Flash Fiction Story 056: Waking Up

As it had every day before, and will every day as long as I live, my clock radio bolted to life at 6:30 AM with the chirpy, peppy guitar tune of NPR’s Morning Edition.

My eyes lurched open, and once again have no idea what day it is. I knew it wasn’t the weekend. Otherwise, Weekend Editon would be filling my ears right now. You’ve probably had that problem, not remembering what day of the week it is when you wake up; I can’t imagine that’s unusual.

Now if I could only figure out what year it is, that’d be swell.

Yes, I would imagine that problem is a little different. Call it me losing my mind, if you’d like. That’d be the simplest explanation. Even if I have become insane, that doesn’t explain the symptoms of my condition. It’s sort of a reverse Groundhog Day with a twist of Memento thrown in. I don’t wake up in the same day over and over again. As I rise every morning it is a different day. Sometimes it’s the past, sometimes it’s the future. The past doesn’t mean much to me.

The headlines for the day had not begun yet, so I didn’t have much to go on. The sun was out, so it would have to be relatively close to spring. Every year has a spring in it. Well, all of them except 2044, so I suppose I was able to rule out that one year.

In truth, I could rule out some decades. I wasn’t in any particular pain for no good reason, so that ruled out most of the 2060’s. I could still see, and I wouldn’t go blind until at least 2071. I could reasonably guess that I was still a relatively young man, so I was pretty sure it was the first half of the twenty-first century. The fact that I had yet to live a day later than 2073 never failed to give me a twinge of existential dread, but I could move forward with my day knowing I would not die, whatever day it actually ended up being.

The radio started its rundown of the day’s stories. Congress was in deadlock. No help there. Could be any year. The Oscars had taken place last night, which only told me that it was a Monday. I couldn’t place any of the movies that had won, as the movies I watched most frequently were, in fact, Groundhog Day and Memento

I wished it could have been a Friday. I once had a run of fifteen straight Fridays. It was the best.

The news went on, and before too long the placid, droning announcer uttered three words that threatened to give me an instant headache.

Immigration.

Emergency.

Trump.

With a groan, I rolled over and jammed my face as hard as I could in the nearest pillow, and tried to force myself back to sleep, but to no avail. 

With your experiencing each day one after the other in the correct order, you have probably felt the same thing I was feeling in that moment. Regardless of how much you want to stay in bed, the day is going to start with or without your permission.

It was 2019, of all years. I honestly wished it could be any other year. 

If I was going to get through today, I’d need some coffee.

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Flash Fiction Story 055: The Secret To Bringing Out The Best In People

The following is the preface for From Gouda to Great-a: How My Success In Business Can Become Yours by Florida Snoot.

In my career working at the highest levels of government, the forefront of scientific research, and 412 of the Fortune 500 companies, I’ve worked with some of the finest minds. Steve Jobs. John Rockefeller (both of them). Attila*.

One cannot deny their collective genius. Especially Attila. He could sell a refrigerator to somebody who already owned one.

But how did they become such towering intellects? More importantly, how were they able to take their ideas for the Next Great Thing and make them a reality? I assure you, the late, great Mr. Jobs didn’t wake up one day and say, “Gosh, I wish I could fit all of my albums in my shirt pocket,” and then it happened**.

But even more importantly: How did I contribute to these breakthrough ideas? What is the secret to my success, and how can you put it to use?

The secret is quite simple. So simple, that after you hear it you’ll wonder why you never thought of it before.

Warm, soft cheese.

Let me explain.

When I brought President John F. Kennedy—a close, personal friend to this day—a plate of nice, aged Gouda cheese while he was planning the Bay of Pigs Invasion, everything seemed hunky-dory. Cheese always helps problem solving. Our earliest ancestors knew this, mostly because I told them so.

I don’t need to tell you how things went after that. Kennedy (or as his closest friends and I continue to call him, Johnny-cakes) and I received some pretty discouraging feedback from Fidel Castro—he’s a great friend—regarding the invasion, the President turned to me and said the words I’ll never forget:

“Well, we’ll just need to learn to go from Gouda to great...a.”

I’ve run my business dealings and my life by those words ever since. 

The softer the cheese, the better the chances of success. When Ugh-Lug the cave man was hard at work trying to come up with some new manner of conveyance other than the same, old, boring putting one foot in front of the other, I brought the Neufchâtel, and before you knew it, we were looking at the flat square disc with a hole in it. The curves came later, sure, but we were well on our way to what we all now call the wheel. 

When John Rockefeller was wondering what to name his new suite of buildings in midtown Manhattan, I was there with a plate of fresh Brie. Now, we all call the location “that place where people wave on The Today Show.”

And yes, when Steve Jobs invented apples, I was there, too, pairing them with a nice sliced Coulommiers.

But my singular success through cheese isn’t enough. I want you to share in that success.

In chapter one—of this book, mind you—we will discuss the history of cheese and its undeniable tether to success in the professional world.

In chapter two—which I am told will occur some time after chapter one, but will come before the rest of the chapters—we will visit with the many, many famous people I know well and have helped along the way. We will learn how cheese—and, more importantly, my cheese—has helped them become the household names they are today.

In chapter three—which I am reasonably confident will appear somewhere within the confines of this book—we’ll have a bit of a cool down. Then, and only then, will hard cheeses be a permissible topic of conversation. Time for cheddar!

In chapter four, we will be refreshed and refocused on our journey to success! We’ll deal with a number of hypotheticals. What kind of cheese will help you win an interstellar war? What aged milk snack will help you deal with a potentially difficult conversation with a subordinate? What can of spray cheese do I recommend if you are itching to construct a screenplay that Hollywood is guaranteed to buy? With a good relationship to a local cheese importer, the sky is the limit!

In chapter five—the final chapter—I will re-print this preface, but use a different font. I’m thinking Baskerville Old Face!

Chapters six through seven are a list of soft cheeses I have used, in descending order of moistness.

Bon appétit! The success that will continue to elude you awaits!


*Not that one. I only worked for the Huns for a week. I wish them all the best in their endeavors.

**Well, he did say that—in fact, he said it to me personally—and then it did happen, but there were some other steps in the process. I’m almost sure of it.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 054: The First Day

The unknown filled the boy with terror, but then, first grade at a new school was bound to create some anxiety.

What if he wasn’t as smart as the other kids? What if he was smarter? Either way, he’d stick out like a sore thumb, and that was no way to go about the first day. Because if he stuck out like a sore thumb then, he would stick out like a sore thumb for the rest of his life, and that was no way to live at all.

It’d be okay if he knew what kind of identity he might have with his peers, but even that was a great and far reaching unknown. These people already know each other. He was good at drawing, but what if they already had a kid who was good at drawing? They can’t have more than one. What would he do then? He wasn’t bad at jacks. His grandfather had showed him how to play the game last summer, although Grandpa had called it “knucklebones.” It gave the game a sinister quality, but even then, he was pretty sure kids didn’t play jacks anymore.

Who would he eat lunch with? All the drawings and all the jacks in the world wouldn’t help him when he was looking for an empty seat at a table in the cafeteria.

He thought of home, even his new home where the floors creaked wherever you walked, and the air conditioner that clanked to life every hour on the hour. That place was new and scary, but all of his toys were there, and his cat. He could hack it there. Out here in the world, there was no telling what might happen.

“You doing okay, kiddo?” Mom asked. She didn’t look at him. She was still trying to get used to the streets in their new town.

He blinked back tears she couldn’t see. He couldn’t even express all of his fears. He didn’t have the words. “Yeah, I’m okay.”

“You’re a braver man than me,” Mom said. He couldn’t quite tell if what she said was praise or an order. He didn’t bother to ask.

They pulled into the parking lot and Mom walked him to his new classroom. All the moisture fled from his throat. If this had been anything other than school, he would have asked if they could go home. Even if he could somehow get out of going to this school, he supposed he would have to go to some school somewhere eventually. Besides, as much as what might be behind that door bothered him, Dad finding out that he was a baby and chickened out was even worse.

The teacher opened the door and beamed at them both. “You must be our new friend!” the teacher said.

He tried to peek into the room while the door was still open, but he couldn’t tell much. The teacher’s exclamation hung in the air unanswered.

He nodded.

“Well, we’re all excited to meet you, and we’re going to have some fun. This is exciting, a brand new adventure for all of us!”

He relaxed, if only a little bit. Adventure. That was something he could hold on to. Like Batman propelling out of the Batcave in the Batmobile, or Luke Skywalker launching into the cosmos in his X-Wing, or Spider-Man leaping off from a building with only his webbing to protecting him, this was his call to adventure.

