Trust

Peter woke with sun in his eyes. A bird sang. He stretched and sat up. A breeze stirred the branches around him. The air was warm and the leaves a deep green. Peter swung his legs over the edge of the platform he had built high in the tree and sat there listening to the morning sounds in the forest. The platform swayed with a gentle motion beneath him.

He got up and pulled on his cammies. Threw a couple of cans in his pack for breakfast and checked the load in his rifle. He lowered the rope ladder and climbed down to the forest floor. It was a long climb. His hidden nest was lost in the overhead foliage. No one was going to surprise him up there.

He secured the ladder to the trunk of the tree in shadow and hiked over to the ridge. He sat down on a log to eat his breakfast while he checked out the town below. He saw the teenage girl slip into the Oaks Market to forage. The couple with two children made their way down Main, guns ready, and entered the department store after listening at the door for at least five minutes. Peter saw smoke rising from the picnic area in the park south of town. That would be the young couple who had arrived a month ago.

He didn’t see the grandparents and their granddaughter or the boy who was ten or so. The grandparents slept in, he knew. The boy seemed to like it better at night.

These few who remained in town were all cautious. Except for the ten-year-old boy. He was feral.

Peter heard the sound of an engine, for the first time in weeks. He stood up and dug his binoculars out of his pack. A car appeared at the end of Main and came forward, in no hurry. It stopped in front of the hardware store. A man got out, armed with a shotgun. A woman got out the other side. Rifle. Two kids, from the back. Handguns. Like the family now in the department store, they listened outside the hardware store for a long time before entering. Peter was already running down the path off the ridge, to catch them before they left.

He followed Oak down to Main and took up position in the middle of the intersection, trying to catch his breath. When the family came out of the hardware store, half a block away, Peter raised his arms and hailed them. His hands were empty and open.

The four froze at the sound of his voice. The father and both kids brought up their weapons and aimed them at him. The mom faced in the other direction, rifle up, scanning the street and the windows in the buildings on both sides back that way.

“Stand clear,” the father said to Peter, loud enough to be heard. “Stay where you are and we’ll run you down.”

“I’ll move when you start up,” Peter said. “If you’re just passing through, have a good trip. If you might be staying, I thought I’d tell you who’s here already.”

The man glanced back at his wife.

“Clear so far,” she said.

“Keep your hands up,” the man said to Peter.

Peter told them about the family of four in the department store, and the young couple on the edge of town. He told them about the teenage girl, and the grandparents and their granddaughter, and the ten-year-old boy.

The mother turned her head from time to time to look at him. Blank expression. Dangerous. The children seemed tense but curious.

“So far,” Peter said, “no one here has trusted anyone else enough to team up with them. We’re all on our own. I live out in the woods. If you choose to settle here, you won’t be bothered by a welcome party.”

“We’ll take that into account,” the man said.

“One other thing,” Peter said. “I’m organizing a little experiment. I don’t know if anything will come of it, but I’ve invited everyone in town to a sort of meeting. At noon, day after tomorrow, at the park. There’s a large playing field. We’ll all arrive separately, of course, and position ourselves around the edge of the field, far enough apart so that everyone feels safe. Then we’ll all move forward until we’re as close to each other as we can tolerate.”

“What’s the point?”

“We see each other every day. We’re all just trying to make our way. This would be a time to exchange names and stories. Maybe mention some problems we could use advice about. Maybe set up another meeting.”

“Nobody would risk their kids,” the man said. “I’d come alone, if I came at all.”

“There would be four couples,” Peter said, “three with kids, if everyone came. And then the teenage girl and the younger boy. And me, of course. Maybe everybody wouldn’t come, but if anybody came, anybody at all, it would be a start.”

“You get a bunch of folks armed and nervous out in an open field, they might start sharing something other than their names.”

“That’s the point of everybody staying at a distance they feel safe,” Peter said. “Hell, we can shout to each other if we have to. There’s seven youngsters. At least they’d get a look at one another. We’ll make sure everybody has a chance to speak.”

“We’ll think about it,” the man said. “We talk about how to join up with others all the time. But you don’t know who you can trust. You could be gathering everybody up to get rid of them.”

“And be alone?” Peter said.

“Yes.”

“I’m alone now.”

Returning to the ridge, he settled down to watch. Spring had settled in. Time to start a garden. He’d need to hide it and guard it, wouldn’t he? A community garden would produce more for everyone.

The new family remained in town. With children involved, the parents had so much more to gain, but also to lose, if they trusted somebody else.

