire of this lifestyle and move to attain my final goal. I would purchase an old beach house that I have stayed at on the mainland side of Pawleys Island situated right on the marsh. It is there that I would retire doing my own impersonation of my hero Mickey Spillane and spend my days writing and without having to share the internet or the Chips Ahoy cookies with my kids. Oh yeah, I would spend some of my riches to house my army of cybernetic zombie chickens close by, you never know when we might have to repel an alien invasion.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Snow in South Carolina

Leaving work Friday morning I passed a buddy who suggested that I immediately go to the grocery store and pick up enough milk and bread to last through the weekend. That the expected storm moving into our area was going to hammer us a lot earlier than people thought. When I asked my friend how he knew this he said that his grandmother had called before he had left for work saying her arthritis was acting up far worse than normal.

The weather report I had seen the night before said we would only get half an inch to an inch of snow. The highly paid weatherman I watch at that time in his nice suit and smiling a few thousands dollars of serious dental work assured us that the snow would only start late into the night. Can anyone guess who I believed of the two?

Miss Wiggles had a school play Friday morning so I really didn't have enough time to stop, pick up what might be needed, and then get cleaned up in time to make her play so I just drove straight home. Not long later as I walked into the school the sky was cloudy but there nothing to suggest the snow would arrive early like my buddy's grandmother claimed. But the play hadn't been going for five minutes when the intercom broke in saying that the school would be closing a couple of hours early to get the kids home before things got bad. Many of the parents groaned probably figuring the same thing I did as I walked into the school.

By the time Dragonwife and I got to the grocery store the place was a madhouse with everyone rushing to grab what they needed and get home before the kids and the snow which even the weather people were now saying would arrive far sooner.

Sure enough, the snow started about 3:30pm and didn't let up until early Saturday morning. The picture above was taken at 4:00pm with the ground already covered. I wish I had gone outside and walked around enjoying the only part of snow I really like but after Wiggles school play we had to rush around getting the house ready for the Chinese New Year party the next day. So I was completely crapped out by the time the snow was coming down.

The next morning the same weatherman who had claimed we wouldn't get very much in the way of accumulation was now smiling about the four to eight inches of snow on the ground. This storm turned out to be the worst "blizzard" for South Carolina since 1973. Now in truth the expected half an inch to inch of snow would have sent the state into a major spasm had it occurred during a regular workday but with it being a Saturday much of the disruption, even with the far greater amount of snow predicted to having fallen, was blunted.

That morning Miss Wiggles and I slipped outside to enjoy the snow before the crazy rush of getting everything ready for her Chinese New Year party. Matters were complicated even more when Dragonwife got a phone call from the parents of one of Wiggles classmates saying that the birthday party for their child was still on for that day. The party was at a "nearby" skating rink and guess who got to drive Wiggles to the party? For me the fun part was following the direction whose most detailed part was that I had to "turn left after the sign with the cow on it."

When she and I got back we went straight into DEFCON one for her party with her guests arriving right after she changed in her Chinese dress. Sorry, I got only a couple of pictures since I was literally pushed into kitchen duty cooking up the dumplings and getting the rest of the food ready as Dragonwife and a few moms kept the kids busy with crafts and storytelling.

This picture was taken right after the previous one above but just out of sight Darth Spoilboy and a couple of his friends had loaded up on snowballs and mere seconds after Wiggles snapped this photo I was brutally attacked. The attack was so savage I was left on the ground and by the time I recovered my attackers were back inside laughing their sorry asses off.

Its Sunday now and most of the snow from Friday has melted. Rather large patches of white can still be found but the roads are clear and its pretty much business as usual for us here now. While we missed the usual snow spasm that afflicts South Carolina when a few flakes hit the ground the last weather report I listened to mention another storm heading our way. The smiling weather guys are all hedging their bets on this one saying it will most likely just be a cold rain but possibly mixed with some snow or sleet. If we do get more in the way of snow and ice with being the start of a work week this state will seriously have a rough couple of days.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

I can't make this shit up

No joke: South Carolina now requires ’subversives’ to register

Five-dollar registration fee for persons planning to overthrow US government

There's even a $5 filing fee.
A PDF of the registration form can be found here, courtesy of FitsNews.

