The Cough: The Big Crunch

The Cough: The Big Crunch

[You can read previous episodes of The Cough here, here and here.]

No one ever thinks about the end of the universe anymore. I suppose that’s because I’m the only one left. I’m the only one left here at the end of the universe.

According to recorded history, humans never really gave it much thought until after the first thousand or so years. Since The Cough prevented anyone from dying of any other natural cause, some of those who chanced to live more than a few hundred years got it in their heads to avoid even the most remote dangers to see if they could set the record for the oldest person of all time. As a group, these people became known as Eremites, I guess because they were hardly seen. Actually I know it’s precisely because they were hardly ever seen, considering what they became – contract killers. Eremites found themselves employed by those not dedicated to the contest. So they became reclusive, seeing how difficult it is to kill someone when they know who you are. Believe me, when someone suspects you’re the one they hired to do the dirty, they start second guessing their life decision. It’s funny; some of us we pretty sloppy at the start of our careers. Well, not ‘us’ anymore. Swan died of The Cough several hundred years ago.

That sucks for her, so damn close to the end. But, it’s great for me because it means I won. Which also sucks for me because there’s no one left to acknowledge my accomplishment. But it’s also great because barring The Cough, the very end of the universe as it collapses back up itself will kill me with the crushing force of physics unwinding itself to become a singularity once again. (Funny how wrong they were about the universe expanding forever way back when.) I can’t think of a more exciting way to die. That makes me think about all those people who didn’t want to try and live forever…

That wound up being most people. In my youthful naivety I assumed everyone wanted to live as long as possible; I thought it was why people believed in places like Heaven. Turns out I was wrong. A lot of people got really bored after going into their second or third centuries and actually wanted to die. When I first heard about this I was dumbfounded, surprised to hear how uncompetitive people are. The catch was, people just couldn’t bring themselves to kill themselves. And so us Eremites offered to do it for them, and that’s how we came to offer our services. Really, it worked out beautifully for the human race. Sometimes you just find the right synergy as a species; most people didn’t want to keep living and us Eremites enjoyed eliminating possible threats to our existence. All but one, that is.

It took a while to come out, but nothing can stay hidden forever. Eventually it was discovered that The Cough was indeed engineered by a human being. The virus, impossible to detect until a person let out that unmistakable light, dry cough, was engineered by a guy named…hell, I forget. It was billions of years ago. Maybe it was a woman. Or a transgender. I know it wasn’t the bird-people because we came later. Funny thing was, we couldn’t cure it. I’ve build the sphere I’m in to withstand the collapse of the universe until the last possible moment, but none of us could figure out The Cough. We were left to assume the virus could disguise itself as ordinary cells until something triggered the virus to chain react. That something was usually too much of a particular emotion, but the emotion varied from person to person. If your trigger was too much sadness but you were a naturally happy person, you were either a winner or kind of screwed depending on your perspective.

Sorry, I’m babbling about ancient history when I should be concentrating on the here and now. All I have to do is wave my tentacles and rustle my feathers and… Great! I’m at exactly six minutes until I’m crushed into oblivion. Looking out the window of my sphere I can see the universe roiling with light, getting brighter with each passing second. I’m safe from The Cough. I’m going to win! I mean, sure, this is going to hurt like hell – that’s probably and understatement – but I win! I win.

5:34…5:33…5:32…

*cough*

Mother. Fucker. Mother fucking fucker.

Five minutes and twenty seconds to live. Not long enough to see the lights go out as most of the early universe’s leptons and anti-leptons pop back into existence. Mother fucking fuckity fuck. Really? Am I really not going to get to see this? I just had to be too goddam happy. FUCK. FUCKKKK. THIS IS FUCKING BULLSHIT. I’ve been alive for two billion years and this is how it ends?! I. CALL. BULLSHIT!

I should have seen this coming. I’ve been containing my emotions for…ever. Now, with entropy decreasing, now I get emotional? Emotions are entropic, so what the FUCK? You know what? If I’m going out like this I ain’t going without cursing all the FUCKING way. FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, FUCK, MOTHER FUCKING FUCK, FUCK…Well, look at that; 15 fucking seconds to go! 14-13-12-11-10-9. Lights are going out but I’m still here? Holy shit, triggering The Cough can be reversed with the opposite emotion!

Can’t dwell on that now. (Although, fuck, what a time to figure that shit out.) Here comes the crunch. Urk! Goodbye sweet universe! Good, urk, urk, good-bye. I fucking wi-

 

All Rights Reserved © May 2017 John J Vinacci

Human Beans

Human Beans

Colonel Byrd swallowed his own Adam’s apple as he returned his crow-cracked eyes to the menacing space-centipedes towering over him. On this cool November morning, 2021, black-and-tan insects from another world, sporting a thousand stubby legs each, had just evaporated several tanks with laser beams from their hundred dark, marbled eyes. The combination of melted steel and burning flesh flooded the veteran’s nose and churned the officer’s breakfast burrito almost inside out. Pull it together, man, the colonel told himself, What did you expect from aliens capable of interstellar travel? The officer stood almost alone as the civilians dotting the perimeter of the White House lawn had fled in terror. A few children, too inexperienced to realize they should run away, remained in the wake of their cowardly parents.

“I suppose you would like to talk to our leader?” the army veteran almost gagged as he plumbed the depths of his coat pocket for his smartphone.

The two longest and tallest aliens swung their heads towards each other then back at the colonel. “Does your leader have beans?” asked a voice that sounded like crunching, broken glass.

The officer withdrew his hand from his coat pocket and scratched his forehead, tilting his green, starched hat backwards. “Beans? You mean like the things you eat? Um, no, our leader doesn’t have anything like that,” Colonel Byrd’s lips curled. The space-arthropod nearest the colonel lowered its lengthy body towards the veteran and parted its sharp mandibles.

“What I meant to say is that ‘yes’ we have beans. It’s just that our leader doesn’t eat them,” the veteran spoke to save himself.

This caused a quiet stir among the fantastically large centipedes from space. The gathering of alien insects raised themselves high in the air and swiveled their heads back and forth at each other, their murmurings like nails etching glass. The monstrous arthropod menacing the colonel just a moment ago lowered itself towards the man again.