Two days later, Peter left his pack and his gun in the tree. He walked down to town wearing a short-sleeved shirt and jeans, unarmed for the first time since death and chaos claimed the country.

He arrived at the park early, but, to be safe and to avoid ambushes, so had everyone else. Without direction, they automatically spread out around the field. Everyone was there. Only Peter was unarmed, but that didn’t bother him. The presence of the children was a good sign.

The sky was clear, the sun bright. Two crows argued on the roof of a gazebo in the overgrown public rose garden beyond the field. Peter noticed a doe standing at the edge of the woods.

He walked to the center of the field and gestured everyone in. They came forward slowly, eyeing each other, pausing, until they formed a loose ring around him. Peter felt tension in the group but also something else.

“We don’t have trust yet,” he said, “but we’re here. We’re together. We have hope.”

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Warriors

My dad was a software engineer. My mom taught fourth grade. They were an easygoing pair. They laughed a lot. I rarely saw either of them get upset. They were content with our life. Not ambitious. Just content.

My brother and I didn’t give them a hard time growing up. To us, they seemed like typical grownups, typical parents, to be respected but also, in a lot of ways, to be ignored as we got on with our lives at school and with our friends. I guess you could say we loved and trusted our parents, but mostly we took them for granted.

This all changed on the morning after a nuclear device destroyed London and set off a multinational exchange of missiles that left most of the planet dead or poisoned.

The war, or whatever you’d call it – the chain reaction, maybe – only took a couple of hours in the night to end life as we knew it. I learned later that a sort of paralysis set in among most of the survivors around the world, paralysis and a fanatical craving for news, more news, the latest news about… well, about the situation we were all in.

That paralysis never affected our mom and dad. They didn’t seem to want or need to hear any more about the catastrophe. When my brother and I woke up that first morning, they sat us down and explained what had happened and what we were going to do about it. No anger or tears. They were matter-of-fact.

We had a quick breakfast and then drove down to the local supermarket. A mob was looting it.

“What do you want us to grab?” I said.

“We don’t want you to grab anything,” my dad said. “We’re all going in there and help those who need it.”

I wondered about the wisdom of this and thought to myself that I’d keep an eye out for things I could take home.

The store was in chaos. Folks from the neighborhood were grabbing anything they could get their hands on, wheeling out shopping carts loaded to overflowing. We went in. The lights were off and I heard shouts and shrieks. I saw folks sobbing as they ran around grabbing food.

An elderly couple stood in the pet-food aisle, putting cans into a basket they had brought from home. It looked too heavy for them. The man’s arms were shaking as he tried to hold it up. They were neatly dressed, unlike most in the store.

“Can I carry that basket for you?” I said.

They looked at me.

“I don’t have a dog myself,” I said.

“We would pay for this,” the woman said. “We’re not taking food for ourselves, but our Andy shouldn’t have to starve just because people can’t get along.”

I carried the basket out to their car and put it on the back seat. They thanked me, got in, and drove away.

Back inside, I saw my brother helping a man in a wheelchair. The man was pointing at something on a high shelf and Buddy was stretching up to reach it.

A young woman with a baby in her arms was using her free hand to stuff jars of baby food into a bag on the floor. It was a slow process. Tears ran down her cheeks. The baby was quiet, looking around at the clatter and racket. I felt like I was in a dream. It turned out that I was crying too. I went over to help the woman. I held her baby until she had gathered all she could carry.

Outside at her car, she tried to get hold of herself.

“I’m alone with my son,” she said, shaking her head.

“Write down your address,” I said. “I’ll tell my dad and we’ll make sure you aren’t alone.”

She lived right there in the neighborhood, a couple of blocks over from us.

By the end of the day, the store had been emptied, front and back. We went home and my mom made us a cold dinner. There was no electricity or gas and the water was off.

“Why didn’t we get food for ourselves?” my brother asked our dad.

“The food we brought home wouldn’t save us,” he said. “The neighborhood, and the town, must organize and work together. That will save us. When we finish dinner, Mom and Buddy will dig a latrine in the back yard. Tom, you and I will go out and knock on as many doors as possible this evening. We’ll introduce ourselves and ask for help down at the creek tomorrow. We need to put up some impoundment barriers, to create pools we can use as small reservoirs.”

“Are we going to dam the creek?”

“No, because the folks downstream will need its water as much as we do. We just need to create pools so we can take our share out every day more easily.

“Tomorrow, we also need to call a meeting and form a militia. We need to organize our weaponry, for hunting and protection, and put in place local laws as soon as possible.”