Honestly y'all there are days when I believe that we live in some alternate timeline where someone like Marty McFly has gone back in time and changed some pivotal incident resulting in a series of cascading events of ever increasing suckage. Now understand not everyone in this state is a complete fool, although it must seem like that at times. Many of us one eyed people living in the kingdom of the blind do speak amongst ourselves of the various absurdities that erupt from South Carolina on a far too regular basis that send the rest of the nation and world into belly laughs. Except that all we can do is sadly shake our heads and wonder how the inmates continue to control the asylum.

Monday, February 8, 2010

This has bad idea written all over it.

Pentagon Looks to Breed Immortal ‘Synthetic Organisms,’ Molecular Kill-Switch Included

The good boys and girls at the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA) are often wizards that have produced innovations and inventions that have been a benefit to all humanity. One of these advancements is the Internet which allows us to surf for porn 24/7. Another is the global positioning system which has been a particular boon to men since we absolutely refuse to ask for directions when we are lost and women who after receiving directions feel that they can find a better way get even more turned around. One innovation that is in the works showing real promise is using some sort of hyped-up algae to produce jet fuel. Now that is something that will really curl the toes of the high ranking fly boys and girls whose training is often curtailed by the high cost of fuel.

But this time the eggheads might have been in the lab a little too long sniffing far too many exotic fumes. Don't get me wrong, with close to seven billion people on the planet genetic engineering is a vital tool that will have to used to provide medicine and food for humanity. It's just that in this case trying to create immortal organisms and the even insaner idea of even thinking about trying to "rewrite the laws of evolution" is asking for all sorts of nasty science fiction scenarios. Somehow I see an army of biological terminators where quality control in the factory might not have been really paying attention one morning letting a batch of bad models get through. (Damn that evolutionary randomness) Sometime later on some faraway battlefield the generals sitting safely behind enemy lines drinking martinis and complaining about their golf game get word of some of our biologically engineered weapons going rogue and when they go for the kill switch, it does not work. After that somewhere in the great beyond I picture God and Charles Darwin rolling around on the clouds looking down on us having a belly laugh.

Now I know enough about how the defense agencies work that this could be a nice diversion so the people in the Five Sided Funny Farm (Pentagon) could throw several million dollars at some conventional black operation they want to be extra careful in concealing. But we are a society now that takes considerable interest in imposing our will on other countries when they have something we want. However, the thought of drafting all the precious offspring of the placid and oblivious middle class with the resulting return of filled body bags doesn't really float the boat of the powerful people hiding in the shadows. Filled body bags have a way of upsetting those that the rich and powerful want to keep blissfully ignorant. So I don't discount this being a real project, I just hope it falls by the wayside like the Hafnium bomb and Telepathic spies.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Suddenly Falling from the Sky

(((Author's note: I am taking a great online writing course right now at a local community college. As part of the course a recent lesson had us trying something called "Galumphing" as a way to free up the creative energies of the writer. Long story short it consisted of three columns divided into boxes each with some element of a story. The task was to take an element from each column and create a story around it. I hit "bank", "man's suit", and "science teacher" for elements of my story. Also added to this story is a character called "Martha" who literally caught frozen Hell as the brunt of previous writing exercises getting sprayed with slush and icy water countless times. Just to satisfy my strange mental karma I added her to the story just to give the character a major break, I think. I wrote the first draft Thursday morning and posted it to the class board with my usual multitude of famous typos. Sheer obsession forced me to do a second, then third draft. What finally emerged is something that while I'm not crazy about it I have spent far too much time on the thing for it to sit on my hard drive. Of course, such a situation requires me to inflict it on my friends.)))