“What kind of a leader does not eat beans?” the creature asked. The veteran was about to answer when another, smaller alien interrupted.

“It does not matter, little hairless monkey. What kind of beans do you have? We are particularly fond of cocoa beans. Give us all of them,” it ordered.

An educated man, the senior officer knew these to be among the most valuable beans in all the world, for you cannot make chocolate without them! Giving the aliens all the cocoa beans, well, that was asking a lot, especially at the onset of winter when hot chocolate is so popular. But there was the matter of extraterrestrials’ death-ray eyes. The liquefied army tanks looked like olive sludge, vaguely like pieces of chocolate left out in the sun too long. Surely this was just a hint of the aliens’ power. The colonel fumbled for his phone again.

“Um, you see…Bear with me a moment. I need to speak to our leader.” The officer raised and waved a hand around, signaling everyone to remain calm while he brought the phone to his lips. A ding followed. “President Siri, what should humanity do when dangerous aliens ask for all of our cocoa beans?”

A digitized, Australian female voice replied quickly. “Okay, here’s what I found.” The colonel immediately tapped the first webpage result on his smartphone. He read as quickly as he could.

According to the Geneva Referendum on Possible Alien Contact, it was concluded that threatening aliens displaying superior technology and firepower should be complied with in order to minimize human casualties… It was going to be a hard sell but Colonel Byrd really had no choice. He put both hands in the air.

“Okay, okay. I have the authority to comply with your wishes. We will give you all our cocoa beans.” Though he may have just saved humanity, the veteran knew he’d just made himself over seven billion enemies.

“Good, good,” the closest slinky extraterrestrial said removing itself from the colonel’s personal space. But no sooner had it retreated than whipped its body back at the leader. “And do you have coffee beans?”

Were they toying with the man? Given their ability to traverse interstellar space and shoot lasers out of their eyes, they were cruel, too? Knowing he’d probably never make it off the White House lawn, the colonel stammered.

“Well, hmmm, I don’t really know what those are. I’ll, uh, have to ask around…” The veteran ran his fingers around his shirt collar. It sure was getting hot in the November sun.

“Are you sure you don’t know what those are?” the space-arthropod slurred at the O6.

No matter how he answered, Colonel Byrd figured he was a dead man. He raised his smartphone back to his lips and spoke softly. “Siri; chances are I’ll survive lying to dangerous extraterrestrials and see my family again?”

“Based upon a stress analysis of your voice, there is a high probability the knowledgeable and dangerous extraterrestrials will figure out that you are lying. It is reasonable to assume that any visitors from space have studied human behavior before arriving here on Earth,” Siri answered.

The officer figured there was no use in lying. He looked up from his phone and threw his arm around in a semi-circle. “Yes, oh great and formidable space insects! We have coffee beans, too. In fact, we have all kinds of beans. Soy beans, black beans, pinto beans…”

“Good! We will kill you all slowly for your cooperation,” boomed one of the god-sized arthropods. Green, slimy saliva coated its sharp teeth as it gnashed them together in anticipation. “This is wonderful, we would simply die if we ate anything that was not a bean!” The broken glassy voice could be heard far afield. The congregation of aliens writhed in victory, dancing like black-and-tan snakes around their silver plate of a flying saucer.

“Mister space alien?” a little African American girl spoke from beside the colonel. “Do you like beans?” she offered the creepy-crawly beside the officer. Her deep brown eyes were wide with wonder as she held up a white box against her pink down jacket.

The gigantic space centipede nearby leveled its black marbled eyes upon the child before Colonel Byrd, clenching his teeth sideways, could hide the girl behind him.

“Yes, little thing incapable of traversing galaxies. We love beans, as I have said,” the creature mocked as its eyes began to glow red.

The little girl held up the white box from behind the veteran’s back, generous to the oppressors. “Have you ever had jelly beans? They’re really good.”

Colonel Byrd spun around, dropped to one knee and brought his index finger to the girl’s mouth. He shook his head adamantly. “No, don’t say that!” he ordered as gently but firmly as possible.

“Move, small balding monkey!” the black-and-tan arthropod champed. It brought its tail around and swiped the veteran right. The officer tumbled safely enough but his dress greens were soiled with dirt and grass stains. The colossal bug snatched the white box from the babe with its two front pincers and launched the box high into the air, throwing the multicolored jelly beans far and wide.

The threatening centipede’s eyes lost their glow and seemed to gloss over in delight. “So many colors! We have never seen or tasted such delights.” The multitude of space insects slithered in various directions and caught the jelly beans in their gullets as easily as popcorn. “So, mmm, so delicious! You have more?” the thing demanded more than asked in its voice of crunching glass.

But then the extraterrestrials shuddered along the length of their bodies. Their thousand arms wriggled uncontrollably. They whipped their long, segmented selves to and fro, looking to accompany Colonel Byrd’s breakfast burrito.

“Commander Primea One Dash One Zero,” one arthropod’s jaws chittered, “I do not think these are real beans!”

Scores of intimidating, super-sized centipedes fell like heavy ropes upon the ground, their midsections exploding in the bright hues of the jelly beans they had swallowed. Colonel Byrd instinctually had tackled and embraced the little girl to protect her from the spewing guts of the extraterrestrials. His uniform was utterly ruined now.

“I don’t think they liked them,” the little girl seemed low and apologetic in tone. Then a glint of sun bouncing off the aliens’ spacecraft caught her eye and she forgot everything. Her pupils narrowed and she lifted her head up. “Can we play on the flying saucer?” she asked the putrid covered officer.

“Yes, yes we can,” Colonel Byrd nodded. “You can do anything you want as long as you’re always nice to people.” The veteran stood up, took the hand of the world’s next great leader and walked away victorious under the sun.

 

All Rights Reserved © April 2017 John J Vinacci

The Cough: Tinfoil Hat

The Cough: Tinfoil Hat

His beat down pickup left for dead in front of the pristine mirrored windows of the giant biotech firm ArcTech, Hugh slithered in through the lobby doors. The security guard at the reception desk rose to put a hand up, but rescinded the idea after noticing the aging white man wielding a bolt action rifle like a scorpion’s stinger. The guard wasn’t being paid nearly enough for this shit and decided not to say anything while activating a silent alarm. Hugh stepped sideways, one foot over the other, while he drew a bead on the polyestered guardian.