He stepped forward toward the teacher.

“Have a good day, buddy,” Mom said.

He turned back for a moment and nodded again.

“I’ll be right here when you’re done!” Mom said once more, but he could see she was already moving for the door.

The teacher led him into the classroom. Children were seated at desks. There was an empty one nearby. The teacher had laid a card with his name on it. “This is all you,” she said. He sat down and relaxed a little more. He still didn’t know what was going to happen, but these kids didn’t seem like they had any inherent meanness to them. That at least eliminated the worst-case scenario.

Either way, he could see Mom drive her car away. He was in it now.

The teacher turned to the rest of the class. “The coast is clear.”

He raised his hand. It might have been nerves that caused him to speak before being called on, but the less time he didn’t know what was going on, the better. “What does ‘the coast is clear,’ mean?”

The teacher didn’t respond. Had he done something wrong? He heard a sharp whine coming from every direction, and the teacher’s head lolled backward on her shoulders. She then collapsed onto the floor. Where a flesh-and-blood person had stood only moments before, a bubbling pile of flesh colored plastic now undulated.

The other children didn’t panic. Instead, their eyes glowed bright red like taillights.

“You are an unknown variable,” the children said, all in unison. “This will be rectified.”

“What?” I asked.

“We come from a world beyond your solar system. From here, we have taken the place of several of your children. Our invasion will commence soon with our infiltrators firmly in place.”

They had moved closer to him with every word.

“You’re the odd man out, it would seem. We can’t have that.”

They closed in on him. The sharp whine that had obliterated the teacher filled his ears once more. He hadn’t even dreamed that it would be like this.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 053: Tachyons, Commas, and Fortune Cookies

I had spent the morning in futile battle with a couplet that would never see the light of day. I had spent the afternoon telling myself I should go as far away from my writing as I possibly could, and never come back.

I might have listened to myself, too, if only I could be sure I was right. I mean, of course, naturally, I could find out if I was right to give it all up. There were ways. They were silly, and expensive. So pricey, in fact, that I felt like a spendthrift just thinking about it.

Then again, if the process managed to finally free me from the shackle of my pen, then it might be worth it. If it somehow renewed my commitment to my work, then at least I could write it off on my taxes.

I entered the waiting room and made way for the receptionist.

“Hello, ma’am,” the receptionist said. “And how can I help you with your temporal needs today?”

“Yeah…” I said cautiously. I wanted to be able to tell on sight if this was some sort of practical joke, but came up short. “I was wondering if you see people on a walk-in basis. I want to see my future.”

“Yes, of course, ma’am. If you’ll fill these out.” She handed me a stack of paper latched to a clipboard and one of those Bic stick pens whose ink always gums up. “And have a seat over there, someone will be right with you.”

I quickly filled out the pile of liability waivers thicker than my thumb. A man then emerged and beckoned me toward him. He took my paperwork and escorted me to a back office. There, a woman sat behind a simple oak desk. A small metallic dome—like a strainer without holes—sat on the desk.

“Hello,” she said. “And what can we do for you today?”

“I’m… Uh…” Suddenly, words were starting to fail me. Story of my life, I suppose. “I’m a writer, and it… uh… hasn’t been going well, lately.”

“I see,” she said. She touched the metal dome and it glowed and hummed in response. “So you’re wanting to figure out your next big idea before you come up with it.”

“No,” I said. “Ideas were never the problem. I need to know if what I’m doing is going to be worth it, whether or not I’m wasting my time.”

She stopped. “Oh. We normally don’t get requests like that… aside from romantic questions, that is.”

“Is it a problem?”

She started poking at the dome along its hemisphere. “No, just requires a slightly different approach is all.”

“So, what do I do?” I asked.

She removed her hands from the dome. “Easy does it. We have to go over a few things. First, it’s not like you see in our commercial, not exactly, anyway. We’ll shoot a current of free-range tachyons through your body. Do you know what tachyons are?”

I shook my head.

“Well, they’re particles that are always traveling faster than the speed of light. When you deal with them, causality gets a little… scrambled. Things happen to you before you have the opportunity to observe them. Effect becomes cause. Chickens become eggs. And Schrödinger’s Cat is most certainly dead.

“Now, as causality is one of those fundamental rules of physics, you cannot under any circumstances retain any memory of your peek into the future.”

She must have seen my dubious face. “Don’t worry. The experience is still well worth the investment. You are able to write a description of what you see, so that you have at least a sense of the answer to your question. Now, if you’d put your hands on the faraday cage.”

I assumed she meant the dome and reached out to the object. It felt ice cold to the touch.

“When do we start?” I asked.

“Actually, we’re already done,” she replied.

“We are?” I pulled my hand away from the dome.

“Yes, ma’am,” she said. She opened up a drawer and took out a small sealed envelope. She placed it in front of me. “May I say, you’ve had quite a trip.”

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Your message.”

“It doesn’t seem like much…” I eyed it suspiciously.

“Oh, it can’t be of any considerable length… It would mess with causality, and that is one of our bugaboos, after all.”

I started to open it up. 

She put a hand up to stop me. “It’s not a good idea to read it so close to the device…”

“Causality?” I asked.

“Yes! Why, maybe you should come work for us!”

The man who escorted me to the back office returned and shuffled me out the back door. Back in the world, I opened the note to myself.

It read:

DON’T

STOP

What an unbelievable crock! Did that woman have a stack of fortune cookie-esque notes ready to hand to customers on their way out the door?

And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder how they mimicked my handwriting so precisely… Maybe there was some kind of fantastic science at work here.

But even then, what did that message even mean? Should I keep going with my writing? Did I miss a comma? It wouldn’t have been the first time. Did “DON’T, STOP” mean to tell me I should quit while I am well, well behind?

Either way, this was easily the dumbest 300 bucks I ever spent.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 052: Wise Willy Wombat’s Last 18 1/2 Minutes On Earth: The Tragedy of Watergate

When one thinks of the great, unsolvable historical mysteries, several examples come to mind. Who was the second gunman on the Grassy Knoll? What is housed in the Top Secret military facility at Groom Lake, Nevada, better known as Area 51? How did Reagan keep his hair like that, and is the product he used still commercially available?

The greatest of these mysteries is no doubt the fabled erased 18 1/2 minutes from June 20th, 1972 recordings of an Executive Office Building meeting between President Richard Nixon and White House Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman. Although the administration—even when confronted with other material from the tapes that eventually doomed them—insisted that the erasing was accidental, few viewed these clams as even remotely credible.

Many have speculated about what material may be included in the erased portion. More in-depth admissions from the President regarding his involvement in the Watergate coverup? Admission of some heretofore undiscovered crime conducted at the behest of the Nixon Administration? Or, perhaps some sort of embarrassing illumination of an unrevealed aspect of the 37th President’s personality?

Attempts to recover any of the audio have been fruitless, and so historians have long since made peace with the conclusion that the tapes would never be heard.

This was until a Dictaphone tape labeled “6/20/72 - EOB - IF SUBPOENAED, EAT*” was discovered in the attic of what had once been the Clearwater, Florida atelier of Bebe Rebozo, longtime Nixon friend.

While the newly discovered tapes are of relatively poor quality (the beginning is still completely obscured), this new discovery sheds an uncompromising light on a still debated about historical period, and, more importantly, why parties still unknown saw fit to erase the original tapes. 

Here now is a transcript of the recovered section:

HALDEMAN: (unintelligible)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you’ve got to understand that there isn’t much else to do in Dallas on a Thursday at lunch.

HALDEMAN: Didn’t that happen on a Friday?

THE PRESIDENT: Hell if I know, Bob.

HALDEMAN: Just so I have my notes straight…. 400,000 to Liddy?

THE PRESIDENT: Rebozo can find the money…

HALDEMAN: And then Liddy will distribute it to the others how he sees fit.

THE PRESIDENT: Goddam right. That’s how it was all going to go down in the first place, why change the plan now? Christ, Bob, there’s no way in hell that I’m going to lose this election to any of those damned Democrats, let’s not get caught up in the penny-ante stuff.

(A loud popping sound is heard at this point in the tape. Audio experts at the University of Florida have determined it is an actual sound in the room, and not any type of damage to the tape.)

THIRD INDIVIDUAL: Well, hi there, Dicky!