Buddy and I sat and stared at him. He wasn’t angry or frantic or worried. He was just as calm as ever, but serious.

“Boys,” he said. “I remember reading the autobiography of a prisoner at Andersonville. Andersonville was the worst Confederate prison during the Civil War. In his book, he explained how the men who survived imprisonment there were those who remained in good humor, who kept their heads and their hope, and who worked with each other to get along. I want you to get up each morning with the idea that you’ll work hard, but also smile at the sunshine. Things are going to seem rough for a while, but after that you’re going to inherit a new world.”

“We should start the gardens tomorrow, Honey,” my mom said to him.

Buddy and I exchanged a look. Our parents had somehow changed before our eyes into heroes, into warriors.

Dad, about the car…

My entry in a Worth 1000 contest.

 

Cheerleader Kicks Herself in Head

[Headline, Huffington Post]

I was sitting at home, resting with  some very sore ribs, when my daughter came home with a shiner.

“Oh, Honey,” I said.

“Don’t worry, Mom,” she said. “It’s just the one eye this time.”

I was going to beg her to take up swimming, but her dad got home from work just then. He hobbled in and sank onto the couch.

“Kicked myself in the groin,” he groaned.

“That’s the worst,” I said.

“What happened to you?” he said.

“The ribs,” I said, “While I was vacuuming.”

“And what about you, Pumpkin?” he said to our daughter.

“Just the one eye,” she said. “I’m OK. A little makeup and I’ll be good as new.”

“Listen, Pumpkin…,” her dad began, but our son Buddy burst into the room with a whoop.

“You should have seen it!” he said. “It was awesome!”

“Did you kick the back of your head again?” I said.

“Nah. I kicked Tommy!!”

Muscle Memory

Chase Jackson opened his eyes. A doctor was standing over him.

“Where am I?”

“In a special clinic,” the doctor said.

Jackson heard large fans. The sound seemed to be echoing down a long metal hall. Jackson tasted nutmeg.

“Who am I?”

“It won’t help if I tell you,” the doctor said. “We’ve temporarily masked all your memories. You aren’t anybody at the moment.”

Jackson lay still, probing for information inside his head. It danced away from him. In spite of the fans, the air around him was still. The room was white.

The doctor helped him sit up.

“Wait here,” the doctor said, and left the room.

Presently a man in a dark suit came in. He sat down next to the bed.

“You are an agent,” the man said. “Code name Chase. We’re sending you on a mission that is so risky, so very risky, and you know so much, so very much, that we’ve removed your memory in advance. There are accounts of your exploits, but you won’t be reading them. Also, a warning: You may act in ways inconsistent with your true character. Do not let this worry you. When the time comes, you’ll know what to do.”

Jackson wept.

“Can I wear a dress?” he said.

The agent stared.

“Just messing with you,” Jackson said.

“Circus,” the agent said.

Suddenly, Jackson’s mind was awash with memories.

“They’re artificial,” the agent said, as he watched Jackson ponder the thoughts called forth in his brain. “Full of misinformation. You’ll be passing these memories along, if need be. Remember the trigger word.”

Jackson slept.

“Who am I?” he asked the doctor when he woke.

Two agents, one tall, the other short, got him up, dressed him, and led him down the hall and into a room where a safe sat on a table.

“Open it,” said the short agent.

Chase stepped over to the safe. He laid his ear to its side. His fingers caressed the dial on its door. Shortly, he pulled down on the handle and the safe opened.

“Muscle memory,” said the short agent.

Later they escorted Chase to the firing range. He discharged a variety of weapons offhand, with devastating results.

“Muscle memory,” said the short agent again.

“The Russians have developed an ultimate weapon,” the tall agent told Chase. “We’re sending you over to learn something about it. One of its inventors, a scientist named Tskeltofski, became so horrified by his work that he refused to have anything more to do with it. He’s been confined to an asylum for intellectuals and political prisoners. That’s where you’ll find him. We’re going to add an unstable streak to your nature before you go, so that you’ll fit in when you get there.”

The short agent held up a pack with wires hanging out of it.

“In the asylum, you will attach the green wires to your head and the red wires to Tskeltofski’s head. You will turn on the device in the pack and use your trigger word. An exchange of information will occur between you and the scientist.”

That night, they unbalanced Chase’s mind – ten degrees to the east – or so they thought, and transported him out to a secret landing strip. The agency flew him around the world and dropped him into the night in Russia, with his pack on his back. Agents on the ground spirited him through the woods and pointed to a high wall. Chase scaled it. He dropped into a garden behind a large Soviet-era building constructed in a style popular with the Nomenklatura vacationing around Drohobych in better times. The air was heavy with the scent of gardenia.