“You stay right there, lizard man.” Hugh croaked the line like it was one of his tangled peppered clumps of hair, dampened to his head by rivulets of sweat. “I ain’t got no beef with you. Not today.”

Hugh, in his hunter’s plaid jacket, wound his way towards the central staircase, a piece of twisting metal artistry that mimicked the double helix of DNA. A ‘coat’ – a non-descript male in a white smock – saw Hugh from the third floor, dropped his clipboard and swiped his way through the nearest door to momentary safety. The gunman reached the second floor and strode with a lightness that belied his crooked joints until he reached the nearest electronically sealed door.

“Ain’t no magic gonna keep me outta this room,” Hugh muttered as he thrust the heel of his Timberland work boot hard against the lock.

The frame cracked just a touch on the first kick, a bit more on the second, then smoked open after Hugh’s frustration saw a bullet to it. The door swung open and up against the furthest wall were two more ‘coats,’ both 30-something, one man and one woman. Sizing up the couple and moving to the middle of the room, Hugh looked down on a smattering of lab equipment – neon-colored goo in a series of test tubes, some flasks, pipets – though he knew not the names of any of it. But he knew what he didn’t like.

“Admit it!” he barked at the two scientists. The pair looked at each other, shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders. “Goddammit,” Hugh grumbled as he pointed the rifle with one hand and glanced at his watch on the other, “I only got two and a half minutes left. Now I need you to admit it!” Hugh thrust the rifle forward.

The woman, with her blond hair pulled back into a pony tail, jumped so suddenly her safety glasses went crooked, replied hurriedly, “What? We don’t know what you want us to admit.”

Hugh’s features scrunched up to a point and he jabbed the rifle closer. “Dammit, girl, I want you to admit ArcTech created The Cough. I know it. I connected all the dots.” His watch hand reached into his left pocket and he pulled out a smartphone, touched the screen with the pinkie of his rifle-toting hand and held up the phone’s face to the ‘coats.’ “There has to be justice. Someone has to be held accountable. And they will once everyone knows. Now get on with it! Admit it!”

If it meant saving their lives, she was going to give the man anything he wanted. She let out a syllable but was interrupted by her colleague.

“No, no, no. You got it all wrong. ArcTech’s actually working on a cure,” the man slipped out over his V-shaped goatee.

This was news to the woman but she figured she’d best play along. “He’s telling you the truth! Did you just have The Cough? We’ve got an experimental serum right down the hall but we’ve got to go right now.”

The man in the virgin snow white lab coat didn’t skip a beat as he admired the woman’s quick thinking. He simply nodded in agreement. He never thought they’d ever be in this situation with the guy who always sat in his truck outside the building. Jesus, how long had this guy been waiting to have The Cough just so he try and force the company’s hand?

Hugh froze for a moment. Was there enough time to save his own life or would he have to settle for being the man who exposed the biggest conspiracy in human history? Life always wins out. He opened up his mouth.

“Alright! Move! Give it to me now!” Hugh demanded through his pale yellow teeth.

Hugh moved towards them with the urgency that imminently dead men usually move and shoved them towards the open door with the butt of his firearm. They stumbled forward and almost fell over but regained their footing and a perhaps another minute. Hugh followed right behind, occasionally thrusting the barrel into the man’s back. The male scientist swiped his keycard across the lock of the second to last door on the floor and the three piled into a lab similar to the one they’d just left.

“Where is it?” Hugh shouted as he caught sight of the hands of his watch dancing. “You got three seconds, boy!”

The man’s hands jazzed, not sure exactly where to go. Then he lunged for a drawer and pulled it too hard, spilling syringes across the floor. He grabbed one, tore the cap away and stuck the needle in a beaker full of radioactively red liquid. He pulled the plunger back and turned, his eyes wild with urgency, toward Hugh.

“Wait,” Hugh snapped, “How do I know that ain’t poison?”

The scientist shot a look at the woman and turned back to Hugh with his palms turned out in a question. “Why would I poison a man who’s about to die?” he asked through squinted eyes.

Hugh shrugged, giving him the go ahead. The man pushed Hugh to the side and jabbed the needle through his jacket and into his arm. His thumb thrust the fluid into Hugh’s veins. Hugh winced.

“Ow, that hurt, goddammit,” the truther said.

The woman figured the injection would probably make Hugh slightly less sick than what was about to kill him seeing how her colleague had just given Hugh a dose of ArcTech’s new fertilizing agent. Their captor would never realize it, though.

“You’ll feel a little queasy at first,” the man told Hugh. “But it’s okay; that means it’s working.”

Everyone’s breathing slowed though a glint of sweat tainted the air. Hugh lowered his rifle. The man turned around casually and slipped the used syringe into an orange biohazard bin. The woman approached Hugh carefully with motherly, open arms. Her hands motioned the dying man into her fold. Hugh hiccupped a cry of relief as he fell onto her breast. With her arms embracing Hugh, she glared at her coworker over the old-timer’s shoulder. She refused to watch as Hugh’s skin turned ghastly pale and his eyes went cataract white. The conspiracy theorist grew heavier and heavier until at last she was forced to let him go into another world. Gravity pulled the skin around her eyes down onto Hugh lying in a crumpled mess on the floor.

“I know we were just trying to save ourselves but should we have lied about there being a cure?” she asked rhetorically, bringing her stare up to a tabletop. “At least we didn’t create The Cough either.”

Her collaborator turned around nonchalantly and placed both hands behind himself on the counter. He laughed a little. “No, of course we didn’t.” He lowered his head, scratched the back of his neck, and looked up with a smile. “Why would we do that?” he said, sarcasm where sympathy should have been.

The woman had gone to pull the tie out of her hair but was left with her mouth gaping open. She watched dumbfounded as the man stepped towards the door. “Seth,” she rasped, “Is there a cure?”

“No, Maatie” the other scientist laughed again, a little more energeticly this time. “Let’s have this mess,” he circled his hand at Hugh’s body, “cleaned up.” Seth slipped around the doorframe just out of the woman’s sight and where he let out a sudden soft and arid cough.

The woman drooped her chin and nodded in the affirmative. Maatie had never know the universe to be without a sense of retribution. The scales of justice always balance out.