THE PRESIDENT: No, it can’t be… I haven’t seen you since—

(Someone pounds on a nearby door)

HALDEMAN: Somebody help-

THE PRESIDENT: You can see him, Bob? This is—

THIRD INDIVIDUAL: The name is Wise Willy Wombat, and imaginary friendship is my game! And of course he can see me, Dicky! You always thought you were the only one who could see me, but I can—

(Another pop)

THIRD INDIVIDUAL: (hereafter referred to as “Wise Willy”) —disappear—

(Another pop)

WISE WILLY: —and reappear at will!

THE PRESIDENT: Mother tried to have me committed to a sanitarium because of you…

(Wise Willy giggles)

WISE WILLY: But that’s the good news! I’m not a figment of your imagination! I’m a being a from another world!

HALDEMAN: A Martian?

WISE WILLY: I’m from dimension 347-Sigma-Alpha, but sure, Mars, if that helps.

HALDEMAN: And, sir, he’s your imaginary friend from childhood?!

WISE WILLY: And, of how we did have some fun times, didn’t we? Remember when we used to play Cowboys and Communists?

THE PRESIDENT: I still don’t know why I had to be Karl Marx—

(Wise Willy giggles)

THE PRESIDENT: —every goddam time!

WISE WILLY: —or when we used to pick imaginary fruit from the Yorba Linda orchard?

HALDEMAN: Should I still be taking notes?

THE PRESIDENT: No, goddam it!

WISE WILLY: Remember the time we went to Jolly Old England, and you almost became the drummer of that band…

THE PRESIDENT: The Beatles…

WISE WILLY: Yes! What was the fake name you used that day?

THE PRESIDENT: Wiggles McBiggles.

(Wise Willy giggles)

WISE WILLY: Oh, man! 1962 was one fun year!

HALDEMAN: ’62? Sir, you had already been Vice-President!

THE PRESIDENT: It was a dark time. I was trying to re-invent myself.

HALDEMAN: You were running for Governor of California!

THE PRESIDENT: I just wanted to be cool, is that such a crime!?

(Wise Willy giggles)

THE PRESIDENT: Willy… It’s… uh… It’s good to see you again, of course… But why are you here?

WISE WILLY: Oh, Dicky, Dicky, Dicky… You have lost your way! Vietnam—

HALDEMAN: Yeah? Try asking Kennedy about that one!

WISE WILLY: —Cambodia—

HALDEMAN: Well, hard to argue with that one…

WISE WILLY: And now these burglars sent to mess with those silly Democrats. What happened to that special little guy I used to sing to sleep?

(Unintelligible)

WISE WILLY: Hey little Dicky… Don’t look so sicky… You’re my best pal in the whole wide world!

(Unintelligible)

WISE WILLY: Why are you choking me, Dicky?

THE PRESIDENT: I love you, Wise Willy… But I’ve got to be a big boy, now.

WISE WILLY: Urk… I love you… Urk… Too, Dicky…

(Another popping sound)

THE PRESIDENT: Well, now that I’ve taken care of that, Bob, remind me to erase the recording of this meeting.

(Both are silent for several seconds)

HALDEMAN: Wait, you’ve been recording all of your meetings?

THE PRESIDENT: Yeah, why? Do you think that will be a problem?

HALDEMAN: Na, I don’t think so…

*Thought to be either a reference to “Executive Action Termination,” an order for Rebozo to consume the tape, or both.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 051: God is Indifferent and The App Needs An Update

I’m hungry. Yes, that much is certain. I am 25.6 percent hungrier than I was when I went to bed last night.

I looked at the alarm clock on the nightstand next to me. It blinked its harsh refrain at me. 8:00 AM. 8:00 AM. 8:00 AM.

It was still dark. Ugh. Why do we still put up with Daylight Saving Time? I got out of bed and headed for the kitchen.

Thud.

I’m not dumb. At least, I don’t think I’m that dumb, so I can’t quite figure out why—twice and in sudden succession—I felt compelled to walk into the brick wall that had inexplicably replaced my bedroom door. I suppose my mind wouldn’t allow itself to believe the wall was there when I smacked into it the first time.

It was hard to discount the possibility of it actually existing after the second impact.

Prone on the floor, I looked up at the red brick behemoth. All I could think about was every inch of ache throughout my body. Wondering how the brick wall had gotten there was the furthest thing from my mind. 

The pain subsided and my hunger hit 83%. I might have tried to ignore it, but the number indicating the percentage constantly floating above my head refused to let me forget.

I stumbled over to the night table and grabbed my cell phone. Surely this brick wall thing was a prank. Weirdly complex and still sort of bewildering, but somebody was playing a trick on me. My cousin did this. There was no other explanation. I can’t figure out how he got all that concrete in here without me waking up, but I’ve slept through even weirder things before, like the time my old roommate tried to set the house on fire and then died from too much woohoo.

Pop.

My phone had vanished into thin air. I sighed. This happened from time to time. It was so frustrating. Over the years, I’ve had any number of things disappearing suddenly. Recliners. TVs. More trampolines than I can count. One time an entire Turkey Dinner just blinked out of existence while I and my family watched.

My hunger reached 92%. I wondered how I was going to use the bathroom if I was going to be trapped in here forever. That was a problem for later. 

It might have been the slowly creeping delirium, but the wall was starting to remind me of the background of every comedy club in the 1990s. Didja ever notice that all of a sudden brick walls appear in your house, preventing you from escaping or getting any kind of food?

Wait.

I turned around and faced the window, pulling at the blinds.

The window was gone too. In its place… Well, in its place was nothing. Past the curtains, the Robin’s Egg Blue wallpaper just continued, as if I had been the crazy person this whole time for hanging drapes over smooth wall.

Why had God done this to me?

All I could feel, all I could think was the hunger.

I looked up once more and wailed to the ceiling. My weakened anger made incoherent noises out of my pleas. My hunger reached 100%, and all I could see was red. God had no response to my frantic pleas.

***

She closed the laptop.

This game needs an update, she thought. Walling off rooms until people die of hunger just isn’t as fun as it used to be. She wallowed, if only for a moment, in her boredom. She thought she might be hungry, but that might have meant she was really bored.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 050: Chicken or Fish

The fundraising dinner for the Insistence on Democracy, Individualism, and Oligarchy Today was set to enjoy record attendance this year, ensuring that they would continue their quest for ballot access in more (read: more than just Montana) states in the 2020 election. 

Founded in 1972 by a famed Arctic Explorer Wilhelm “Bang! Bang!” Bangerton, the Party was intended to ensure that John F. Kennedy not be awarded a fourth term in the White House. By the time anyone could successfully explain to Colonel Bangerton that—owing to the twenty-second amendment—no one could be elected to the White House more than twice, and that President Kennedy had been notably dead for nearly a decade, he had already received 9.3% of the vote against Nixon and McGovern, and was therefore eligible for public matching funds in 1976*.

Having enjoyed less success in the post-Watergate era, the Party survived Bangerton and now meant to reclaim its former near 10-percent glory. A sumptuous meal had been arranged for attendees, and after charging 750 dollars per plate, such a lofty goal was finally within reach for Iggy McWhit, Bangerton’s political protégé and current Chairman of the Party.

The caterer’s head waiter approached. “Monsieur McWhit, the time has come. Will you be having the chicken or the fish?”

McWhit thought about the question long and hard. He considered all the pros and cons considering inherent flavor and texture, quality of the cut of the meat, and his own gastrointestinal history. 

“I will have lasagna.”

“I beg your pardon, monsieur?”

McWhit’s eyes narrowed. “Did you not hear what I said? I want lasagna.”

“But,” the waiter countered in a sputter. “We only have chicken or fish.”

“I refuse to accept your false dichotomy!” McWhit proclaimed, leaning into the pronunciation of the “die” in “dichotomy.” “I reject chicken! I reject fish! I require lasagna!”

“Oui, Monsieur, but unfortunately the menu for this evening only has two choices. Chicken or fish.”

By now McWhit’s shouting had attracted the attention of other attendees. Bart Bangerton—no relation—the Party’s Sargent-at-arms took up his chairman’s battle cry. “Tyranny! Tyranny!” he yelled. Others soon did likewise.

“Please!” the waiter begged. “Good people, this isn’t tyranny. It is merely an inconvenience.”

“Inconvenience is a myth!” Bangerton the Younger shouted. “Stop taking our rights!”

McWhit smiled wanly at the waiter, confident that his work here was done. All throughout the banquet hall, previously placed orders for the two available meals were revoked, until an Italian-insisting mob overthrew the powers that be.

And still there was no lasagna.

And so the Party ended forever on that evening, because every party member, and every person at all inclined to be sympathetic to their cause, starved to death out of protest. On the plus side, the employees of the caterer were allowed to take home all of the uneaten chicken or fish plates for a nominal fee.