As he had requested, Jackson was wearing a dress, along with a wig of dreadlocks, turned backwards so that he stared out through the braids. A man in uniform confronted him.

“Please return to your room, Comrade,” the guard said in Russian, running his eyes over Chase’s outfit.

Chase’s eyes welled up. A soft sob escaped his painted lips.

“Please,” said the guard. “I dislike using force on the insane.”

Chase entered the asylum’s main building, which retained its sense of interior luxury. A second guard indicated the grand staircase.

Chase simpered, gathered up his train, and ascended the stairs. Somehow he knew which way to go. He entered the third door on the right. A man of Slavic aspect sat on the bed. He wore a heavy beard and heavier eyebrows.

“Tskeltofski,” Chase said. He turned his back to the man, bent over, and peered at him from between his legs.

The man sprang to his feet and adopted the same position. In this way they conversed, in a complex mixture of languages, between the two sets of legs.

“You are the one with the code name Chase?”

“I am. You are the scientist?”

The man snorted.

“You are the scientist,” he said.

“I’m not a scientist. At least, I don’t think I am. I am a secret agent,” Jackson said.

The man snorted again. He straightened and gestured, leaving the room and leading Jackson down the hall. They entered another room, where a safe sat on a table. Tskeltofski went to it, put his ear against it, caressed its dial, and in this way opened it. Jackson nodded.

Tskeltofski held up a warning finger.

“Safes nowadays usually utilize a keypad,” he said. “We live a lie.”

The two went down to a cellar range and fired handguns: 9X18 Makarovs, Nagant M1895s, Tokarev 7.62X25s. The insane gathered to watch. The two put on a clinic.

“For a scientist, you shoot well,” Jackson said.

Tskeltofski snorted for a third time.

“Is that an Eva Devecsery you’re wearing?” he asked. “It’s fetching.”

“You also have an excellent eye for fashion,” Jackson said. “For a scientist.”

“Why are we doing this?” Tskeltofski said.

“I can’t remember,” Jackson said. “I presume there are compensations.”

“When we get back to my room, look in my closet. You’ll find a little black Irfe cocktail number by Olga Sorokina in there, and a rather pathetic Marina Asta. How is one supposed to live like this?”

They passed the evening in the garden, drinking vodka, eating Sevruga caviar on toast, throwing back their heads and laughing in the wavering orange light thrown over them by torches inserted in sconces on the walls. The two were mad in the way that those who understand the fleeting nature of life are mad.

The next day, they took up Chase’s pack and attached its wires to their heads, green for Jackson, red for Tskeltofski.

“Circus,” Jackson said.

“Tsirk,” Tskeltofski said.

They turned on the device inside the pack.

When they came to, they detached the wires. They changed into short smocks and sandals, and shaved their heads. Tskeltofski brought out a similar pack and again they attached the wires, not switching colors.

“Tsirk,” Jackson said.

“Circus,” Tskeltofski said.

When they came to again, they stripped and oiled themselves, and later bathed. Then they slept.

“One of us must go back and one of us must stay,” the taller of them said.

“Of course. It could not be otherwise. We are star-crossed. Who goes and who stays?”

“Which of us is Jackson and which Tskeltofski?”

Neither knew.

“What about our memories?”

“Circus, tsirk” they said together, but the recorded memories in their brains ran backwards and only confused them.

“The one who wore the Devecsery so beautifully must go,” said the short man.

They both tried on the dress. It fit the tall man.

“Muscle memory,” he said. “Is it a Russian or an American frock?”

“New York couture, without a doubt,” said the small man. “You could whistle for such a dress in Russia.”

When night came, the tall man scaled the wall and returned to the waiting extraction team in the woods. A small plane landed and he boarded it. In due course, he found himself back in the clinic in the United States.

The doctors removed his memory block. He stood in front of a mirror, staring into his own eyes.

“Huh,” he said. Emotions paraded across his face. Boring ambient music bubbled out of speakers in every room. Someone had posted red, purple, and blue squares on the white walls.

The next morning, Jackson awoke. A doctor was standing over him.

“Where am I?” he said.

“In a clinic.”

“Who am I?”

What Not To Say In The Summer Job Interview

My 60 entries, plus others, in a Worth 1000 contest.

My Talent-Show Feedback

My feedback, plus some from others.