 

All Rights Reserved © March 2017 John J Vinacci

The Cough: The Interview

The Cough: The Interview

“Welcome back to Tabitha Talks here on BBC One. Joining me now is the world’s oldest man, Crowley McGovern,” the short, spunky, redhead bobbed, this time without losing her seat.

Beneath Tabitha’s high-pitched squeak, close-cropped spikey hair and cat-eyed glasses lurked something of a domestic tigress, the hostess always on the verge of exploding with neutered animal excitement. But today she demure and genuinely curious, open to anything Crowley had to say. After all, wouldn’t you want to know what it’s like to live to 122 despite an ever-present yet stealthy plague that could kill you at any moment?

“Thank you for coming on the show, Crowley.” Crowley gently nodded at Tabitha, his neck popping and creaking as he did so. Today, the hostess’ subdued voice was close to a whimper rather than her usual shrill. She continued with genuine wonder. “It’s been 40 years since The Cough, now known to be dormant in everyone until that fateful moment, arrived on the scene and claimed its first victim. And it was only fifteen years ago that scientists revealed that no one was dying of old age anymore and that only the virus could kill you, barring a horrible accident of course.”

“Or suicide,” Crowley interjected so softly Tabitha rolled right over him.

“So, you were 82 at the time the plague was announced. We were speaking during the break and you said The Cough didn’t change your life, not until recently. How do mean?”

“Well, Tabby,” the teetering old man began to speak crookedly, “I was in real good shape back in those days, could easily pick myself up off the floor if I fell down. I attributed this to…mostly clean living.” Crowley nodded in the affirmative, or maybe was he just old. The fuzzy white-haired senior, senior citizen leaned toward the camera on his cane and began to speak a bit more firmly. “I didn’t drink alcohol, I tried to eat the best and freshest foods – no red meat! – and I made sure I did my Tai Chi every day. Started doing that when I live in China for a bit and it really kept for joints loose.”

“And do you still do those things?” Tabitha gently interrupted.

“Well, here’s the thing,” Crowley licked his lips and his eyes gleamed at the entertainer. “I sure did keep doing those things for some time. Even if I was going to have that cough and find myself with five minutes and twenty seconds left to live, I figured I might as well go in good shape and not die in some poorly upholstered chair like most older folk.”

All things considered, Mr. McGovern did look like he was in all that good of shape. But he was 122 after all and really, exactly how young can even the most ardent Tai Chi adherent stay? Crowley may be well practiced in the ancient art, but under the unforgiving stage lights he appeared a frail creature, his spine so bent it might snap at any second.

“That’s a very hearty attitude, Crowley, sir. Please, continue,” Tabitha offered.

“Yes, um, hearty,” the old man seemed temporarily distracted. Was he lost in thought or spying Tabitha’s cleavage? “Yes, anyway, so I kept on the straight and narrow for a good 25 years, habits being what they are and all, up until those biologists figured out old age wasn’t a problem anymore.”

Tabitha’s eyes widened and she sat back a bit (which lifted her bosom). She assumed her guest must have still been on the righteous path. He had managed to come to the studio under his own power and that’s not something the average 122 year old can do. Crowley continued.

“So I started thinking, ‘Why am I wasting my time staying in such good shape if I can’t die unless I have The Cough?’ Young lady, do you know what it’s like to do cocaine when you’re 107 years old?” Crowley asked rhetorically.

Tabitha’s eyes exploded and her chest heaved. Though caught by surprise she was still light of tongue. “Um, no, sir. I’ve been told I don’t need it!” the hostess chuckled.

“Well, it really gives you a lot of energy, enough energy to throw back eight pints before rounding out the rest of the night with three tarts.” Crowley grinned, saliva glistening his uneven yellow teeth. “What we did that night…”

Tabitha shoved her chest forward and immediately went flush with regret, but at least it stopped Crowley in his tracks. “So what you’re saying is that you abandoned your healthy lifestyle.”

“Abandoned a healthy lifestyle?” Crowley mulled. He rubbed his chin between his thumb and index finger. “I’m not sure what you mean, Tabby. Now it did take me a good week to recover from that night of debauchery, but that night I felt more alive than ever before. That night made me realize that my body was healthy, but my soul wasn’t having any fun. Shouldn’t a healthy lifestyle include some fun?”

“Yes,” Tabitha drew out slowly. “But there are many ways to have fun that don’t include drug addiction and venereal disease,” she said in such a high pitch that ‘drug addiction’ and ‘venereal disease’ sounded like candy. Tabitha’s producer pinched her fingers together and furiously turned an imaginary volume knob while pointing at Crowley with the other hand, indicating to Tabitha to ratchet things down a notch. Tabitha cleared her throat.

“Okay, Crowley, well, tell us more about staying fit. I’m sure more people want to know how to stay fit into their later years should they be fortunate to live so long,” the hostess sat up straight.

“There’s something to be said for staying fit, you’re right!” Crowley exclaimed. Then he turned to the camera. “But with The Cough about to kill you at any moment, you’ve got to get all your living done now, as much as possible, as soon as possible! I waited until I was 107, for piss sake! Cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, ecstasy, tons of liquor, gambling, property destruction, urinating in public; and a different bird every night, at least until the money ran out.”

Tabitha shook her head. She may have looked like a subversive, but it was just a way to grab people’s attention. The hostess was as straight as an arrow. “Well I don’t think that’s a good way to live, Crowley. Perhaps you had some fun but you don’t seem as spry as maybe you once were.” Her words were dry and unapproving.

“I still have a move or two. You want to shag after the show?” Crowley croaked to Tabitha.

Tabitha withdrew body and soul while her producer’s lips twisted deciding whether to pull the plug on the shoot. The hostess stood up and peeled the mic set from her lapel and waist. “I’m sure I’m not the first one to tell you you’re a dirty old man,” she huffed and threw down the mic. “I don’t care if you have dementia or, or whatever. I hope you get The Cough.”

“Ain’t had it for forty years!” Crowley crowed and stomped his cane on the floor while Tabitha turned her back to him. His laughter was deep and the heartiest he’d acted all interview. But as if the universe had its own moral code, before Tabitha had even taken a step away, a quick, dry wheeze abruptly interrupted Crowley’s glee. He unfolded his crooked back and straightened up his spine as if Jacob Marley’s chains had been lifted off of him.