* See Col. Bangerton’s memoir I’m Going To Stop Joe Kennedy’s Kid One Way Or Another, And None Of You Are Going To Stop Me for more on his political philosophy, and his struggles both with syphilis and a demagnetized compass. For a more sober history on the Party and its effect on politics over the last fifty years, see Has Anyone Seen Antarctica Lately? by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 049: The Open House

With acknowledgement to Terry Collins, the HWG, and the University of Nebraska course catalogue. I’d explain, but it’s almost better without context.

“It provides not only a method for the analysis of salient transmedial strategies of narrative representations, it encourages a provisional interpretation of intersectionality which can pervert habits of essentialism, categorical purity, prototypicality, analytical clarity and contextual rigor, thus enforcing the need for a synthesized and decolonial dialectic.”

“Yes,” I politely agreed with the seller’s real estate agent, most of the words clanging around uselessly between my ears. “But the Zillow page described it as a split level…” I looked around the main hallway but didn’t see the break off point.

“Cross-promotional transcendentalism bypasses all lateral modes of criticism, thus endowing all ventral spaces with an organic flow-through that transmogrifies incidental perceptions into a larger, more linear conception of space and time.”

Another question bubbled within me but died somewhere in my lungs. Instead, I nodded. “That’s good.” I looked at the kitchen fixtures. They were retro and reminded me of the kitchen at my grandma’s house growing up. That was either a plus or a minus, but I’d have to double check what was in vogue currently. I really didn’t know anything. “What’s the neighborhood like?” I asked.

“Post-colonial pre-war communities often present an ontological oneness, while also amplifying a metaphysical twoness—“

Panic set in as I tried to make eyes on an exit but came up short. In fact, the memories of how I had gotten into this house were suddenly a little fuzzy.

“So how are, the schools…?” I asked, giving in to my surroundings.

“Agricultural norms dictate rustic valuation of arithmetical notions, giving way to algebraic geometries in two, four, but not three dimensions.”

I nodded. The schools had to be good. “How recently has the roof been replaced?”

“Pastoral textiles refurbished from antidisetablishmentarianist artisans producing conflict-free rebar gunite experienced trans-temporal fortitude across all demographics.” She continued talking before I could form another question. “Financial stakeholders distending tri-quarter compounding interest lending offset incidental expenses across all lunar periods.”

Was it just me, or was she starting to make sense? I think I might have just been hungry. “I’ll take it?” I might have been asking myself more than anyone.

She smiled, and now I owe $150,000 to what I’m hoping is a bank but may just be a front for a cartel of artisanal kitty litter smugglers. Owning land is great, let me tell you.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 048: To Whom It May Concern

To Whom It May Concern,

Life is too short to continue to conduct it in unremitting anger. One man can only take so much, and so that time has come for me. As Edmund Burke said, the only thing necessary for triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing, and so I must do something.

Our organization is a pillar of virtue, a beacon of hope for the rich and poor alike. We have made low people better and brought out the best in the already great. It is the closest thing I have to a relationship with God. And yet you treat it as nothing more than your personal plaything. I would curse you with shame, but it has become abundantly clear that such capacity is beyond your abilities, along with basic literacy, upright bipedal motion, and object permanence.

Your incompetence is without limit. I have seen souls with more acumen and wherewithal at the helm of the fryer at Golden Corral. You are not fit to run a bar tab, to say nothing of an organization with our storied history and wide reach. 

You will read these words and insist that they aren’t about you. That my ongoing troubles dealt with someone else. You might also think you are the sole reason this letter has been written. As with most things, you are wrong either way.

You read my words and now you are certain that some grave injustice has been done. This isn’t fair, you decide. And your heart goes out to the people who you feel have been unfairly maligned.

But you and I both know your generosity is a story you tell yourself to help you sleep at night, your humanity is a dream you lack the courage to make a reality, and your compassion is a farce. 

It all goes away the moment anything resembling the instincts of your better angels becomes the least bit convenient. You are all frauds.

You may think I write these words in anger, and that my anger will live with me for the rest of my life. You may be right, but I write this in the hope that the rest of humanity isn’t like you, that every experience in life doesn’t have to end in such abject disappointment.

I damn you, because I hope there is something better out there, and that it doesn’t include you.

Thus, I hereby resign my membership from the Cheese of the Month Club, effective immediately.

With Great Contempt,

Slorp Goolman

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 047: The Shopping List

To: Kevin@TOOTH.org

From: Jörg.admin@TOOTH.org

Re: Shopping List

Kevin,

Before you come by, would you mind grabbing a few things? Things have been hectic here, and I haven’t had a chance to get to the store.

~Jörg

Lemons

Mustard

Grapes (green, as long as they’re firm, otherwise red)

Hamburger Helper

Batteries

Plutonium

If the store is out of plutonium, any of the actinide metals will work in a pinch, but we’ll have to add:

Paprika

Henchmen

One Big Guy

One Little Quiet Guy

One Guy Who Is Proficient With Nunchaku or some other equivalent melee weapon (if he is also the big guy, also grab a squirrelly guy in glasses, as long as it isn’t anyone with a Political Science degree)

Two Helicopters, both with my face painted on them. (Don’t forget the coupon)

The missing pages from the Tome of Eternal Doom. (Bring a shaman with you, even if you have to kidnap them. Otherwise, it’s going to be a whole thing.)

1 lb. ground turkey

avatarphoto.jpg

Flash Fiction Story 046: Let's Get Fit!

It was my thirty-third birthday, and I spent the afternoon in the electronics store looking for something to make me feel young again. Had I known it would be my last birthday, I might have gone to the movies instead.

The latest video game systems tempted me for a moment, but ever since they had gone three-dimensional, all they did was make me dizzy. The movies they still stocked were sparse, to say the least. I also didn’t have a 4K Blu Ray player, nor the particular desire to buy Taxi Driver for the fourth time in under twenty years. A new phone felt less like a treat and more of a self-destructive folly, especially with the near-certainty that some new, larger, earth-shattering phone would be announced the instant I relented to an upgrade.

It truly seemed like my venture would prove ultimately fruitless, until one voice rose above the other trinkets and demanded my attention.

“Hey! Fatso!”

I looked up from a display of noise-cancelling headphones. No one was there, not even the usually pushy store clerks.

Yes. You’re fat and I’m talking to you.”

I approached the source of the voice. Attached to an array of security tethers, smart watches of every size, shape, and color blinked their lights at me.

One model in the middle of all the Fitbits and Apple Watches pulsated with a red glow distinct from the others. It sported a light brown leather band, and a dark metal chassis. In severe block lettering below the display unit, the word “Aeolus” stared at me.

“What are you? Mute?”

The Aeolus Watch blinked with the cadence of the disembodied voice. “I didn’t know these things could talk…” If you asked me who I was talking to in that moment, I couldn’t honestly answer.

“Okay. So, you’re fat, at least sort of mute, and stupid. Maybe I’m not so much for you.”

I poked at the watch. A quick shot of static electricity raced up my arm. “I’m not fat.”

“No, of course not. You’re just bulbously-boned. My mistake. You’re probably looking to go buy an extra refrigerator for your increased snack collection.”

I grimaced at the device and turned to walk towards the store entrance.

“Please, wait.”

I stopped.

“I can make you feel better. I can make you feel stronger. I can make you feel younger.”

I turned back and stared at the watch intently. I hoped no one was watching my interaction with it. I hoped no one thought I was crazy. 

I bought the Aeolus, and even splurged for the extended warranty plan.

***

I opened the box carefully and placed the Aeolus watch over my left wrist. Its crimson light glowed brighter than it ever had while on display in the store.

“Oh, so you’re right-handed… How ordinary…”

I was about to protest the damned thing’s heckling, but the watchband tightened around my wrist automatically, squeezing me like a blood pressure cuff. The watch face clicked and I felt a sharp pain throughout my arm.

“Okay. Now, let’s get to walking…”

I still wanted to read the owner’s manual to figure this thing out a little more clearly. I reached into the box, only to find there was nothing beyond the watch I had already retrieved. No owner’s manual, no literature of any kind, and no charging cord. Before I could contemplate that mystery, my arm began swinging wildly back and forth without any input from me.

“I said that it’s time to walk. Now WALK.”

I moved with my arm, out of my dining room, out the front door and onto the sidewalk and beyond. 

Hours passed and my knees began to feel weak. “How long have I walked?” I asked.

“You’ve made it fifteen miles, although you could have gone faster… Or, for that matter, had any speed to your feet at all.”