Looking into the bathroom mirror Joe Brown saw the face of a man hopelessly mired in a dreary and empty life. He knew it was his reflection but it seemed different, it seemed frozen in place, its universe forever confined to the narrow boundaries of the bathroom mirror with nothing behind it but a faded tile wall. It occurred to a part of Joe’s mind that such a tight and barren existence was a far worse Hell than any fire and brimstone that any preacher could describe. But there was no denying that everything that he was and felt looked back at him from that mirror, except the eyes, they seemed to mock him. They were the same eyes that a few years ago looked upon an unlimited vista of possibilities.

Joe had been the head of the biology department at a small but respected college holding responsibilities over both students and important research far greater than many older and more established men in similar positions. Standing by his side was a supportive and beautiful wife who he had known since high school and who he thought was actually the better, more important half of their union. Her charm had opened the doors to important research grants that had once been the exclusive domain of higher-ranking universities. Those same universities, seeing a rising star, courted him on a regular basis promising him unlimited research funds, the best students, and acclaim from his peers if he only became part of their team. The man in the mirror grimaced when he thought how it had all fallen apart in the space of a few weeks.

A promising but undisciplined and unethical student had been for months altering the data on a series of important experiments to achieve the results wanted. Peer review discovered the discrepancies and the resulting investigation destroyed his reputation. Joe was relieved of his duties as department head and upon further investigation was removed from the college for not providing better oversight of his students.

Joe, still looking into the mirror, had long ago accepted that he had let his ego get in the way of proper procedures allowing his favorite students to run far too much of his department while other universities stroked his ever growing ego. As his life collapsed his wife, stunned by this change of fate, revealed that her feelings for him had died years before. She told Joe about the affair she had been having with another professor for almost a year and with this turn of events it was time for her to leave. After the meteoric rise, then fall the best Joe could do for work was a position as a science teacher at a second rate private high school teaching spoiled rich kids that had been tossed out of every other private school and whose rich parents just couldn’t see them being forced to attend public school with all the lower dregs of society. Joe’s days were spent giving lectures to disinterested scions of the school’s wealthy benefactors who at best ignored his monotone speeches by either sleeping or talking on their cell phones.

After work he would board a bus for his apartment and let the drone of the wheels rolling on the pavement lull him into a stupor. In his trace-like state Joe was almost able to ignore the faces of those who rode the bus with him. Very often when his consciousness wouldn’t slip into oblivion for his ride back home those disinterested faces would morph into those of ex-wife, former friends, and students who would all begin to remind him of how his inflated pride had destroyed him.

At night sitting on the small patio attached to his apartment his only relief was the comforting conversation of his neighbor as she sat on her patio next his. Her life had fallen apart in its own right and during those melancholy evenings they would each help the other hold onto a small measure of sanity in the mist of a cold, indifferent world. While they did provide a measure of comfort for each other to make it through the long days and nights, they also knew that they held each other back. Neither felt free to make more of their strange and lonely friendship but neither could find the strength it took to face life again and move on. Each night as they retreated to their separate apartments they both hoped something might drop from the sky to free them from their barren reality. Only time could help them both now and they prayed that they could last long enough for help to come.

The months continued to roll by and Joe could feel his life slipping away. Another winter had arrived and the cold gray sky above him was threatening to unleash an icy storm. Standing at his bus stop the wind whipped across his chest feeling like the bony fingers of the Grim Reaper trying to claw inside his cheat. He had long since come to the point that he would welcome such a cloaked specter as long as it he came with the offer of sweet oblivion.

Right before he bordered the bus for the ride back to his apartment he stopped into the nearby dry cleaner he used to pick up his suits. The small man at the counter who was the owner was an ill-tempered sort who thought his clientele were all out to get him. Sometimes the little man would rave about grand conspiracies between his them and his competition, which was always lurking in the shadows spying on him. About the only reason any of his customers stayed with him was because of his cheap prices, semi-decent service, and convenient location next his bus stop. Given the aggravation with the man, when Joe found that mixed into his cleaned and pressed suits was a suit that did not belong to him he resigned himself to the unwanted addition and made plans just to find another dry cleaner soon. Upon returning home Joe hung the unwanted suit up in his closet and planned to ignore it hoping that the owner of the dry cleaner might realize the mistake allowing him to return it without issue.