“Finally,” he breathed. “Start the clock!” Tabitha’s producer started a timer on her smartphone.

Tabitha turned around and scrunched up her pixie features. She didn’t mean to invoke some secret power, not really. “Oh, Crowley, sir, I’m so sorry. Is there anything we can do to make this easier?” Tabitha asked wringing her hands, afraid Crowley might petition for a pity shag. “I mean, anything but…”

Crowley reached both arms out to be hugged. Tabitha cringed. “Oh, not that, dolly. Help me up. I need to get to the roof! Get me to the roof!” Tabitha lunged forward and brought herself under one of Crowley’s arms. Her producer wrapped Crowley’s other arm around her shoulders. The trio shuffled in a ragged line to the nearest lift while a cameraman hoisted a mobile camera onto his shoulder and pursued them.

“Why are we going to the roof Crowley?” Tabitha asked inside the stuffy lift. The producer nodded energetically at the cameraman, making sure that he was recording.

“This here’s a forty story building. Figure I’ll get at least a good two seconds of flying time in. If we time it right, The Cough will kill me before the pavement does.” Crowley craned his neck at the producer’s phone, breathing heavily as time wound down.

“What? You can’t jump of the roof! I mean, I suppose you could but what if you land on someone? Wait, why do you want to jump off the roof?” Tabitha, doing her job, asked.

“Ach, they won’t let me skydive alone, say I’m too old and I’ll hurt myself,” Crowley hemmed. “I even said I’d sign all the waivers, but they’re all wankers!”

“You could still land on someone,” Tabitha protested. “I think you should be allowed to die on your own terms,” she pouted, “but it’s not fair to ruin someone else’s life.”

“Well, someone better make a call and get the runway cleared, sweetie, ‘cause ol’ Crowley here’s going for a whirl!” He turned his head at both women and the cameraman.

“Don’t look at me; I can’t manage a call and the timer,” the producer returned. Tabitha’s phone was in her purse downstairs. The cameraman fished his phone out of his pocket and nimbly dialed with one hand while keeping the camera steady on Crowley.

“I need security on the fortieth floor,” the cameraman said. “I got this crazy old bloke who thinks he’s going to jump off the roof!”

“Oh, hell with you lot,” Crowley gruffed. He took a deep breath, let go of Tabitha, turned at the waist and swiftly came back around with a palm, knocking the cameraman hard against the lift’s wall. With the producer’s arm still around Crowley, the momentum of the spin maneuver smacked her against the wall, too. The lift rang and the doors separated to give Crowley a clear path to the far side of the office where a pane of glass separated him from his final experience.

Crowley ran halfway down the hall. A bunch of office drones popped their heads up like gophers to see what the commotion was all about. “Time?” the centurion barked at Tabitha like a drill sergeant.

Tabitha reached down to pick up her producer’s phone from the stunned woman’s feet. “Thirty seconds!” The hostess shook her head ‘no.’ “Don’t do it, Crowley,” she pleaded as the old man tiptoed toward down the hall like a ninja.

“It’s my life. Always been my life. Always going to be my life. And I’m going to enjoy my life this one last time. Should’ve done it sooner but there’s no time left for regrets. Remember that, Tabby. Your next breath could be the last,” Crowley spoke and finally turned towards the window down the corridor. “Time, Tabby?”

Tabitha dropped her arms and her head but flashed the phone back up at her eyes. “Seven seconds,” she could just barely be heard. But like Crowley who had just mustered every last bit of ferocity, so too did the tigress. “GOOOOOO!”

“Thanks, love,” Crowley spat out as he cantered into a full sprint. Three seconds down the hall. Cubicle jockeys’ heads turned and mouths fell open. One more second to put his arms up in front of his face and leap with everything through the glass. A million shards around the crazy shit. Crowley spun around in mid-air, turned a bit pale, and just before dropping out of sight cried out.

“Geronimoooooo!”

Tabitha smiled. They didn’t get that on video but it’d be something the town would be talking about for the week to come. And that they would, because Crowley wasn’t the only one to pay the price for his life.

 

All Rights Reserved (c) March 2017 John J Vinacci

The Cough: The End of the Universe

The Cough: The End of the Universe

Was this what the moment of creation was like, a first kiss? Bella had been dreaming of it and the Big Bang her entire life, how everything in the universe aligned to make this happen. Here. Now. Could this go on forever? How much more could the universe expand?

It became slightly less than infinitely hot the moment after her singularity of loneliness exploded. The universe cooled quickly as the two young physics undergraduates broke their lips apart, but stars exploded into existence as their matter was unable to resist the infinite reach of gravity. A whole new cosmos is born out of hesitant touches and reticent glances until their mouths reached across a void.

Bella and Byrce drew themselves back slowly like a dual star system trying not to collapse under its own attraction. Cosmic butterflies sailed on solar winds in Bella’s heart while Bryce’s eyes tried not to flush with warm dihydrogen monoxide. Bryce lowered his head, shut his eyes and grinned.

“I’ve wanted to do that since the moment you answered Professor Ranjee’s question about the Doppler Effect,” he said.

“I know,” Bella answered though reddened cheeks. “I saw you turn around and give me that look.”

They sat crossed legged on the university lawn with their hands on each other’s hips. Electromagnetic radiation cascaded down on their heads on this cloudless day. The laws of physics, or perhaps it was more the laws of biology, saw them move towards each other once more. Their atoms were close enough now to elicit a spark between their lips though they had not touched yet.

Then Bella coughed. It was a light sound but distinct, like the lining of her throat had gone dry and peeled away. The redness in her cheeks receded at the speed of light. She withdrew her celestial body.

“Five minutes and twenty seconds,” she wheezed.

The universe is harsh and cruel and doesn’t care; Bryce loved saying that. But now, at this moment, his words were so prescient he tried to recall exactly how many times he’d said it so he knew exactly how much to regret it. This was the ultimate ‘It’s not fair’ moment. Only his love for Bella could restrain his rage. With time fleeting, Bryce laid it out.

“Bella, I love you. I love you and I will always love you and I will never forget you,” his voice cracked. “Quick, kiss me! You can die here in my arms!” Bryce hastily reached out to pull Bella into his orbit.