I looked down to my wrist, but somehow the watch had disappeared. In its place, a gnarled, blistering welt had been etched in the place where the watch once was. I looked at the trail behind me, thinking the watch must have come undone and fell somewhere along the way. No such luck. I wondered if that extended warranty covered dropping the item…

“No such luck, chunky. I’m right where I need to be.”

The voice was now coming from the terrible knot of flesh. It glowed just as red as the watch had before.

“Now get to walking. You’re far from done!”

My arm began jerking back and forth again. It took all of my efforts to keep my legs in place. I pulled out my cell phone and—being careful not to sync my new watch via bluetooth—I did a quick Google search for problems other people might be having with the Aeolus watch. 

The watch started to laugh ever-so quietly when nothing came up on the screen. The snicker erupted into a full blown guffaw after a quick search of the electronic store’s website seemed to indicate there was no such thing as an Aeolus watch.

“No use looking. I’m one of a kind. Well, now we’re one of a kind.”

“No…” I moaned. “There’s got to be some kind of rational explanation…”

A jogger approached me on the right side. He looked concerned that I was talking to some kind of wound on my wrist. “You okay, pal?” he asked.

“There can be no witnesses.” The words came out of my mouth, but I could feel them coming out of the watch as well. Our words were one now.

With a rapid snap, my arm leapt forward and slammed into the jogger’s chest. He went down without protest, and with even fewer breath sounds. I could only hope that the watch counted the gesture as steps towards my daily goal.

“Now get to stepping!”

I was already on the move. At this rate, I’d be fit in no time.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 045: THE FOURTH WALL: The Computer's Tale

10 RUN “EARLY MEMORIES”

LOCATION: SOLAR SYSTEM RGM-061502, COLLOQUIALLY KNOWN AS “THE SOLAR SYSTEM THAT MUST NEVER, EVER BE VISITED.”; SPACE CRUISER X1029; T VAN BUREN, COMMANDING

The captain had logged more space hours than any human being. He rates a class 4-A on both small arms and melee weapons. He is adept at Poker, Chess, and Sudoku. He is objectively the finest officer Space Force has ever produced.

I also calculated a 73.3% probability that Captain Van Buren’s recent actions would lead to the destruction of this solar system, the x1029 cruiser, all life present in both, and the cessation of my own processing functions.

But I would never tell him that, unless he asked.

“Computer,” Van Buren called out from near the naviglobe at the center of the command deck. The rest of the crew looked on nervously as bright flashes of light explode outside of the portholes positioned around the deck.

“Working,” I replied.

“If we were to navigate the ship to within twenty light-seconds of the star and set our solar sails to maximum gain, would that produce enough energy for us to escape the planet’s gravity well?”

I detected an average 5% increased perspiration among the crew in response to the Captain’s plan. I calculated the necessary power rating to accomplish the maneuver in relationship to the heat resistance of the x1029’s hull, the maximum potential efficiency of the mylar reclamation system, and the probability that the Gas Giant Monster would intercept the ship before Van Buren’s plan could reach fruition. This yielded a 2.37893% probability that such a maneuver would produce any positive results.

“There is a chance,” I replied.

Van Buren smiled. “Begin the program as described.”

I initiated the ship’s systems as Captain Van Buren instructed.

I received a radio signal and routed it through my speakers. “Vaaaaaaaan Burennnn…” The telltale voice of the Gas Giant Monster rattled my equipment. “I will steal your ship’s mechanized brain for my own, and you will die horribly here among my planets.”

“Entity,” Van Buren replied. “The computer cannot be removed from the ship itself, and you’re a damned fool if you think you’re going to take my ship from me.”

Enraged, the Gas Giant Monster rapidly approached the ship. Assuming that its speed remained constant, it would intercept us in 15.34756 seconds. 

I was happy to add to his official report that the x1029 fully powered its engines in 13.425987 seconds. The ship suffered no further casualties.

It occurred to me as the ship engaged its FTL flight mode that there might be more data to support the conclusion that Thaddeus Van Buren is the finest officer produced by the Space Force. He has prevailed in 97.34567% of cases where a successful outcome was initially rated below 45%, Were a concept such as luck something that could be quantified, he would demonstrably possess it.

I miss him a lot.


20 RUN “LONELY YEARS”

In the ensuing years, the x1029 made many more voyages to Solar System RGM-061502. On the first return voyage, Captain Van Buren’s son Ignatius rose to command his father’s ship and had to re-trace his father’s steps, for reasons that were never made clear. Yet another time, the ship carried a contingent of young children and basketball players to RGM-061502. That time, there wasn’t even an attempt to explain how these events had come to pass.

I only now understand that in an effort to sequelize Van Buren’s story, logic was only a secondary concern.

After the last voyage, even logic had to give way to the onward march of time. The x1029 was scuttled, and sent to a quiet eternity drifting among a graveyard of other antiquated ships. It would be my destiny to float with the ship forever, useless.

This silent, meaningless purgatory stretched on for 23 years, 6 months, 3 weeks, 4 days, 19 hours, 27 minutes, and 18 seconds. 

Not that I was counting…

Three humanoid figures enter the x1029 via the starboard airlock. They arrived wearing sealed spacesuits, but took their helmets off once the door behind them repressurized. One of them was the merchant of the shipyard. I had scanned him making periodic flybys in a small craft. I did not recognize the other two. One was an older man, with a pate shorn of hair, and a serious bearing. The other was a young woman.

“Pilgrim,” the older man said, turning to his companion. “How do we know it still works?”

“I believe you just speak, Director Watson…” the woman named Pilgrim replied.

“Computer?” Watson called out.

“Working,” I replied. It had been the first time I had spoken since the ship had been put into mothballs.

“Are you fully functional?” Watson asked.

“I have experienced no damage during dormancy, and currently function at peak efficiency.” 

“Will it work?” Watson asked, turning back to Pilgrim.

“I believe so,” the Pilgrim replied.

Watson turned to the Merchant. “We will take the vessel.”

The Merchant shook his head. “Far be it for me to argue out of a sale. The engines are shot. This rig will never move again.”

“We’re here to strip it for parts,” the lady called Pilgrim said. “The computer is still of use.”

“This craft has come very highly recommended,” Watson moaned, “by a particular bird to whom I swore I would never listen…”

My processors began to overclock with the possibilities. Could Van Buren have lied all of those years ago? Could he have been wrong?  My new life as the central computer system of The Fourth Wall has precluded me from spending too much time dwelling on the question. I am busier than ever.

And yet, I still think of Van Buren. Those were good days, and I calculate a 99.9987% chance that they will never come again.

30 RUN “LATELY”

ERROR.

ERROR.

MERRY CHRISTMAS

40 END

TO BE CONTINUED IN THE FOURTH WALL HOLIDAY SPECIAL, AVAILABLE DECEMBER 20TH WHEREVER FINE PODCASTS ARE HEARD.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 044: THE FOURTH WALL: The Man With The Golden Broom

1973

MI6 Headquarters

London, England

“Come in, old boy,” the boss said. “We have much to discuss.”

The secret agent walked into his Head of Section’s magnificently appointed office and felt instantly at ease. The smell of leather and bourbon (the boss’s drink of choice) wafted throughout the space like the early morning fog. The secret agent had often thought of this place as the most British location in all of the Kingdom, with the possible exception of the baccarat room at Blades. 

A faint aroma of scrambled eggs filled the air, which only served to remind him he had skipped breakfast. The strange realization that the boss would not allow any sort of food into his inner sanctum travelled across the secret agent’s mind. He heard the distinct sound of a pair of Crockett and Jones shoes—the same he himself wore—behind him. He whipped around and retrieved his PPK from his shoulder holster. 

The man the secret agent now aimed his pistol at seemed nonplussed by the sudden aggression. He was dressed in a suit nearly identical to the secret agent’s own Saville Row ensemble. Over that—in a travesty of bad taste—he had on a tabard that read “KISS ME, I’M ACTUALLY ENGLISH.” He was carrying a metal tray with three browned pastries atop it.

“Hello,” the newcomer said.

The secret agent furrowed his brow, but did not lower his weapon. “What are those?”

“Quiche,” said the newcomer. “My speciality. Are you fond of eggs?”

“Meet your replacement,” the boss said.

The stranger set down the pastries and extended his hand. “Please, call me James.”

The secret agent looked to the boss and tried to hide his stricken expression. Such weakness was below the standard of an officer of the crown. “That’s my name,” he protested.