A few days later a particularly troublesome student spilled chemicals on his clothes two days in a row forcing Joe to pull out the misdirected suit, which at least did fit him. As he slipped on the jacket the next morning Joe felt the strange indentation of some object sown into the liner of the jacket. Unable to concentrate as the day progressed because of the item he took a moment between classes to cut a small hole in the liner and pulled it out. The item easily slipped free from the secret pocket with Joe realizing it was a safety deposit key for the main branch of the bank that he passed by on his bus ride home. The rest of the day he pondered what it meant with his curiosity reaching such an extreme that he got off at the bus stop in front of the bank to go find out what was inside the safety deposit box. His curiosity was reinforced by the simple fact he had nothing to lose.

No questions were asked by the bank employees and within minutes he was sitting inside a small room with the large deposit box on top of a table in front of him. The key easily turned and Joe opened the lid to find thousands of dollars jammed tightly inside. Along with the cash were account books from overseas banks with a small fortune in everyone. The answer to the question about who had sown the key inside the suit was also found inside the box. Instructions from a now deceased mobster to his equally deceased son, Joe remembered reading both were killed in the same “accidental” explosion several years ago, told of how to access the money using the passwords and numbers without having to reveal himself.

Frozen in place, staring at the money and slips of paper on the table Joe knew that a crossroads had finally come to him. He could play it safe and close the box, walking away from the potential trouble it could bring and go about his life. Or he could take the money and run figuring a sudden bullet in the head a few years down the road was far better than just safely wasting away. That single sharp moment hung for almost an eternity as he came to his decision.

Joe emptied all the meaningless tests and papers from his lackluster students out of his briefcase and filled it with the money and papers. He returned the now closed and empty box, thanked the clerk for his time and strolled out of the bank oblivious to the snow and sleet that was falling.

Back at his apartment Joe waited finding it a new and unanticipated Hell; he sat on his small patio waiting for the lights in his neighbor’s apartment to come on. When they did he quickly walked back inside and out to the hallway to knock on her door. He knew she would find it unusual for him to be so excited and asking her over to her apartment. For all the time they knew each other they had only seen the inside of the other’s apartment once or twice. Their relationship was never romantic, just two people sharing the unhappiness that was trying to engulf them. But at times Joe did feel a spark of something real between them that went beyond their shared misery, or at least he hoped.

When she came to the door she was drenched from almost head to toe in icy water and he refused her pleas to be given a few moments to clean up before coming over. Moments later in his apartment he showed her all the money and explained what the account books meant. She stared in disbelief and was caught completely off guard by Joe’s next statement.

“Martha, we have both been looking for an opportunity to leave this life behind. We’ve dreamed of something falling from the sky to save us and this is it.” Joe reached out and took her hand and being stunned she said nothing.

Joe pulled her close looking into her eyes finally realizing their beauty. “This is it Martha this our chance, leave with me right now.”

Monday, February 1, 2010

In the dark and early hours of the morning

At night a hospital is an eerily quiet and seemingly deserted place. The empty hallways easily echo my footsteps as I pass through the corridors making my usual rounds and at times the stillness is uncomfortably like that of a tomb. I’ve been on night shift since October and I have yet to find, much less be invited into, the hideaways the surgical staff holds up in until they are needed. Rumors abound by those who have fallen into the good fortune of being invited into such hidden lairs that they are full of free drinks and food and furnished with comfortable chairs and huge televisions.

My key card is still ignored by the security pads mounted next the doors of such suspected places. The little glowing red eye located where I wave my card looks like an angry sentinel rejecting all my attempts. Because of this except for the two other fellow members of the hospital Engineering staff working the same hours as me much of my shift, if not all, is spent alone. In many ways that is a good thing, I have time to perform my duties unimpaired by the usual minutia found on day shift with people scrambling to get their needs met first or the ubiquitous workplace politics.