Bella pushed him away like a magnet of the same polarity. Bryce’s face turned green, not understanding. Then Bella pulled her shirt over the top of her head. She reached around her back and unclasped her bra. Anticipating her trajectory, Bryce watched her hands slide her khaki capris right off.

“What are you doing?” He put one hand out in a halting fashion while leaning back on the other. His head spun from side to side and counted the other students who forming an asteroid belt around them. “Bella, are you crazy?”

“Bryce!” she shouted in a feral voice. “I am about to die. But I am not going to die a virgin!” she explained tossing her black undergarments into the wind. “Get. Your. Pants. Off!” Now it was her turn to lunge.

“Bella, everyone’s watching!” Bryce informed her as he tried to wrestle her hands away. “Don’t fight it! Just lie here in my arms, please!” Physicists were romantics, not exhibitionists in his mind.

Not in Bella’s. She finally managed to wrangle his jeans off while he tried to back peddle. He looked like an antelope in plaid boxers trying to escape a lioness. Some of the students surrounding them broke out their smart phones and started to take video. One young man, blue dress shirt buttoned up proper, phoned campus security.

“If you love me, have sex with me! Hurry! There’s no time! Come! On!” Bella grabbed Bryce by the arms and with a force so strong it’s usually found only inside the nucleus of an atom, pulled Bryce on top of her.

Unfortunately, Bryce was a virgin, too. Worse, he performed terribly under pressure. The other students laughed as Bella and Bryce’s quantum entanglement looked more like noodles flailing in a bowl. The poor boy had gone from the throes of the most enigmatic but irresistible force known to man to the coldness of space at the end of the universe in Plank time. As he wrestled with Bella, he caught the constellations in her eyes and mustered all his sexual frustrations to pin her wrists down. He turned his head to the sky and squeezed his eyes shut so hard they would have turned carbon to diamond.

“Everyone, stop laughing! She just had The Cough! She’s about to die!” His guttural cry drowned out the sirens closing in. The students stopped laughing. Bella stopped struggling and lay still underneath him.

“Do you really love me?” Bella whispered.

“Yeah, Bella, I do,” Bryce answered and his eyes fell back to Earth. “That’s why I can’t do this. I want it to be special. I want it to be special because I think you’re special.”

“You’ll never know for sure, now,” she laughed. The sound was like a single particle popping into existence out of the vacuum of space, then quickly being annihilated by its anti-matter twin.

Bella saw Bryce smile thanks to the reflection of certain wavelengths of light. She felt his grip on her wrists soften.

“There are no certainties in the universe,” Bryce reminded her, “only probabilities.”

Bella weakened and her skin began to reflect all the colors of the spectrum. Her eyes turned opaque and her soul, if she had one, left to escape the laws of physics.

“It’s true what they say,” Bryce breathed. “Time is relative.”

He sat over her naked body and looked at her as though she were still electrified by the spark of life. All the while he could hear the quiet murmurs of the other students and the wail of the campus police car stop. Security crushed grass underneath their feet. But they were now and would forever be outside of Bella’s light cone and never get to see her the way he did. It was a few light-years later an officer finally pulled him away from the dead star.

When questioned about the incident later, the young man was truthful. He told the police about The Cough. They understood; incidents like this weren’t uncommon anymore given the recently discovered deadly virus.

“You know, there are a few ideas about how the universe will end, if it ends,” Bryce said in his official statement. “One theory thinks the universe will expand forever, growing cold after it loses all of its energy. Another thinks the universe will collapse upon itself and time will run backwards, giving us a chance to live all over again. Sort of, anyway.” Bryce nodded to affirm this idea. “I hope that’s what happens. Yeah, I hope that’s what happens.”

 

All Rights Reserved © February 2017 John J Vinacci

Spider, Woman

Spider, Woman

“Oh, HELL NO!” Eloise exclaimed as she backed out of the bathroom. From a good six feet away, on the other side of the protective, invisible wall separating the hallway from the lavatory, the heavyset black woman trained her eyes on a spider the size of her pinky-nail. It was sandwiched between the white porcelain toilet and her cherished virgin-white tub, hanging from a loose arrangement of webs.

“George! George!” she shouted towards the living room. No response. Typical; George always fell asleep in front of the damn television. He’d fall into such a deep sleep that Eloise sometimes thought he had a medical condition. She had to think that. The alternative was admitting he was lazy and socking him in the jaw. That she could do; she wasn’t scared of any man. Spiders on the other hand…

Eloise grumbled and tried to keep one eye on the spider while the other eye looked for something heavy, but not too heavy, to accurately throw. Then she remembered George’s black work boots sitting at the foot of the bed in the adjacent room. While the lightbulb burned alive in her mind, she fixed her gaze on the little, dark arachnid.

“Don’t you move, not one bit. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, don’t you move. You stay right there,” she fretted.

She had to move, quickly. While the spider was still, her heart pounded. Eloise launched herself into the bedroom and snatched George’s black boot off the floor. Just as quickly she popped her head through the door frame. Behind her, something boomed. Eloise suspected she’d just broken the sound barrier, she was that damn fast. The boom was the sound of herself catching up to her own ears.

“Still there, eh?” Eloise twisted her lips. “Alright then, play games in my house,” she raised the shoe. One heavy foot tiptoed onto the vinyl floor followed by the other. Two more silent steps brought her within firing range. Eloise was a 250 pound ninja. She reared her projectile behind her head.

A snuffling sound rustled the air, as if someone had just woken up. “What the, huh? Whoa, whoa, whoa!” the spider hollered putting its front two legs up. “What the heck are you doing?”

Eloise paused for a moment, her eyes wide, so wide that her eyes almost rolled down the sleeve of her nightgown.  “Lord in heaven…”

“Yeah, whom I’d like not to see today,” the spider piped in an English accent. “You weren’t going to hit me with that boot, were you?”

Eloise, eyes still in their sockets, slipped sideways towards the boot in her hand. Then she looked back at the spider. “If I weren’t before, sure as hell gonna now.”

“Well, now, I just wouldn’t do that if I were you. I know us spiders can seem scary, but us lot get a bad rap, you see. We’re not that dangerous, well, except for females when they’ve been widowed. And those wandering brown ascetics. They’re wankers. But there’s really no reason to kill me, per se. I’m just a regular ol’ house spider.”