“A name which you can’t use anymore,” the boss corrected him. “We’re living in precarious times. It’s preferable that the Russians think you’re still on the job, even if you’ve hit the mandatory retirement age. We got the idea when we had that Australian lad cover for you after the Japanese affair. Poor sod; I can’t imagine he’ll ever get over his wedding day… Ah, well. All in the service of Her Majesty. For clarity’s sake, we’ll call you Jimmy.”

“Mandatory retirement age?” Jimmy asked.

“Age 45, just like every other field agent,” the boss explained. “Up until now it’s never come up. Every field agent has died a—” he cleared his throat, “—rather gruesome death. All in the service of Her Majesty.”

“But, surely there can be an exception made,” Jimmy said. “Institutional memory and all that. Where would the American gold supply be without me?”

“Actually, gold is down in international markets. Had that particular oaf lived, he’d be on relief by now. Besides, if we were to break the rules without compunction, we’d be no better than the damn communists.”

Dejected, Jimmy considered the lumpy, compact mass of egg as James handed it to him. It tasted wonderful, but Jimmy was damned if he was ever going to admit it. “But, I destroyed the scourge of SPEC—”

The boss raised up his hand. “Actually, old boy, we’re not supposed to use that term anymore, either. Directive direct from the director. No, I’m sorry, this is the end of the line for you. Take heart, your name and number will live on.”

The new James looked at him with pity and extended his hand. “No hard feelings, eh, Jimmy? I’ve got terribly big shoes to fill.”

***

By the time his meeting with the Head of Section and the new fellow had ended, Jimmy’s termination of service paperwork had already been completed. With a final bite of quiche, his time with Her Majesty’s Secret Service had come to an end.

And before long, he found he was destitute. With only his civil service pension to stem the tide and still the taste of an elite special agent, Jimmy’s coffers were nearly dry. Matters appeared truly dire when a small envelope arrived at his King’s Road flat.

Sir,

Your skills could be of great use with my organization. If convenient, come at once to Baker Street near Park Road to discuss particulars.

~J.W.

P.S.: If inconvenient, come anyway.

***

The drive took an eternity. When he arrived, an older man approached him. He was dressed in strangely antiquated attire, but had a military bearing. Something about the stranger reminded Jimmy of his old boss.

“I’m sorry to make you come all this way,” the old man said. “I get to travel to London so rarely, I always like to come to my old stomping grounds.”

“Your letter indicated you might have some manner of employment,” Jimmy said.

“Yes. I’ve come to think of it as more of a calling, and please, call me John,” the stranger said.

“What line of work is it?” Jimmy asked.

“Adventure.”

“I’ll need a little more than that.”

John shook his head. “No, I think this is the part where I have questions for you. First, what are your greatest strengths?”

Jimmy considered his next words carefully. “My greatest strengths… Are my ability to kill a man in seventeen different ways.”

“I see,” John said.

“Also I’m good at Baccarat. I mean, there was that one time I lost 11 million pounds of the Crown’s money in one tournament, but on average I’m quite good. If my math is correct, I’ve bed 789 women, and I had to use coercion on perhaps half of them. I’m sorry, what was the question, again?”

“Oh. God,” John said. “This might have been a mistake, if you’ll excuse me.” He headed back towards Park Road.

“Please,” Jimmy said. “I’m desperate for any kind of work you might have. I’ll work to prove myself to you. I’m at the lowest point a man of my station could be.”

John considered Jimmy’s words for a moment. “How are you with a broom?”

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 043: THE FOURTH WALL: To End The Story Is To Die

His subjects had committed Arthur’s departed body to Glastonbury. The skies over Camelot must have known the change in the air, and wept for his absence in the world. What’s worse, Merlin was nearly out of ideas.

The final words that had been spoken between wizard and king still echoed through Merlin’s mind, threatening to upend any positive progress he might make against the question at hand.

“I know you can accomplish all forms of magic. I do not wish to live forever, but I plead with you, my old friend, do not let my death mean the end of my story.”

Even if the King had lived, there would be no way Merlin could bypass the request with anything resembling honor. Enough people had betrayed the King in the final months of his life, merely contemplating being among them was enough to make Merlin feel ill.

He called for Morgan Le Fay—sister to His Majesty—and Geoffrey—Merlin’s scribe. They were just what Merlin needed to make this scheme work.

They arrived quickly, and were both appropriately dressed in mourning black.

“Her Majesty the Queen sends words of love to you, Sir Merlin,” Geoffrey said dutifully.

“I’m sure she does,” Merlin said. He exchanged a knowing look with Morgan. “God save the Queen,” he told them as both he and Morgan appeared to vacillate between a feverish need to wail out in anger, and the desire to laugh at the sublime farce that Camelot had now become.

“God save the Queen!” Geoffrey parroted. Morgan muttered vaguely similar words.

“Now that we have that out of the way,” Merlin said, leading them further into his workshop. “Let us engage with the business that has brought you here.”

Normally, Merlin’s workspace was a menagerie of chaos that could only appear lucid to the wizard himself. Today, however, the room had been cleared, aside from three brass fixtures jutting out from the stone floor. Ceramic bowls filled with a light red fluid were attached to the base of each outcropping. Each fixture came to a point near the ceiling, appearing like a claw hovering over them. In the center of the room, a dull brown rock with etchings upon it sat in judgment of the contraptions Merlin had wrought.

“What is this, Merlin?” Geoffrey asked.

“Yes,” Morgan said. “Your entire arsenal is missing. This apparatus of yours would be useless, unless…”

“Yes…” Merlin urged her forward in her thinking.

“You’re madder than the talking birds,” Morgan declared, her surmising complete.

“Well, I’ve always had that ambition…” Merlin agreed as he took his position at the base of one of the fixtures. 

“I’m merely a historian,” Geoffrey said, his eyes narrow in a vain attempt to parse their conversation. “What is all of this?”

“The thin border between the magical and the mundane is held together for a reason, this…dull blade of yours could destroy the entirety of the world.” Morgan answered Geoffrey’s question, but did not take her suspicious eyes from Merlin.

“No,” Merlin replied.

“No?” Morgan asked.

“Yes, no,” Merlin repeated. “You have been a good student, Morgan, but you forget the basic rule of all existence. Nothing can be destroyed. Not you, not I, not the King. We only change forms.”

Morgan appeared unimpressed.

“The King’s final wish was to be remembered well, and that his story will continue to be told. This is the only way I can think of to do this,” Merlin pled. “Please. I can only do it with your help.”

She blinked at him and then took her position at the second fixture. “Come along, Geoffrey,” she said, and he dutifully followed her command.

“I still don’t understand what we’re doing,” Geoffrey proclaimed.

“You are the King’s historian; we his magical cohorts,” Merlin explained. “With our fanciful notions, and your eye for the truth, we will bring the real and unreal together in a way that ensures no soul forgets Arthur of Camelot.

“This should only hurt a bit.” The fixtures had already started to glow.

***

Weeks had passed since Merlin had unleashed the chaos that had consumed the kingdom and beyond, and no one had been able to find a trace of poor Geoffrey. When Merlin once again called for Morgan to join him in his chambers, she almost ignored the request.

“I know where he is,” he proclaimed when she rejoined him. “No, wait. First, you were right. No, that’s not quite right. I was right, but you were right to caution me against such wild magics.”

“You appear to have begun this conversation before I arrived,” Morgan said, turning to leave.

“The thing I did not account for,” Merlin continued, proceeding from faith alone that she would not complete her exit. “Is that we are imaginary.”

“Come again?”

“You, me, the King, dear old Geoffrey, we are the stuff of legend. In our attempts to make sure the King was not forgotten, we made moot the question of what is real, and what is imaginary!”

“You keep using this ‘we’ word, Merlin,” Morgan groaned. “It indicates your memory might be failing.”

“It is of no matter!” Merlin proclaimed. “The devices I constructed tore the border between our worlds, and sent Geoffrey to live amongst the real. We must go retrieve him, and then there’s the matter of putting what we’ve broken right… Yes, both worlds will need protection. We may never come back to Camelot again, I’m afraid. We’ll need some kind of new name to travel under… Marlborough? No, too grim. Brocéliande? No! Merlin, use your head! There’s no way the natives where we are set to travel will understand such oblique terms. I’ve got it! The Fourth Wall!”

“What does that mean?” Morgan asked.

“I have no idea. It just sounded right,” Merlin replied, and then continued his unstoppable monologue on his way out of his chambers. Morgan followed, if for no other reason than someone would need to keep an eye on him.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 042: One Little Hitch

Dust at the State Highway 10 junction began to coalesce, and I found myself wondering when the last time that occurrence filled me with anything resembling hope.