Another advantage is that I have time for my thoughts, free from the idle and often ignorant chatter that passes for conversation by most of the Engineering staff. Being alone with only my thoughts for company they have a habit of flying off on the wildest of fantasies but every once and awhile the outside world intrudes to remind me that I am not the only one dealing with isolation. The surgical department where I can be usually found is located on the third floor of the main building and very late at night has a twilight-like atmosphere after the corridor lights are greatly dimmed to save money.

A few nights ago while in an operating room doing preventive maintenance checks on the surgical lights I stepped outside into the corridor to take a break. That particular corridor is the main thoroughfare for patients being wheeled into surgery and after, to recovery with one side being the doors to the operating rooms and the other side being a long length of huge windows looking down to one of the hospital’s parking lots below. At night that particular parking lot is empty since it mainly serves outpatients services and several nearby doctors’ offices.

Wanting to clear my mind from all the color-coded wires I had to check along with electrical connections and relays I stared out into the night. With the dimmed lights I had an excellent view of the surroundings in spite of the fact there wasn’t much to see. The parking lot was, as usual, empty except for several decorative street lamps that emitted amber cones of light creating small islands of illumination around several parking spaces. A little further out and across the street was a small diner with one small light still on somewhere inside. And beside it was a sub sandwich place that was completely dark except for the neon “open” sign mounted in the window that continues to blink on and off all through the night like some lame practical joke.

Being on the opposite side of the main and emergency entrances there wasn’t even a few people milling about seeking relief from whatever fear or anxiety that had them at a hospital in the first place. From my view it was like the eerie quiet and stillness from the hallways had been extended outside.

As my mind drifted I did happen to notice a car pull into the empty parking lot taking a position right under one of the amber cones of light. Within moments a mature looking man got out of the car and in a clearly nervous way began strolling around the general area and looking at his watch. Nothing about the man was out of the ordinary; his car was a nondescript sedan and his clothes gave no sign of him being neither very poor nor very rich.

Maybe it’s a statement on the demands, or lack of them, of my job but I was fascinated with that person and why he was walking around an empty parking lot in the early hours of the morning. As I continued to watch the unknown man eventual propped himself up against his car and obviously began to wait looking off into the distance. Maybe it was my empathy working overtime but from what I could see of his face he looked lost and alone.

Despite my interest after several minutes I began to feel the need to return to work so I could finish what was left to check of the surgical lights. However, before I turned another car pulled into the parking lot and pulled right next to the waiting man. A woman dressed very much in the same style as the man quickly jumped out and rushed toward him. They embraced each other with a deep longing that was obvious even from where I stood. The kiss afterward was not one of friendship or family but of separated lovers with something illicit hanging in the air between them. I know, I should have walked away and given the two some sort of privacy but some strange and sad story was playing out before me and I was lost in the events going on as much as the two sad lovers meeting in the night.

After they parted from the kiss it was clear both were distraught and worried making elaborate gestures with their arms as they circled each other talking. More than a few times they each checked their watches giving a strong sign that someone, somewhere might soon notice their absence. Several times as they walked around talking they would fall back into each others arms with their embraces oozing hopelessness and a harsh sadness.

As the drama played out something was decided, the lady grabbed the man’s hands with him looking devastated as they exchanged some final words. The couple embraced momentarily one last time with the woman breaking away and then rushing back to her car. Within a few seconds she was out of the parking lot and driving away leaving the man staring after her frozen in place. It may sound ridiculous but the night seemed to engulf the guy.

I watched a few more minutes half expecting the woman to return and in all honesty I guess the man in the parking lot at least hoped she would since he had not moved from the place she left him. However, she did not and even my interest in seeing this to the end was overwhelmed by my need to finish my tasks.

I returned about thirty minutes later and saw that the unknown man had himself left at some point. I admit to some sadness on my part seeing that the parking lot was empty again with nothing to show that two people who desperately needed each other had apparently said their final goodbyes.

Collecting my tools back in the operating room I heard this old Frank Sinatra tune playing on the radio. I thought it fit the mood of the events I saw that night.