“I don’t like spiders and I don’t like talking spiders even more. So, you keep talking like thems your last your last words ‘cause they is,” Eloise warned as her arm tensed.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” the spider chimed again. “Now just hear me out. Kindly give me five minutes. That’s all I ask.”

Eloise relaxed her grip ever so slightly but kept her aim. The spider seemed reasonable enough with its proper English accent, but it was still a spider after all. “Five minutes. Start talking.”

“There a few good reasons not to kill spiders, my good woman. Perhaps you weren’t aware that in many cultures spiders are revered as gods, some gifted with incredible knowledge. And when we’re not busy being revered as gods, many cultures view  a spider in the house as a sign of good luck, better than a rabbit’s foot I dare say,” the spider explained.

“You know my husband, George? You ain’t no good luck spider, spider,” Eloise countered as she swung her hips.

“Okay, then how about the fact that I eat all the mosquitoes and flies that come into the house? In fact, scientists estimate that there are 2,000 fewer bugs in your home per year thanks to me.” The spider’s tone was quite proud of itself for this service. “Do you have any idea how much I save you in extermination fees? Why, kill me and you just might wind up with malaria!”

Eloise didn’t like spiders, but mosquitoes were just about as bad. More than a few times she’s had one buzz her ear while she was trying to sleep. She’d always try to wake George and have him hunt the offender down, but that man was useless. Though her muscles weren’t quite as tense as a minute ago, she was still a touch wary.

“Keep talking,” she prodded.

“That’s about it really,” the spider scratched its chin, “but we don’t get into your food like other insects. And we don’t bite you sort either, not unless we feel threatened, like when you’re about to roll over on us in bed.” There was an awkward silence. Maybe that didn’t come out right. “Wwwhat I meant was, we don’t get in your bed.” The spider shooed her away with a limb. “We don’t do that. Those are just urban legends. Ha!” Then the spider played it straight. “Honestly, we don’t do that. Ever.”

“Do you really expect me to come in here and do my business with a spider sitting next to me? ‘Specially one that talks?” Eloise raised the boot along with her eyebrows.

“We make silk!” the little black arachnid exclaimed. “I can see you’re a woman of good taste,” the spider twiddled its forelimbs as it surveyed her worn nightgown. “Wouldn’t you just love to sleep on silk sheets? I can make a set for you. Judging by your height…weight…It’ll take about a year. Give or take…a year.”

“You’re ‘bout as lousy a business man as some politicians,” Eloise responded. She raised the boot to its maximum altitude. “Last chance, sucka.”

The spider collapsed in despair. “Alright, alright. You win. You’ve got me dead to rights. That said, may I appeal to the kindness in your heart I hear all the butterflies talk about? They always talk about how nice humans are to them. Now, I know I’m no butterfly but maybe you can just take me outside? It’s the proper thing to do, isn’t it? I promise I’ll wait here while you get a glass so you scoop me up and return me to the outdoors.”

Eloise looked at the bathroom window glazed with frost. Air was invisible, of course, except for when it condensed. It was so cold outside, the pane of glass felt like it was trying to diminish all of the warmth in Eloise’s soul. She was stronger than that, though. Damn stronger than that. She lowered the projectile, curved her neck and snorted.

“Alright. I can live with that. I’ll go get a glass and you gonna stay right there. That’s what you said.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’m going to stay right here. I’m an honorable spider. I give you my word,” the spider confirmed.

An air of approval left Eloise’s nose as she turned around and stomped off to get a glass from the kitchen. Once the bulky woman was out of sight, the spider dashed up the wall and into the air vent. It exhausted the spider’s immediate energy reserves but it pressed on down the shaft until it was out of Eloise’s reach, just to be safe.

Within the minute, Eloise had returned. She spied the empty space; loose strings of web left behind. “What? You better git back here, spider! You gave me your damn word!”

“Tut tut, Mrs. Ford. Can’t have you throwing me out into the cold. That’d be about the same as clobbering me with a boot.” The spider’s voice echoed throughout the ventilation system and sniped Eloise’s ear from all around. She couldn’t tell where the spider had gone off to.

“I’m going to call an exterminator!” Eloise warned the divine voice that surrounded her.

“Understandable considering my ruse, milady. But I assure you I’ll be long gone by the time the exterminator comes around. You see, you humans aren’t quite the compassionate lot the butterflies keep talking about.” The spider’s voice was fading as it receded into the dark recesses of Eloise’s home.

“Do they really say that about people?” Eloise asked as she lowered the boot to her side.

“Oh, absolutely. They’ll say anything to buy themselves some time. Can’t say I blame them. We all do it at some point in our lives, usually near the end,” the spider said from afar. “Well, ta now! Sleep well. Tell the queen I said ‘hello.’”

Eloise’s bottom teeth rose above her upper teeth. She turned around and shuffled towards the bedroom to put the boot back where she’d found it.

“Ain’t no one true to their damn word anymore,” she whispered. “Just ain’t right. It just ain’t right.”

 

All Rights Reserved © February 2017 John J Vinacci

The Hungry Mattress

The Hungry Mattress

Treyon slipped a twenty dollar bill into Martin’s hand and squinted his eyes. “You know, when a deal seems too good to be true…” Treyon started, eyeballing Martin for signs of deception.

Martin’s face was placid, leaning towards congeniality. The older of the two patted his buyer on the shoulder. “There really is nothing wrong with the mattress. Like I said, with a baby on the way we just don’t have room for it. We need to get that spare room converted into a nursery asap.”

“Alright then,” Treyon accepted. He turned away to continue fastening the pristine mattress to the bed of his pickup. Martin smiled for the sake of social graces as Treyon looped a rope through the last fastener. That’s when Treyon noticed the mattress’ sticker. He turned his head back towards Martin.

“Hey, uh, Martin. It says here that this mattress was manufactured back in 1981. How is this thing in such good shape?”

“Yeah, bit of a story there,” Martin scratched the back of his greying head. “We’ve personally had very few guests use it. It belonged to my mother originally. She bought it after my father died and kept it, mmm, thirty odd years just about. Then she disappeared two years ago…” the seller trailed off.

“Oh, uh, sorry. I didn’t mean to…Sorry I brought it up,” Treyon grimaced sheepishly.