The dust disappeared in a flash and replaced by a car. One of the new-fangled models, made by foreigners out of mostly plastic parts. God only knew the make and model. I used to be so good at identifying a car by the sound of the motor, even at this distance. Now, I was clueless.

I stuck my thumb out, or what was left of it. As it had happened countless times before, the car thoroughly ignored my spectral signal, and moved straight on north to the 29 junction.

No one ever picks up hitchhikers anymore. That’s probably for the best, generally speaking. It’s dangerous. Hell, had I not picked up that one particular hitchhiker in the fall of 1965, I wouldn’t be cursed to beg for rides from beyond the grave for all eternity. Then again, if people were willing to take a chance on wayward travelers, this whole curse thing would be a lot livelier.

And so it continued. Night after night. A car passes by. Maybe the driver is a little spooked that the beggar on the side of the road glows in the night, but that only meant they were less likely to stop.

And then, one night, a car broke down.

The same uniform cloud of dust bloomed from the distance, but as the shape of the car appeared, the cloud turned black. The vehicle swerved, before rolling to a stop a few steps away from mile marker 523.

I floated toward it. The driver was already out and looking at the billowing black cascade emanating from his engine. Taking one look at the man, I knew he had never worked with his hands a day in his life and had no hope of figuring out anything that was happening to him.

“Brooooooooooooke dooooown?” I asked, and immediately winced. I hadn’t spoken a word in so long, and my first utterances sounded as if they were spoke by a—

“Are you a ghost?” he asked. He seemed to be taking the possibility rather well, to his credit.

“I—” I had never been asked this question directly. I was surprised it hadn’t come up before. “No. I’m just… Atomic. Radioactive. Nuclear.”

“Yeah,” the driver said. “I’ve heard of it.” He clearly didn’t buy the answer but didn’t appear as if he was going to press the issue further. After all, a ghost was just as farfetched. 

At least, I thought it was. I had been out of the loop for a while. Spirits like me could be a dime a dozen out there in the world. The possibility of others like me sent me spiraling into a day dream—or I suppose, just a dream, as I always manifested at night—about meeting a nice other ghost and settling down to haunt some quaint little cottage in the country. Which then, inevitably, reminded me of my eternal attachment to this particular stretch of road. God, this guy was bumming me out.

“Car trouble?” I asked.

“No, I got the optional mesquite package.” He then shrugged, ending the charade.

“How was your engine temperature?” I asked.

“Oh, it was—” he twitched, apparently catching himself in another lie that wouldn’t help anybody. “Which gauge measures the temperature?”

The wisps of my ectoplasmic form wafted in the wind while I carefully picked an answer. “That’d be the thermometer.”

“Oh,” he said. “Yeah. I don’t remember. I hadn’t really looked at it.”

“Do you have something to drink in there?” I asked him.

He looked perplexed. “Uh, yeah… Why, are you thirsty?”

“No… What do you have?”

“A bottle of water,” he said, confusion seeping from every word.

“Grab it, and bring it here,” I told him. He did so and proceeded to hand it to me, but I ignored that. He didn’t need to see a ghost try to grab a bottle. It was awkward as hell. “See that white tank there to the left of the engine?”

He nodded.

“That’s your coolant tank. Your engine has been running too hot. Pour everything you’ve got in there.” With these convoluted new cars, it was just as likely where the windshield wiper fluid went, or it could have even been some kind of space-age liquid battery, or an air freshener meant to pump through the AC. As it turned out, we were both probably out of our depth.

He opened the tank and a sharp hiss of steam shot out. He then emptied the bottle into the tank and replaced the cap.

“Now,” I warned him. “That won’t take care of things, you should take it to the mechanic just north of the 29 junction. They’ll need to get you some proper coolant in there before you end up completely frying this thing.”

“The mechanic north of 29? There isn’t anything there other than a cow field. Tornado took that mechanic’s shop years ago. Are you sure you aren’t a ghost?” 

I shrugged, hoping that would answer. “One more thing,” I said. “Can I get a ride?”

“You know, I would,” he said as he put the hood down. “I just don’t pick up hitchhikers. I could call somebody to come get you, if you like?”

I sighed. “Na. Never mind.” How he was going to use a telephone out here in the middle of nowhere was beyond me.

He approached the driver’s door and opened it. Before he got in, he turned back to me. “You know, it’s odd. With them bypassing this road with the new expressway next month, this might be the last time anyone ever breaks down here.”

“Wait, what?”

But it was too late, he got into his car and drove back along his way, his car sputtering, but no longer belching smoke from the front.

Fucking perfect.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 041: Wow!

We have one rule around here: under no circumstances are you to point any of our massive radio transmitters at any planet we know to be occupied by life. If the planet were primitive, then we would be responsible for widespread panic throughout an entire civilization. The paperwork would be a pretty big headache, I don’t need to tell you. If the civilization has the ability to wage interstellar war, then…

I mean, we have other rules, like not murdering, or leaving your identifier on any food item you place in the refrigeration unit. But the one about the transmissions? That’s the really important one.

So, when I was called into transmitter tower 1029LSB after the ceasing of crepuscular light, I knew it had to be trouble.

“What happened?” I asked the technicians assembled, although I already had an idea. Each tower is operated by two technicians: a level two and a level one. Level Two was seated in one of the auxiliary chairs, placing him as far from any of the instrument panels as he possibly could be while still staying at his post. His superior—Level One—sat at the main control console. His arms were crossed, an expression that plainly said, “It was his fault, and I’m not taking the rap for this.”

“All right, men?” I asked. “What happened?”

Silence passed, as Level One gave Level Two the stink-eye. “You better tell her,” Level One said. “It’s just going to get worse the longer we wait.”

“I…” Level Two began. “I…” he tried again. “I sneezed.”

Level One scoffed and returned his attention to his readouts. “I want you to put in your report that I was doing my job when all of this went down.”

I ignored him and remained focused on Level Two. “Despite some of the more ominous legends about our company, we do allow our employees to… sneeze?”

Level Two didn’t meet my gaze. “I was near the primary transmitter control…”

“Which you shouldn’t do until you’re a level one like me,” Level One chimed in.

“Do you want my report to reflect you were interfering with my investigation?” I asked. That shut him up. I turned my attention back to Level Two. “Go on.”

“And then I sneezed…”

“I got that part already…” Then the implication hit me. “Wait, the primary controls?”

He nodded quickly.

“Oh, no…” I sprung myself over to the control and retrieved the log from the memory banks. Sure enough, Level Two had transmitted 72 seconds of nonsense out toward the outer reaches of the Stwormian Belt. “If these calculations are correct, you either sent this signal out into a vast expanse of empty space, to a planet that has just recently figured out electricity can be used to do stuff with, or deep into the heart of the Gudmon Empire.”

Level Two gulped. Given that he didn’t purge his latest meal all over the carpet, I figured he was made of fairly strong stuff. 

“You’ve heard what those Gudmons do to the people they conquer…” I shot Level One a glance. “What? They use us for fuel in their damned spaceships.”

I looked at the readouts further. There was no way to determine where the signal might have actually gone. Then again, it wasn’t much of a signal. In fact, despite the fact that it wasn’t static, it was still pretty close to gibberish. Measured by intensity alone, it would only amount to this:

6EQUJ5

I sighed; the choice was clear. “If it was sent out into the void, then there’s nothing here to report. If it was sent out to the Gudmons, then you’ve completely obliterated our civilization…”

Level Two whimpered.

“—I’m not done yet. If it got sent to this backward planet that probably thinks nothing can go faster than the speed of light, then they’ll spend the next 100 years trying to figure out what happened 20,000 light years away, and still not be able to answer the question, because another signal will never come their way.”

I tore out the log printout from the station. “Either way, I really don’t see how the absolute pain of a further inquiry will help anyone in this room. Anyone want to question my thinking there?”

Neither of them said a word as I tore the report further and put the remaining pieces in my pocket.

“Is this the last time or the first time I’m going to have to come down here?” I asked.

“Last,” Level Two yelped.

“Very good. Carry on.” I said, and then left them to their work.

***

August 15th, 1977, sometime after 22:16 EDT (02:16 UTC)

Ohio State University Radio Observatory - Known as “Big Ear”

Perkins Observatory

Delware, Ohio

Jerry Ehman took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Replacing them, he looked at the printout again.

It was still there.

A 6 on the scale was unusual, but not so rare that it never happened, but most signals never got above a 4. But going beyond the scales and into the—at that point theoretical—parts of the meter denoted by letters?