Martin put his hands on his hips. “No, no, it’s okay. It’s just weird, you know? Where does an 80 year old disappear to? We know she started seeing a man her age a few weeks before she disappeared, but when we gave the cops the information, they said he’d disappeared too.” Martin looked at the ground and poked an invisible man with his finger. “The damnedest thing, though, is that both of their clothes were found on her bedroom floor. Her suitcase was still at home and nothing had been packed so far as we could tell. If they eloped or something, we don’t know why she wouldn’t tell us.”

“Maybe they don’t think you and your wife would approve,” Treyon offered. He really wanted to be on his way but figured this interaction was a part of the price you pay when you find a treasure on Craigslist. “Well, I hope you guys find her. I kinda have to get going.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Martin acquiesced, still stumped. “Good luck to you and your wife,” Martin said not having noticed Treyon’s naked ring finger.

“Oh, I’m not married. My girlfriend is moving in and she wanted something a little bigger than my fullsize mattress.” Treyon swung himself over to the driver’s side door and opened it. Martin looked on, acknowledging Treyon’s presence though his mind was somewhere else.

A few hours later, Treyon’s girlfriend Alicia slid her hands over the clean, smooth surface of the mattress. “Wow, nice bed. I hope you didn’t spend too much on it, babe.”

“Actually, I only paid twenty bucks for it. I found it on Craigslist,” Treyon beamed as he jumped onto the mattress and bounced.

Alicia withdrew her hand from the pad as if it were contaminated. “Uh, excuse me? Twenty dollars? What’s wrong with it?”

Treyon spread himself out to touch all four corners. “Nothing. This guy just used it for his guest room and it only belonged to his mother before that. He did start talking about how his mom disappeared and that sort of creeped me out, so I took off.”

Alicia dropped her shoulders. Her eyes rolled off the tip of her tongue. “So you brought me home evidence from a crime scene.”

Treyon got up on his knees, shuffled to the edge of the mattress and took both of Alicia’s hands. “C’mon, no. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s super comfortable.” The young man slid his hands toward his girlfriend’s waist and started to tickle her. “Let’s get some sheets and make the bed so we can, you know, unmake it. It needs to be christened.” Treyon tried to wrest Alicia towards him but the mattress seemed to slide up bit from underneath him and almost caused him to lose his balance.

“You need to work on your game,” Alicia laughed as she pushed him over. Treyon just sat on his elbows and shifted his eyes. Alicia hadn’t touched the bed.

Moonlight through the window glistened along their post-coitus skin, outlining them against the dark. The couple laid on their side facing each other and entwined their fingers though they had already just played mercy. Treyon’s eyes were half-closed, waiting for sleep to capture him. Alicia’s voice kept him present, though.

“I’m not sure if it was you or the bed,” she giggled, “but that was amazing. I’m glad I moved in.” The two laughed right before a twisting, gurgling sound erupted. The rumble was almost loud enough to shake the bed.

“Are you hungry, baby?” Alicia asked, smiling, still high. “Want me to make you something? You worked so hard after all.”

“No, that wasn’t me. I thought it was you,” Treyon’s eyes opened.

The sound rippled beneath them again, louder this time. The noise travelled like a wave from the headboard towards their feet along the mattress’ surface. Alicia jumped up to sit on her knees while Treyon turned over on all fours.

“Earthquake?” Alicia worried.

“We don’t get earthquakes here,” Treyon exclaimed. But he didn’t have a better explanation. “Maybe, I don’t know.”

“Sinners,” a cavernous, guttural voice said.

Treyon grabbed his smartphone off the side table and lit up the room with its flashlight. “Who said that? Who the hell is in here?” Alicia threw her back against her boyfriend’s and cast her head about in every direction. Given the additional light of the moon, anyone in the room should have been immediately obvious.

“Whoever’s in here, I’m going to beat the shit out of you,” Treyon warned. He moved to jump off the bed but felt something sharp dig into the flesh around his ankle. “Ow, shit! What the fuck? My leg!”

Alicia watched Treyon reach for his right leg which was caught in what looked like a shark’s teeth-lined tear in the mattress. She wanted to reach for it and help but saw the lips of the gash move and just couldn’t. She backed up on her knees towards the edge of the bed. She was about the slip off when she put her hand down to right herself and instead found her wrist caught in another rip, another decaying-toothed grin. “Treyonnn!” Alicia shrieked.

“Wh-what the hell is this?” a quake evident in Treyon’s voice.

“You are both sinners,” a hollowed voice spoke. “Sinners must be taken to the other side for judgement.” The tears in the mattress sank a bit, pulling the two lovers down.

“Wh-why are you doing this?” Treyon wanted to know trying to fight the pain and pull away.

“We both have a passion for flesh, sinner,” the voice came from the mattress. “Just as I have been judged for mine, so will you two be…on the other side.” The mattress pulled harder and the couple’s cries grew louder.

“What other side!” Alicia gave more as a statement than a question.

“The other side of life, fornicator,” the voice deepened as it drew them ever more into its mouths. “I apologize for the cruelty of my method, but there are now many ways to remove evil from the world so that it can be made great again. This is the glorious will of God.”

“This is not the will of God! This is evil!” Treyon argued as numerous teeth pierced his flesh like little knives and drew him in chest deep. Behind him, Alicia’s head was all that remained in reality and it was too terrified to scream. Her saucered eyes mirrored hopelessness.

“Is not the only way to fight evil be with more evil?” the mattress offered as it chewed.

“Only love defeats evil!” Treyon countered as he was almost completely enveloped now.

“There is a fine line between love and lust, sinner, just as there is a fine line between good and evil. You should have considered this and known the difference.” The mattress had Treyon almost completely now.

Bloodied from head to toe, with his last bit of fight within him, all Treyon could return is, “Do you know?” And then he was gone like a ship beneath the ocean’s surface.

The red sea on the mattress’ surface sank to the bottom of the ocean as well, returning the mattress to a pristine white condition. “Do I know? I thought I knew once but I was wrong. We are all wrong in the end. We are all failed creatures and the Master will reclaim us and start anew someday.”

Clouds gathered and shuttered the moon, blocking out its glow. Darkness caressed the room, the faint scent of sweat grew ever lighter.

 

All Rights Reserved (C) January 2017 John J Vinacci