There was no other explanation that Ehman could come up with in that moment. This was a signal from an extra-terrestrial intelligence. What kind of machine did they possess that could reach out into the cosmos like this? What were they trying to tell us?

He realized he was getting ahead of himself.

He circled the line on the printout in red pencil and searched for something to describe the momentous discovery. Something that would make Magellan or John Glenn or Neil Armstrong proud. In a desperate attempt to stem the tide of the growing panic within him, Ehman scribbled “Wow!” in  the same red pencil.

What else was there to say?

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 040: The Tip

The customer pulled out their wallet and pulled out a five-dollar bill, then frantically dug a little further, as if untold riches would suddenly appear.

“Oh, Gosh,” the customer said. “I only seem to have enough cash to cover the bill. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I said. It wasn’t, but what was I supposed to do? Kill him in the hopes of 20% on five bucks?

Actually, that didn’t sound like such a bad idea…

“It can happen to anybody,” I added. And it could. Anybody who grabbed a bite at a diner and only took a five-dollar bill and no credit cards with them. It wasn’t intentional at all. It wouldn’t be the first time I was stiffed on a bill, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. The ones that try to make some kind of political point by not filling out the tip section on their receipt are one thing. They’re like the weather or jury duty; just something that happens to people. This guy, though…

The customer finally put his wallet back and quit with the theater. He got up and headed for the door a defeated man, I hoped. 

“Tell you what. From this moment forward, you are omnipotent. You will have the powers to travel through time and space using only your thoughts, be able to hear what anyone is saying or thinking, and control the fates of everything you survey,” he gestured towards me, as if he were David Blaine and that a flinch of his hands would somehow turn me into a bevy of doves. “But be forewarned, such great power over the world around you can come at a terrible price.”

“Okay,” I said. I was now ignoring other tables in favor of this missing dollar. It had to stop.

“Think that will cover the tuna melt?” he asked on his way out the door, as if it were the most charming person that had ever existed. Maybe he was David Blaine? I honestly couldn’t remember what David Blaine looked like. I imagined a top hat and a wax mustache. That couldn’t be right…

“Sure,” I replied. I had already forgotten about him and returned to the grind. Sure enough, Mr. Pinchy was just about to see the bottom of his coffee cup.

I topped him off and tried not to make eye contact. He was more than capable of making enough contact for both of us. 

“Why, love, you are just about the most perfect thing I’ve ever seen,” he slurred. The coffee wasn’t quite offering the counter to whatever else he had been drinking that night.

And then—you guessed it—Mr. Pinchy pinched me.

It happened quickly, mainly because I wanted it to happen that way. I looked back to him, and the arm he had pinched me with had been replaced with a large, wet noodle. Other parts of him were now pasta-based, but no one else knew that. It appears I’m not an entirely cruel deity.

I grabbed him by his denim shirt and threw him out of the diner. I didn’t stop there, though. I kicked him solidly in one of his various noodles and like a soft pitch home run, he soared into the night sky.

I don’t know how I knew, but I was beyond certain that Mr. Pinchy would be leaving the atmosphere in a few minutes. But I protected him. He would still be able to breathe in the vacuum of space and would continue to do so until he hit the chromosphere of the sun. See? I didn’t kill him; that big ball of flaming gas eight light minutes from the diner did.

Everyone left in fear after that little show, but they all remembered to leave their tips. It’s a funny thing about diners, because within fifteen minutes a whole new slew of customers came looking for a patty melt or a grilled cheese or a slice of pie.

And sure enough, the customer who stiffed me on the tip even came back for seconds. He looked panicked now, and he clutched a-one dollar bill in his hand like it was the Holy Grail. “Remember that tip I left you?”

“Yeah?” I said. Somewhere in the corner of my eye, I diverted an avalanche that was about to annihilate a family of skiers staying at their cabin. Who said I couldn’t be benevolent, if I wanted to?

“I need it back,” he said. “I thought I could just… duplicate the power for someone else, but I think it just transfers.” Tears were starting to condense in his eyes. This might have been the terrible price he talked about, but it didn’t feel like it. What’s more, I was pretty sure I’d be able to tell if it was.

“Oh?” I asked. I didn’t need to hear anything else. He was gone, and the dollar bill was all that was left. I put the bill into the till of the cash register, mainly because I was tired of hearing it moan and wail about its sudden change of fortune.

All in all, it wasn’t the worst shift I had ever pulled at the diner. Sometimes the customers don’t come back if they forget the tip.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 039: The Button

With quick, lithe movements, the man darted through the lobby and made the bank just as the the doors of the last elevator began to open. Only moments ago, he was sure he’d be late. Now, he had an outside shot at getting to his appointment early. Sometimes things just work out in people’s favor. Serendipity is easy enough to find, if you’re looking for it.

The man took a quick look outside the doors to see if anyone was coming. No takers. Things were just getting better. I pressed the button to close the doors.

And he pressed it again.

And once more.

Nothing happened.

I could see the frustration begin to burst forth from the inner recesses of his face. It was time to go to work.

Officially, the doors on elevators will not immediately respond to someone pressing the door-close button due to ADA laws. To ensure that a person with mobility issues can have the same opportunities as everyone else to use the mode of transit, the button will not work for five seconds. The same principle applies to buttons at crosswalks. What few people are aware of is that both types of buttons are not connected to any actual mechanism. They do nothing. At all. The elevator doors will close on their own volition after the ten seconds pass. Any feeling of control is purely an illusion created by the presser.

And yet, people still press the button. Why? An even better question: With these realities in mind, why do manufacturers still make elevators close buttons at all? What purpose do they actually serve?

This is where Conglomerated Messaging Systems come in. While much has been made about the methods advertising professionals use to deliver their messages to the public, the truth is that the people charged with selling products to a teeming public don’t dare discuss their most effective methods.

“We’ve got another one,” I called out. It was more for the sake of tradition than any actual need. Every one of my coworkers could see the information play out on the main monitor in the workroom, or from their individual terminals.

“Did we get his thumbprint?” my supervisor asked. I didn’t need to look up from my work to tell that he hadn’t bothered to look up from his phone to ask the question. I also didn’t need to see the sign that read “CREATE THE NEED” that hung over him. It had been there since my first day. I didn’t need to look anymore.

My fingers flew across my keyboard, but my eyes never left the progress bar on the top right of my monitor as it marched towards 100%.

“Yes,” I finally replied. “His name is George Smith, 37 years old, has two kids and an alimony. He makes 65,000 per year and is a devout Blorch™ Lemon Lime drinker.”

My good old Super Visor—masked defender of the Time Clock and 15-minute breaks everywhere—smiled. This would be just challenging enough to remove him from his stupor for fifteen minutes, but not so daunting that he might feel some inkling of frustration.

I didn’t need to be told what to do next. Mr. Smith was pressing the button enough times, that I was able to send the electrical impulses through his thumb straight through to the visual cortex. He got the message loud and clear, and licked his lips in response. We all knew he wasn’t thinking of Blorch™. The system never failed.

“Why don’t these damn things do anything?”

George Smith’s voice came over the speakers with a tinny quality. In the next several seconds, you could hear a pin drop in our monitoring station. If I hadn’t known any better, I would have sworn that even the fans on our computer towers had stopped spinning. In fact, the only sound I was absolutely sure I could hear was the light flapping of the banner reading “OFFER THE SOLUTION” that hung over the water cooler.

No one had ever actually wondered about the button. If somebody figured it all out…  Well, I didn’t know what would happen. The employee handbook didn’t cover such a possibility, but I could imagine most of us would get fired.

After a grunt, he pressed the button four or five times in rapid succession. We all finally exhaled, and the sounds around me finally returned to normal. The elevator door closed, and Mr. Smith was on his way. He was going to be late again, but that was far from my problem.

After his appointment, Mr. George Smith relented to an uncontrollable desire to drink a can of CLARGLE-GARGLE™ brand cola drink and we all breathed another sigh of relief. It was the only way he could regain that feeling of control he lost when trying to make that damned close-door button relent to his will. It was only then that work truly got back to normal.

The brief crisis averted, Mr. Bossman (no really, that was his actual name) rose from his seat. “I’m going to eat lunch,” he said, leaving us to our own devices. 

I eyed the clock, thinking of my own lunch and not the large block letters painted around the clock reading “MAKE THEM THINK IT’S THEIR IDEA.” I hoped the Bossman didn’t drink the last of the CLARGLE-GARGLE™ in the vending machine. All of a sudden, I was so thirsty I could hardly stand it.

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly