The Ascension

The Ascension

He’d climbed this hill a hundred times. It’d been 60 years, though, but the hill was still the same steep sonofabitch in the foothills few people bothered to summit. Jarod climbed, step-by-step, his cane steadying his once proud legs over the path’s occasional scree. Now, just like then, the journey bothered his left knee, only now a needling pain ricocheted from the outside of his knee to his ankle and back. It made Jarod gasp each time and he would chuckle; the pain, the hill, the memories – they were not long for this world. His silver mane tussled by the wind, Jarod scooped his head up towards the sky despite the sharp pinch in his neck and shoulder; it’s not here yet. His sexagenarian pocket watch – a gift from an unforgotten paramour – confirmed it. There was still time.

Time for what he wasn’t sure. To tell his human life to go fuck itself in the face of an Earth-shattering asteroid? To sigh in resignation that, well, at least it’s finally over? (And not just for him, for everyone. They all deserved it.) Or maybe it was time to plead with someone – he didn’t know who exactly – to make any of the past 78 years make sense. Decision-making; the bane of this existence. And yet he’d decided to come here just like he said he would, like they both said they would. If they ever knew the world was going to end, they said they’d face it together. The symbolism aside, this was more about being true to the one decision Jarod had been able to make in his life, so long ago when he didn’t question the folly of his young body and mind.

A few more steps, a few more gasps. God, he hated this body. He’d always hated its flaws. He even hated how its brain made him think. He could never stop thinking. And he despised feelings; those were the worst. Feelings could turn a perfectly fine and sunny day into a worst-case scenario.

A monolithic stone cross, moss-crusted, at the hill’s crest looked down on the man. It threw an unflinching glare being less worse-for-wear than it’s aged visitor. 60 years and the stone cross was still here, watching over the town, more like a city now, below. Jarod placed a shaky hand on the base of the cross not only to steady himself, but to feel once again what had been lost in the haze of a fading memory.

“Hello, old friend,” Jarod creaked. “Still strong, proud, I see. Do you know what’s coming?” Jarod swiveled his hips and his left knee forgot to go along for the ride. He winced as he plopped his bones on the cement. My, that used to be a lot softer, the senior thought as he recalled the love made here.

“Do you know what’s coming?” he asked again. No reply from the stoic. “You probably don’t know where we’re going either.”

Jarod looked over the town he’d lived in six decades ago; so much progress since then. So many new buildings. The forest that was home to this hill had been encroached upon but not toppled, fortunately, and for a moment Jarod got lost in the symbolism before acid spit into the bottom of his throat. “Today is the last day of the rest of our lives,” he bowed his head.

“Trouble in paradise?” a scratchy voice came.

The old man, his hearing not what it used to be, never heard the crunch of gravel and stone approach him. Jarod looked up. A woman, her face scored by decades of experience. It was hard for Jarod to tell; maybe it was the voice, maybe it was the underlying structure of her face. Is it…? Who has that strength of conviction anymore? Jarod does, so it’s not like it’s impossible.

“Any more front row tickets available?” the woman asked.

Jarod patted the stone perch beside him. The woman stepped towards on less than confident legs and accompanied him. The old man had already turned his attention back to the sky but could tell the woman was smiling, happy almost. She radiated a vibe, something above and beyond the four dimensions Jarod was bound by.

“You’re not bitter?” Jarod asked as he clasped his hands over the butt of his cane.

“Bitter about what? I’ve lived a good life, a full life. Love, family, friends, children. Been around the world.” Her voice wasn’t light and as high pitched as it may have been in her youth, but it was sure, confident. She continued.

“Should I be bitter about this old body? It made it this far, far enough to go out in a ball of fire.” She laughed before stopping to cough. “Ahem, that’s a hell of a lot better than lying in a hospital bed pumped full of pain killers.”

Jarod turned his head to look at her. No, no, just wishful thinking, he thought. But that does sound like something Amelia would say.

“I don’t know,” Jarod began. “My body’s been in pain so long I don’t remember what it’s like not to be in pain. I’ve lived with it, though. More important things have been lost.”

“Let me guess,” the woman smiled at him and leaned in, “There was this girl…” The way she smiled with the right side of her lip higher than the left, it was so damned familiar.

Jarod leaned back; she’d invaded his space. He’d become too comfortable within his bubble. He never wanted the bubble. It’s one of those damned things humans put themselves in when they’ve been left alone for too long. But weren’t bubbles made to be burst? Many of his had been.

“You seem satisfied with the love you’ve had in your life. You sound like you’ve never lost love. But who wouldn’t spend a lifetime fawning over you?” Jarod finished leaning back in towards the woman. Screw the bubble. The possibility of rejection didn’t matter at this point.

The other half of this equation threw her head back. She slapped her thigh and hooted before collecting herself. Amelia used to do that.

“I’ve been through so many loves!’ she said. “I’ve lost loves and found loves a few times over. And each time it meant something, everything. It was beautiful every time. Did it ever hurt? Sure. But then it didn’t. That’s the beauty of it.”

Jarod squinted. He frowned. He shook his head. “There was never one that stood out, one that mattered more than all the others, one you didn’t quite recover from?” He scoffed. “I don’t see any beauty in that.”

The woman turned her body towards him and put her hands on his knees. “I never recovered from any of them, Jarod. But you press on, find new loves, and you love in different ways. But love and the pain that goes with it, that’s the point.”

“How do you know my name?” drifted out of the old man’s mouth. “Amel…”

“No, I’m not Amelia.” Jarod’s companion sat back straight and crossed her legs. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to get your hopes up. Say, do you want to tell me what else is on your mind?”

Confirmation enough. Amelia never asked him what was on his mind. She just knew. But this woman knows a few things herself.

“Could there be anything else but to be angry that the grief never ended?” Jarod carved out. “You’re so wise this would be a good time to clue me in.” Jarod stomped his cane on the ground.

“It’s just that I need to hear you say it,” she replied. “That other thing that bothers you. Like how you wished you’d never been in love. Like how you’ve always felt the things you feel you wish you never had to, because that’s not who you really are. You never wanted any of it, not once you felt it.”

How was she inside his head? No, it was deeper than that. She saw into his soul.

“What are you?” the senior man asked. “An angel, a demon, here to whisk me off to the afterlife? You’re more than reading my mind.”

“I am. We’re connected, of course. All of our kind are.” She turned to Jarod again. She took one of his hands in hers and pulled it into her lap. “It is me. I mean, I was Amelia. But then I remembered.”

“I don’t understand…” The words were spoken weakly. A lack of understanding usually is.

“None of us were supposed to remember until it was time. But you hit your head as a child and, let’s just say the human brain is so fragile,” the woman said.

Jarod shook his head and clenched his jaw. A dozen loudspeakers could be heard announcing something in the city below. The end must be nigh. Maybe the asteroid has already hit and his mind is grasping at straws. Then the scratch of the woman’s voice centered him.

“You’ve never really agreed with their morality, or what passes for it on this planet. You’ve never agreed with any of their politics. You’ve never understood their economics. You’ve cried over the way they treat each other. You’ve even cried over how they treat other living things. You’ve despaired as they ravaged the planet. All of your frustration, all of your anguish, all of your rage – you had no choice but to feel it because that’s what you signed up for. You’re not one of them. You never have been,” the person formerly known as Amelia explained.

Jarod’s eyes were circled with water. He knew it. He knew it.

“Why are we here?” the old man asked as a tear finally fell.

“We’re scientists. We were sent to experience life as humans. Apparently, we didn’t expect it to be this bad. At least we have all the data we need now.” The woman stood up as a word emanated from the metropolis below. Ten. And, as expected. Nine.

The woman extended her hand towards Jarod.

“Are we going home now?” Jarod almost choked as his hand reached out to meet hers. She smiled. Her eyes welled, too.

“Let’s go home,” she said.

Eight…seven…six…

Jarod, aided by the woman, stood up. He tossed his can aside. He sniffled then cast his eyes on the city below. “The asteroid. Is it us?”

The woman tossed her head and her hair flipped back with it. When her head came back she smiled before nodding towards some undefined place.

“Good,” Jarod said.

“Now, now,” the woman patted Jarod’s hand. “We’re scientists from another world. Don’t be so human.”

Two…one…

And then they were gone in a brilliant flash of gold light and red flames.

John J. Vinacci (c) All Rights Reserved September 2021

Dark Matters

Dark Matters

Ugh. Morning? Morning. Morning? Why does everything look so dull? Must be cloudy.

Am I outside? The sun’s cleared the horizon. I can see it though the tree’s branches. It’s not cloudy. Am I lying on my back? And what the hell am I doing outside?

I wasn’t feeling well. Did I pass out before I made it home? What happened? I was drinking with Robbie and Margo; knew I’d had too much. Left the bar, walked down Bond Street, started crossing the street, bright lights, screeching tires…oh, no! Did I get hit by a car? Someone hit me and I bounced into the park, then they left me to die! Asshole!

Anything broken? I don’t feel anything. That’s weird. I don’t feel anything; nothing. Like, nothing. I’m trying to bite the inside of my lip and I can’t even tell if I am. Wait; when did I stand up? It’s like I can’t tell what my body is doing.

There’s someone walking, in my peripheral. Can’t turn my head. Turn your head, dammit. Call for help. I don’t think I’m saying anything! Wait. Yes, I am. But I’m not saying ‘help.’ What am I even saying? ‘Gwarwhar’? I need to go to the hospital! Does this person even see me? Hey, you, help! Please, I need help!

Head’s turning! Looking towards them, look up! Looking up…they’re looking at me. What? They’re looking at me funny. God, no, I must be horribly disfigured! They’re walking away, no, running. Running! No, don’t run away! Help! I need help!

I’m running after them! Good, maybe I can convince them to take me to the hospital. Also good that my legs aren’t broken. Can’t feel them but they’re working. Arms are working, too, reaching out for the person. I just want them to look at me, see how badly I need help.

Why am I tackling them? Are they screaming? They’re screaming but it sounds far away, like on an old-timely telephone line. They’re throwing fists now. I don’t feel it. Stop punching me, I’m trying to tell you I need help! Help me!

Gwarwhar!

I lunge my head forward. Clack, clack! Am I trying to bite them? What the fuck? What the hell am I doing trying to bite them? Listen, I don’t want to bite you! Stop punching me! Help me! Me! Not you. You don’t need help from me, do you? You’ve got it all wrong.

I avoid a punch. Bite down on their arm. Good, maybe you’ll stop punching me then. But I’m biting them again, more deeply this time. I can taste it…I can taste it! Warm, salty, metallic – blood! What the hell?! My right eye goes cloudy with a red mist. Another bite! Stop! What the fuck am I doing?! I can’t stop! I can’t control this!

They’re still screaming, screaming, until I latch onto the side of their neck. Pressure, something hard. Bone. Oh my god I’m killing them. My eyes fly away from them, but really it’s my mouth tearing a piece of flesh off. Their eyes are dimming. I can see my upper lip move…I’m chewing on them! Oh god, what in the name of? Someone stop me! Why can’t I stop?!

Another bite. Another. I don’t want to be doing this! I’ve got no control, though. I’m eating this person! Why am I eating them? I want to cry but I can’t even do that.

My eyes shoot up. Some lady staring at me. That same look, that same look…run, lady! I’m getting up. I can’t stop! Run, lady. RUN! She’s older. She’s not going to be fast enough. I run her down like, like a car. I bowl her over. I’m gnashing, gnashing! She doesn’t scream as much. She must be in shock. Am I in shock? This can’t be real.

I’m dreaming. I’m screaming holy hell and thrashing about in here. I have to fight the sleep paralysis and wake up. This is the worst dream of all time. Fucking wake up!

My head is thrown back and over my shoulder. Is that the guy I took down a minute ago? Looks like I chewed his arm down to the bone. There’s a huge chunk of his neck missing. His eyes are filled with rage. He’s baring his teeth. He’s coming right at me. Fair’s fair, I guess.

He runs at me and lays into my shoulder, spinning me around. I stop spinning. He’s not after me. He takes down some guy on his phone that was behind me. Looks like a jogger. He’s tearing the shit out of that jogger with his teeth. There’s blood everywhere.

I turn around and the older woman is getting up. She’s got that same look in her eye, that rage. And she’s, she’s smelling the air. I tilt my head back like I’m smelling the air, too. We sense something but I can’t tell what.

Oh, it’s a police officer. He’s pointing his firearm at us. He doesn’t look like he knows what to do. I see a flash and my eyes rock like something went through my body. I didn’t feel anything, though. I start towards the officer. So does the older woman. The officer is on the run. The older woman is faster now, faster than before. He’s down. She’s on top of him. He’s fighting. I’m on top of him. Blood. Flesh. Death.

This is happening so fast. I need to concentrate on waking up! Wake up! I’m stuck. I’mstuckohgodwhyisthishappeingtome? Pleasewakethehellup! Ambulances? I hear sirens, faint, faraway. No, I see them, they’re close. Police. More officers. Lots of screaming. People are running everywhere now.

Me, the older woman, and the cop we just took down; we’re running. We’re running towards the police that just arrived. My head popped back and now my left eye is blacked out. I’m still closing in on them. We’re closing in on them. We’re taking bullets. It does nothing. We’re on them. We’re on them.

More blood. More flesh. Sinew. Bone. Organs. I can’t feel what my body is doing, can’t see well, can’t hear well, but I can taste. I don’t like the taste. I never wanted to know what this tastes like. But there’s no stopping. There’s no waking up. Are the others…are they trapped inside, too?

We’re off and running again, on the hunt. Me, the older woman, the joggers, the police; we can’t stop. Nothing can stop this. We want to stop, I know we do. We can’t. We fucking can’t.

Please, please, I just want to wake up. But I can’t wake up. This is real. This is happening. No one saw this was going to happen. Not this time.

This? This is a front row seat to the end of the fucking world. This time…this time we get to see what we’ve done.

John J. Vinacci (c) All Rights Reserved August 2021

Morning, Joe

Morning, Joe

Twenty-something Joe stepped out of his townhouse into the sun. Spokes of light bent their way around the few marshmallows in the sky and brushed the skin of his face. A faint breeze kissed his lips. A few townhouses down, a car alarm bleated; as typical a city morning as one gets. In the city, there’s always a car alarm going off. 

Joe and his neatly trimmed beard slipped under the cover of his knit beanie. It was still Spring after all and the sun wasn’t getting up so early that he was awake ahead of his morning coffee. In reality, Joe was never awake of his morning coffee, which is why he was outside this morning to begin with. The young man’s day never really started until that bitter black elixir slid down his throat. What is consciousness? Coffee, if you ask Joe.

The millennial took a step off his porch and stumbled as if he’d missed the step entirely. He grabbed the porch railing before slipping down the stairs entirely. Was it a lack of coffee? As his brain caught up to real time, Joe realized the earth had moved. Something had rapped against his eardrum but the nearby car alarm had drowned out the sound. Had there been an earthquake? A sudden volcano appearing downtown? Another thump followed by a blunt crash set off another nearby car’s alarm. Could this be the beginnings of an alien invasion? Joe would be ill equipped to deal with that before some black sunshine.

As Joe stepped onto the city sidewalk, he noticed a few other people looking around in confusion. An old woman across the street chided her chihuahua for barking up a storm, probably triggered by what Joe assumed to be explosions. Whatever was going on, Siri would probably know. Joe dug into his peacoat pocket to wrangle his phone. Another boom came, then another closer boom, and Joe’s phone tumbled out of his hand and into some dog shit someone neglected to police.  

He knelt down and debated grabbing his phone with his bare hands. He reached, then drew back, startled by the sound of a wave of city dwellers rounding the end of the block. They were running from something, their eyes intermittently thrown behind them to escape the inevitability that followed them. Joe was right in their path.

The phone wasn’t that important right now. He could always get a new one. What’s a grand on a phone even though you can barely pay the rent? A barely-affordable artisan coffee every morning dulls those kinds of blues. Joe stepped back onto the steps of his townhouse to avoid the rolling sea of fear.

“What’s going on?” Joe yelled to no one in particular as the mob raced by.

A disheveled man, not homeless, just uncaffeinated rang out, “They’re blowing up all the coffee shops!”

“What?” Joe shook his head. It sounded like one of those unimaginable things, like insurrectionists rioting in the U.S. Capitol.

“All the coffee shops are blowing up!” the broken man threw his hands in the air. “Probably terrorism! Argh!” he finished as he was swept away by the force of misery in company.

It took a few moments for the words to percolate. “Terrorism? Coffee shops? How…how will the economy function?” Joe asked himself rhetorically. After all, that was exactly the point. No coffee, no workee the popular meme goes. Nobody will want to work, even less than usual after the recent worldwide pandemic. Businesses will crash. More people will become homeless. Damn, only the stock market is safe; that keeps rising no matter how bad the news gets.

Joe looked in the direction he hadn’t heard any explosions. Maybe the shop on Galveston, he thought. Boom. Joe cursed himself for never asking his parents for a Keurig. But it’s just that making your own coffee takes so long and you have to make sure you have all thirteen ingredients. There was never much more in Joe’s kitchen besides a few cans of PBR, a bag of quinoa, and some organic veggies.

Another explosion, off in the distance. The thought of going out to the suburbs to find coffee had crossed Joe’s mind. Now he crossed it off his list. He backpeddled up the stairs. His soul protested the possibility of his routine grinding to a halt. How could he possibly press on?

Suicide was a solution, of course. Joe wasn’t trying to take such a sensitive issue lightly but it did seem a more reasonable option than living in a world without coffee. (He figured why would they stop with just the cafes? They’re probably burning all the coffee bean trees, too. Damn them, damn them to hell.) A world without coffee – the young man couldn’t help but think how wrong everyone at work was until he’d finished that first cup. Could he face coworkers that were wrong all day long?

Another throng of people rounded the corner, panicking like wild animals, totally not realizing they were using up whatever energy reserves they had. Your body can only remain in fight-or-flight mode so long before coffee is required to sustain the fight against horrible bosses. Of course they didn’t know what else to do, though, their brains weren’t really awake yet.

Neither was Joe’s. Surely something could be done about the situation. But what? The answer lie in caffeine but the caffeine was gone. No doubt someone was making a run on energy drinks right now and that might help in the short-term, at least until their adrenal glands died. However, it is a fact that energy drinks are not that ethereal, dark, bitter(sweet) liquid that is like a new lover in possession of that X-factor, that undistinguishable thing you would die for but cannot explain what it is. What to do then? What to do?

Joe’s neighbor, Tina – an Earl Grey swilling throwback to that second, embarrassing Woodstock – stepped out onto her landing next door. She pitched narrow eyes at the crowds running to-and-fro.

“What’s going on, Joe?”

He was about to explain when a forty-something man wearing a tweed jacket ran up Tina’s steps and put a pistol in her face. “You got coffee, lady?” he bellowed.

“Yes! Yes! I have a little bit..” Tina grimaced as she pointed through her door. The man shot her in the chest and stepped one foot inside her townhouse. He stopped and looked at Joe.

“You!” the murderer locked on. “You got any coffee in there?”

“No! No coffee in here!” Joe answered. Tina’s assailant shot Joe in the chest as well.

A lump formed in the young man’s throat, like the one you get when you’re in love, but not because of love. Peeling his hand off the gunshot wound, the hipster observed the crimson flow of his internal world. A cascade of life poured out of him.

Joe considered this. Coffee – so seemingly essential for life – pales in comparison to human blood. What is caffeine next to red and white blood cells, platelets, electrolytes, vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins, sugars, and of course, water? Sure, coffee can raise your blood pressure, but what if you’ve got no blood? It seemed to Joe that he never really valued what really made him tick. Why do people always ignore the fundamentals?

The question of suicide had been answered for him. He had spent his life a squirrel. The Universe provided the traffic.

Joe’s vision blackened like a dark roast. He crumpled to the ground in a heap with nothing to pick him up.

*Author’s Note – I admit I pun-ted the finale to this story. In my defense, this story was written completely caffeine-free.

Daniel’s Door

Daniel’s Door

The door was locked. Of course it was locked. Why wouldn’t it be locked? You need three keys to open it. The doorknob is a glass skull. And the door is engraved with strange symbols. When you come across the only door on the third story of your new home that is, of course, down the street from a cemetery, it’s going to be locked.

“Dad!” I yell down the stairwell. I don’t know if he can hear me; this house is really big. It’s bigger than any house we’ve lived in before. It looks like a small castle from the outside so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by a mysterious door.

“Dad! Did you know there’s a locked door up here on the third floor?” I look but don’t lean over the banister. It’s a little rickety. Dad’s going to fix that up real good. He’ll make it look great, then we’ll move again. “Dad!”

I see his head, just his head, tilt up from the bottom floor. (First the cemetery, then the door, now a disembodied head. This is only going to get worse, isn’t it?) Dad’s face is flushed red; he must be carrying something heavy into the house.

“Daniel! We’re a little busy down here. What is it?” he barks. He gets snippy when he’s busy and he forgets to eat something.

“There’s a door up here on the third floor. It’s got weird stuff written all over it and a glass skull for a doorknob. It’s locked. Do you have the keys?”

“What do you mean ‘keys’? I didn’t even know there was a door up there,” he says.

It’s a little strange that he doesn’t know about the door. He’s an architect with an eye for detail. That’s what mom says, anyway. He’s got, what did she call it? Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? With dad being so particular about things, mom likes to amuse herself by messing with him, like when she leaves the cap off the toothpaste. It’s mostly amateur stuff, although I’d hate to see what she’s capable of when she puts her mind to it.

“I’ll take a look at it later,” dad’s voice floats away with his head.

I try to look under the door but the quarter inch or so doesn’t give me much to work with. It does seems bright in there, though, more than sunlight can account for. Looking out the nearest window I can see nothing but grey sky. So, it’s definitely not sunlight. Is it a portal to another dimension? Something catches my ear.

I press me ear against the door so hard I’m going to bruise my cheek. It’s worth it, I decide. It’s worth it because there’s definitely someone in there. Find the three rabbits, they’re saying over and over. I peel my ear off the door slowly. Should I bother mom and dad with this? I thumb my lips. No, they’re busy. I can handle this.

Normally, I’d be bored with our new house by now and I’d be out exploring the neighborhood for the rest of the day. Okay, two or three days, over which time mom and dad think I’ve run away. But I’ve been twelve years old for five months; you’d think they’d trust me to know what I’m doing by now. I don’t know how many times I’ve told them that explorers aren’t runaways. They’re simply curious people. The local police don’t seem to understand this either. I’ve never wanted to be a policeman. They just obey orders.

I trundle down the winding staircase. My feet slap the first floor and I whip my head around. Dad’s out at the moving truck and mom’s in the kitchen looking around. She’s either lost something or planning a joke on dad. Not my problem.

“Mom!” My voice startles her and she clutches her shirt. She turns towards me. Before she can ask I put it to her. “Have you seen any rabbits around here?”

She closes her eyes and shakes her head. “Why on earth are you looking for a rabbit, honey?”

I put my hands out to stop her there. I dip my head. I don’t want to get snippy like dad. “Just, please, have you seen any rabbits?”

Mom looks out the back door into the vast, lush, but overgrown garden. “No, I haven’t seen any, but I’m sure there are some around, in a vegetable patch I imagine. This is a big piece of land.” Still staring out the door, she continues. “This one’s going to take a lot of work.” I don’t think she’s talking to me anymore, but then she returns her attention to me.

“Why don’t you go read a book instead? There’s a collection of classic fairy tales in the study just off the foyer,” she directs me. Is she kidding?

I burst out the back door, a butterfly trying to race a bullet. Time is of the essence. At least I think it is. Wait, what if I’m dealing with a ghost? What does time mean to the dead? Question for another day. Finding myself surrounded by shrubs, flower beds, and broken pots, my eyes scour the ground for a rabbit. Nothing here in the backyard. I’ll have to go further afield.

I walk along the edge of the property where there’s a craggy, makeshift rock wall. At the furthest corner of the property I come upon a collection of statues. A fish, a dog, an owl; it’s like a petrified zoo. Whoever lived here before was weird. Whoever’s in that room doesn’t have time for this, so I turn away. I turn away and catch a glimpse of a small stone rabbit. Could this be what the person in the room is talking about?

I pick the statuette up and turn it over and over searching for a key. Nothing, so naturally I smash it on the ground. It crumbles into small grey chunks and dust. After seeing that there’s no key inside of the statuette, I wonder if mom and dad will be upset that I’m breaking stuff. I don’t usually do things like this so it’ll give dad something new to yell at me about. A thought like that would usually make me sad, until I see something poking out of the ground nearby. Clearly not a rock or a stick I tug it out of the ground and shake the dirt off of it. It’s a skeleton key, as in, it’s made to look like it was made out of bones. It’s metal, of course, and caked with soot. Someone tried to destroy this key. Obviously they failed and tossed it away. Careless. This has to be what I’m looking for.

I have to find two more keys to open the door. It seems I’m not looking for actual rabbits so my eyes dart around the landscape, searching for another stone rabbit. A good mystery isn’t going to just give itself up so easily, though, so maybe I should be looking for something else that looks like a rabbit. I’ll have to hurry; the sky has gotten darker. It’s either getting late or it’s going to rain, hard.

The yard around the house is bigger than I thought. I’ve circled the perimeter three times now and I can’t come up with anything else. There is this one knotty tree with its roots all gnarled at the ground. Maybe I am looking for an actual rabbit. I look for a rabbit hole and it looks like there may be one. It’s not too big but then I don’t know how big the rabbits get out here. I stick my hand into the abyss which winds up being nothing more than a deep gouge in the earth. I have to admit I’m a little frustrated. I lean against the tree and toss my head back.

Ow! There’s a huge knot in the bark and it bites me. I spin around and give it a glare as if it should know better. Only – I tilt my head to the right – it looks kind of like a rabbit at this angle. There must be a key around here somewhere! I circle the tree, looking up, then down, then up. What’s that on that branch? A rabbit’s foot? And there’s a key chained to it. I’ll have to climb and go out on a limb for it, maybe even jump for it. Mom always calls me her little monkey. It shouldn’t be that hard.

About eight feet into the canopy I try to balance on the branch. It’s not strong enough and I hear an audible snap. I leap for the keychain, grabbing it with one hand while latching onto the branch with the other. I swing, a chime in the wind, and the branch breaks completely. I sail, first like a paper, then like a rock. Landing on my back knocks the wind out of me. I’m okay but I could have done without that happening. Why do action heroes in the movies always look like they don’t mind being nearly blown up? At least I have the key. I open my hand. It’s a regular key, a little rusty. One more to go.

I stand up and brush the debris off me. I don’t know where to look next or what I might be looking for. My face scrunches up to one side. I know, mom, I know; Your face will freeze like that if you keep making that face. Watermelon seeds sprouting in my stomach, getting cramps if I swam after eating, Santa…I don’t know if I can believe her anymore. No more than I believe what just skittered across my feet.

A white rabbit, or was it a bolt of lightning? It was moving fast and dodged into the shrubs a few yards away. I put one foot in front of the other and I’m there not nearly as quickly. Here little rabbit, I try to coo. I need your help. After rustling through some brush, it bolts again, back towards the house then makes a sharp turn to the right. It’s in and out of the groundcover. I’m never going to catch that thing! It’s like it’s late for a very important…hmm.

Why don’t you go read a book instead? There’s a collection of classic fairy tales in the study just off the foyer, I remember mom saying. Let’s see; a white rabbit, a collection of fairy tales, and now I’m the bolt of lightning. I’m in the house so quickly the thought of maybe being able to catch the rabbit after all gets left behind. I zig, I zag, and I’m in the study. I run a hand along the books lining the shelves. The sweet smell of mom’s dinner wafts in the room and it threatens to distract me. It’s foolish to undertake an adventure on an empty stomach – that’s what mom always says – but I don’t know if time is running out. Besides, mom’s concoctions might smell good but they can be inconsistent. My eyes and hands continue their search.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Found it! Can it really be this easy? (Not that I haven’t spent most of my day on this.) I pull the book so hard it slips out of my hands and thumps against the floor. A long gold key with its bow fashioned into a heart tumbles across the floor. I don’t question the key-maker’s motives. I’ve found the three keys!

I whip across the house back towards the staircase. I almost knock dad over, forcing him to drop the box he was carrying. Clishhh! Must’ve been the breakables. Mom tries to grab me by the arm with half her heart and fails. I’m the white rabbit now, too fast for her. I barely hear her say dinner’s ready. It’s like a something I heard once in the past.

My sneakers screech across the floor so I don’t slam into the door. “I’m coming,” I whisper loudly to whoever’s inside. With a shaky hand that can barely contain a childlike curiosity – but remember, I’m practically an adult now – I try the various lock and the rusted key is first to match the tumblers. The skeleton key is next, though I had to jiggle that one a bit. I break out the heart key; I’m so close! But the lock sticks and I’m turning, turning, turning. I back off and wring my hands because I don’t want the key to break. I force the lump in my throat down, put my fingers on the key, and turn gently. Clack! The seal is broken. The door creeks open an inch. What will I discover? I take frightening doorknob in my hand and push.

The room is flooded with the light of two rectangular lamps posted on a tripod, the kind dad uses when he’s working in a basement or attic. The voice? It’s coming from the window directly in front of me. I walk over to the sill where I find a plastic device the size of my hand. It has various buttons, almost like some kind of phone but not really. I think I’ve seen dad use this thing to remind himself of important stuff. But why is he whispering, Find the three rabbits? Are they…are they messing with me? I spent all day on this!

“Daniel, dinner’s ready. Come eat,” I hear my mom call from the depths. A freight train is running through my head.

I trudge down the stairs one-step-at-a-time. It’s not a death march; I’m taking my time trying to figure out what I’m going to say and what I’m going to do. It appears I am up against enemies with no conscience. I don’t know what to do about that.

At rock bottom, I put my hand on the banister and swing myself towards the kitchen. Mom and dad are sitting at the kitchen table. Some kind of slop is steaming up the place. I force my shoulders down and narrow my eyes.

“Whose. Idea. Was It?” I demand.

They look at each other, look at me, then at each other again. They simultaneously blame one another. Then dad tells her, “I told you it was a bad idea.” My mother’s head and shoulders slope.

“I’m sorry, honey,” she implores. “I just didn’t want you disappearing like you always do. Just once I wanted our first night in a new house to be the three of us having a nice family dinner.”

“Did you help her?” My clipped voice aims for dad.

“Well, yes, Daniel,” dad confesses. “But I only made the door and set things up. Your mother was the mastermind.”

“Actually, it’s quite funny,” mom smiles. “Your father wanted the door to look real. He really took his time with it.” She smiles and puts her hand on his. “It almost wasn’t ready in time.”

I walk towards the kitchen table, yank my chair out, plop myself down, and yank myself towards something that’s probably poisonous. What a waste of time. I’ve had friends who see a therapist and I never knew why. Now I get it. Now they’re going to get it. I draw a deep breath, a dragon about to breathe fire.

“The next time we move,” I begin, stabbing a piece of meat with my pitchfork, “I am so running away.”

 

All Rights Reserved © May 2020 John J Vinacci

The Funeral

The Funeral

I hate these goddamn things. If I never go to another funeral it’ll be too soon.

Chuck’s mother is crying. She’s always crying. Everything’s a fucking Hallmark moment with her. Or do I mean Lifetime Special? My thinking gets cloudy in these situations, situations where you need to find some words of consolation, but words escape you. So I put my hand on her shoulder but it doesn’t ease her hyperventilating. It’s no use. I slip my hand in my pocket and fumble around. I need a cigarette.

I’ve smoked for a long time but I don’t need a cigarette; it’s just something you do in these situations when you can’t think of anything to do or say. It’s a distraction. There’s something comforting in the habit. I don’t even have to look; I’ve done it so many times I can slide a cancer stick out of the package and bring it to my lips like I’m on autopilot. I can even bring fire, the lighter, to the tip of the cigarette based on muscle memory alone. I thumb for the chick chick of the lighter but there’s a stiff breeze. I’m puffing away but I ain’t getting anything. The wind is too much, fucking November. There’s nothing you can do about a change of seasons.

My wife, Becca, she’s giving me that look, that look that says, Wow, you really fucked up and at the same time is also looking through you because she just can’t deal. At least she’s not blubbering like Chuck’s mother. Nah, Becca will pull through this. We’re doing the wake at our place and we’ve got a lot of alcohol. While I worry about how much she drinks sometimes, you can’t discount alcohol’s medicinal effects given the circumstances. Who needs a doctor when Jack Daniels makes house calls? Humph. Where was that wisdom when I was at the bar with Chuck?

He insisted on driving us home, stupid fuck. I told him, No way, you’ve had too much to drink. I’ve only had a six-pack. ‘Only.’ He blew me off, tried to get into the driver’s seat and turn the ignition. But I’m a true friend and a responsible adult or some shit like that so I grabbed him by the arm and tore him out of the car. I tried to wrestle him down and keep him grounded but he thrashed like a bitch. Good thing he punches like a bitch, too. I’d gotten the keys, got in the car and revved her up; told him to get his bitch ass in. I guess he’d seen me in one too many brawls, though, and he’d learned to fight dirty. I turned my head towards the window to see where he’d gone off to when the motherfucker sniped me with a rock. Holy fuck; my head swelled up like a melon. He pushed me into the passenger seat and took the wheel.

I don’t know how long I reeled from that blindsiding. All I remember is hearing Led Zeppelin on the radio while trying to sit upright and putting my eyes on the road. Immediately I thought, What’s a fucking tree doing in the middle of the road? We weren’t in the middle of the road, of course. Chuck wrapped his classic red Pontiac ’65 right around that pine. Never gonna see that beauty again. Huh, I wonder if the casket is made out of pine. Nah, looks more like oak. I guess Chuck’s mother splurged, used all the money she’d been saving for the wedding he was never gonna have anyway. Sorry son-of-a-bitch, even blow-up dolls have turned him down.

I look at Chuck. He’s wearing a black suit. You kidding me? He’s never worn a suit in his life. I doubt it was his idea; his mother must’ve insisted. Why do people do that, try to make you look as good as possible right before they put you in the ground? They say nice things, act like you were Mother Theresa. You know what I want to say to Chuck? You should’ve let me drive, asshole. And he was an asshole. He was such an asshole he could make whatever bad time you were having even worse. In other words, he made me look good. You need friends like that.

Crap, rain’s starting to come down. Figures, the one time the weatherman gets it right. At least I ain’t getting wet.

Everyone is starting to take their seats under the canopy, waiting for the eulogy. What the fuck for? Someone just died. You’d think the living should be dancing and celebrating life, not engaging in some morose metaphor for death. Yeah, I get that we’re all sad someone passed away but fuck, we’re not the dead ones so don’t double down on that shit. I don’t know how many times I’ve told Becca, When I die, throw a big fucking party. Dance your asses off. Don’t be sad. Have a good fucking time. I try to take her hand. She won’t look at me now.

The pastor is trying to light our candles but that damn wind again. If he does get the fucking thing lit, I’m gonna go have a smoke. I’m going to stand up, walk away, and turn the cigarette in my hand to ash. Chuck would understand. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em. That’s what he’d want his tombstone to say, not this Beloved Son shit they’ve got going on.

What would I want my tombstone to say? Here lies Jerry, died from not forwarding an email to ten people. Because what’s not a joke anymore? Even this pastor; this pastor’s a joke. He’s talking about what great friends we were, like he knew us at all, like he knows me. Sure, Chuck and I were best friends. Yes, I fucked up when I didn’t get the keys from him. At least I tried. I tried to do the right thing so give me a fucking break. I think that’s what the pastor’s saying. I don’t know. I’m really not paying attention to him anymore. I tune out the second people start talking shit about me.

I keep waiting for him to finish. This is Chuck’s funeral after all. Say something about Chuck. Who give a fuck if I’m married and got a ki…aw, fuck.

“Hey, man, what’s up?” Chuck asks me.

“Chuck,” I stand up, “Just when I think you can’t keep going on being the biggest asshole forever, you pull this shit.” A warm smile spreads across that pear-shaped head of his.

“Do you think we’re going to heaven now?” he says. With all the shit we’ve done how the fuck would I know? I don’t like our odds.

“We’re gonna try,” I reply, getting off his mother’s lap. “At least with you standing next to me, I got a shot of getting in.” Chuck’s smile turns upside down.

“You know what?” he chews, his tone a little salty. “If I’m such a big asshole, it’s because I learned from the best.”

I look down at the cigarette that isn’t even there. Going to heaven? Like I said, I don’t like our odds.

 

All Rights Reserved © April 2020 John J. Vinacci

The Devil And The Dating Game

The Devil And The Dating Game

“Welcome to The Dating Game,” the bespectacled host announced. His tan tweed jacket was entirely too tight and his bell bottom pants entirely too wide.

“Listen, we have three eligible ladies here looking to find Mr. Right and heeeeere they are,” he spoke as he swung an arm wide towards them.

“Bachelorette Number One comes to us from Hell’s Kitchen, New York. She’s a dominatrix by day and…a dominatrix by night. Say hello to Madame Lilith!” An overhead light shone to reveal a leather clad brunette in head-to-toe black leather and zippers.

“Bachelorette Number Two calls Sin City, Las Vegas home. She’s a credit analyst by day whose hobbies include gambling, dealing drugs, and generally lightening men’s wallets; say hello to Candy Cotton!” The stage lighting revealed a neon-red haired woman in a candystriper’s outfit. She waved her multicolored tic-tac colored fingers enthusiastically.

“Contestant Number Three is from Des Moines, Iowa. She sings in her church choir and feeds the homeless when she’s not getting straight A’s in college, say hello to Faith Goodwill.” A light shone down from above to illuminate a pale skinned, blue-eyed coed with a bobbed blonde coif.

“And that’s all I can tell you about our bachelorettes. Our bachelor today, who’s been kept offstage in a sound-proof booth is a man who needs no introduction. You know him as Ol’ Scratch, Beelzebub, the Adversary, the Devil himself; he’s hot, he’s horny, ladies and gentlemen, Lucifer!”

A tall, dark-skinned figure with white horns and red eyes wearing a smoking jacket trotted out from backstage. The host went to shake Lucifer’s hand, thought the better of it, and instead gestured for Lucifer to take a seat.

“Okay, Lucifer, we have three ladies who you’ll be questioning, of course. Your job is to select the lady you’d like to go on a date with based on her answers to your questions. Right, let’s start with hellos and hear what they sound like. Bachelorette Number One can you say ‘hello’?”

The dominatrix’s voice cut hard like someone had swiped the air with cold, hard steel. “Hello, Lucifer.”

“Bachelorette Number Two?” the host asked.

“Hee, hee, hey Lucifer, honey,” dripped a southern drawl full of honey.

“And Bachelorette Number Three.”

The young lady looked sideways while trying to force a smile. “I shouldn’t be here?”

“Wonderful!” the host piped. “Lucifer, fire away.”

“Careful what you wish for,” the bachelor whispered low.

The loathsome figure’s voice was almost effeminate though he belched embers. “Bachelorette Number One; I’m usually the one who spoils everyone’s good time. How are you going to make sure I don’t have a good time on our date?” he read off his note cards.

“First, Lucifer,” her voice whipped, “I’m going to squeeze you into a tight leather straight jacket, turn the thermostat up as high as it’ll go to make you sweat, then chain you to the floor and lash you with a cat-o-nine tails until you drown in your own blood. After you’ve paid for dinner, of course.”

“Oo,” Lucifer rose in his chair and turned towards the host, “I might actually like that.” The host simply smiled.

“Bachelorette Number Two,” Lucifer continued, “People think I spend lavishly when I’m actually quite frugal. How are you going to make sure I spend my money on our date?”

“Oh, Lucifer, sweetie,” a Southern baby voice chirped, “I’m going to dress very scantily so you’ll think I’m…ovulating. Then I’m going to have you take me to the casino’s roulette wheel and tell you to keep betting on red while I stroke your big, hard, throbbing…chest,” Candy smoldered, heaving her bosom at the camera. “Then I’m going to slip you a mickey, take your cash and max out your credit cards, then tell you what a good time we had drinking too much last night.”

“Been there,” Lucifer said quietly with raised eyebrows. He nodded and shifted his weight in his chair. “Bachelorette Number Three, what’s the worst thing you want to do that you’ve never done?”

“Well,” Faith started, “There’s another girl in my church choir, Autumn, who usually stands behind me. She likes to poke me in the back during difficult passages and tries to sing over me all the time. Sometimes I think about spiking her Hydroflask with Drano?” Faith winced. “I know that’s terrible! I saw it in a movie once I wasn’t even supposed to be watching. It’s just a daydream. I’m sorry!”

“No, no, no,” Lucifer chimed. He leaned forward in his chair. “Actually, that sounds like a lot of fun, you know, when you’re doing something you know you shouldn’t but you do it anyway. Let me ask you another question.”

The host stepped towards the bachelor and gestured towards the ladies. “Lucifer, wouldn’t you like to ask all of them more questions?” Lucifer snapped his fingers and the host disintegrated into a cloud of ash. The smell of charred beef and earthy tweed blew through the studio and out a stage door that opened itself.

“Bachelorette Number Three – and I’m sorry if this question’s a little more philosophical than you’re used to – why do you think good girls like bad boys so much?”

Faith popped up. “Oh, that’s easy! Every good girl wants to be responsible for reforming a bad boy. If we get a bad boy to accept Jesus, we’ve done the Lord’s work.” The coed deflated then; the wind seemed to come out of her sails. She continued half-heartedly.

“But once they’ve reformed the bad boy, there’s no more work to do. So we dump them for another bad boy. The Lord’s work is never done,” she finished with her head bowed, eyes shut, clutching the gold cross around her neck.

The Devil’s work is never done either, Lucifer thought. He turned his palms up and shrugged his shoulders.

“Yeah, but what if the bad boy is so vain he can’t be redeemed?” the bachelor asked.

“No one is beyond redemption. Anyone can resist temptation with the proper application of love,” Faith stated matter-of-factly. Madame Lilith reached across the middle contestant to whip Faith on the leg with her riding crop.

“Give it a break, Goody Two Shoes,” she snarled.

“Ladies, I’m sorry, I’ve already made my choice,” Lucifer stood up. Two of the bachelorettes pouted. “Time to freshen things up a bit.” The eligible man rubbed his hands together and brought them to his temples as he closed his eyes.

“Madame Lilith, you’re providing a valuable service and I look forward to you working for me in the future. In about ten years in fact. Candy, as a credit analyst, you’re such a cliché where I come from, you’re probably going to wind up under Madame Lilith’s heel. Can’t see I’m not looking forward to that. That leaves Bachelorette Number Three, Faith, who is my clear favorite today. Faith, would you like to come say hello?”

The normally bubbly young lady grimaced as she slid off her chair. She took short steps, not eager to round the divider. As soon as she saw Lucifer, her face scrunched up.

“If I were a lesser man, my feelings would be hurt,” Lucifer said. “But don’t worry about it, I get that reaction all the time.”

“Oh, it’s not that,” Faith swayed, “It’s just that I was expecting something more like that really hot guy on that TV show, Lucifer.”

I should’ve never signed that contract, Lucifer grumbled in his head.

“You’re not really going to make me go on a date with you, are you?” Faith asked. “I was tricked into coming on the show by some girls in the choir.” The coed’s eyes lit up when in an attempt to feign something she’d realized earlier; that the campaign had probably been led by Autumn, that bitch. And, more than that, it was probably Lucifer who put the idea in Autumn’s head.

“Of course I am, little lady. When you sign on the dotted line, the deal is sealed. Don’t worry. It won’t be that bad. I’ll be a perfect gentleman…which you know is a lie but we’ll take it slow, I promise. Damn, another lie. Sorry,” Lucifer smiled through gnarly, sharp teeth.

“Oh, okay then. Father O’Shea always says to stand by your decisions.” Faith dropped her shoulders and began to saunter off with her date.

Sucker, Lucifer thought.

Sucker, Faith thought.

 

All Rights Reserved © April 2020 John J Vinacci

The Memory of Justice

The Memory of Justice

Humberto, a low-level street hustler turned murderous drug kingpin, would insist he feared nothing. He’d been shot and stabbed many times himself, to say nothing of the deaths of his extended family members he witnessed firsthand. Just a part of doing business, really, as long as his wife and daughter were left alone. There are rules you follow in The Business and going after women and children will surely put a target on your back, not that being top dog didn’t. The smooth tongued, slick-haired kingpin didn’t fear death even as he lay on a stainless steel gurney, electrodes attached to his head, strapped down and immobilized. At least the well-lit white room seemed a sanitary place to die.

“Do you know what this is?” a light-skinned African woman in a white lab coat asked as she held a syringe up to Humberto’s face. Inside the syringe waxed a viscous silver liquid. The doctor, Dr. Ingla, was smiling, her lips and eyes as bright as the room.

Humberto turned his head to look at the syringe, then at Dr. Ingla’s mocha face, then away. He didn’t care. It could be the sedative, it could be potassium chloride to stop his heart; what difference did it make? He just wanted to get to the task at hand.

“Just do it, puta,” the convict said.

Dr. Ingla wrapped the cusp of her hand around the bottom of Humberto’s mouth, squeezed, and pulled his face back towards her. “Don’t be rude,” she replied.

“You’ve told a lot of people you’re not afraid to die, Humberto Georgio Aruda,” the physician spoke as she slung the man’s face aside. “You’re not here to die today.”

“What are you talking about?” Humberto growled and he bolted against the restraints. “I am ready. I have made my peace. My family knows I am not coming back. Now do your job and stop playing around.”

The straps would restrain a world class powerlifter. Dr. Ingla folded her arms, syringe still in hand, and rested herself on Humberto’s arm. “How many people have you killed, Humberto?”

“Enough to find myself here. What are you waiting for?” the criminal shouted.

“Humberto,” the doctor spoke calmly, “I want you to think, think really hard, about how many people you’ve killed. Think about that number. Try to see the faces of your victims. Do this for me and you just might get to see your wife and daughter again.”

“What game is this, puta? You’re not policia or I’d already be free. Who are you? Interpol? CIA?” Humberto tried to rise against the restraints. He didn’t have as much success as rising from the ranks of a petty criminal.

“It doesn’t really matter,” the doctor said holding the syringe up to her face, “What matters is that you’re our first real test of a new criminal rehabilitation system. This experiment is going to reshape criminal justice around the world.”

She lowered the needle and widened her eyes at her subject. “Aren’t you excited?”

Nobody tests Humberto Georgio Aruda. “Whatever you think you’re going to do to me, it won’t work. Just kill me instead.”

Dr. Ingla turned her head towards the two-way mirror in the room. “Let’s begin,” she said as she returned her attention to the test subject.

“I asked you to think about all those people you killed, Humberto. We’ve confirmed twenty-nine murders you’ve personally been involved in to say nothing of all the hits you’ve ordered, but we won’t hold you accountable for those. What would you say if I took all those memories of the people you’ve killed away?”

Humberto smirked. “It would make no difference to me. Most of those people I could not care if they lived or died; many of them were examples to others. It’s just business. If you took those memories away,” the drug lord continued with cocksureness in his voice, “It would not change who I am. It wouldn’t change what I am capable of.”

Dr. Ingla’s eyebrows floated up and the edges of her mouth tweaked upwards a touch. “We anticipated this answer. I respect your attempt to goad us into simply killing you. Instead, another question: Is there something in your past that made you who you are? Or do you think who you are is just a matter of fate, that you’re a born killer and criminal?”

“Ah,” Humberto laughed, “You think you’re going to take some life-altering memory from me that set me down the path of wickedness.”

“Not quite,” the physician replied, needling the air with the syringe. “We’re going to find that life-altering memory and make you relive it twenty-nine times.”

The criminal flattened his nose and squinted at his captor. He watched silently as Dr. Ingla pierced the skin of his upper arm and pushed the syringe’s silver liquid into his body.

“What’s going to happen is that after this, after you wake up, we’re going to release you and you’re going to go home to your family and daughter. But now every time you think of murdering someone, you’ll be forced to recall your worst memory. Every time you want to murder someone, you’re going to be punished.”

The kingpin turned his head away. “I can pay you,” Humberto said flatly.

“Mmm hmm,” the doctor leaned away. “Like you pay off the local police? We paid them more for you than you paid them to protect you. That’s how it works around here, isn’t it, the highest bidder gets what they want? People like you, they always think it simply comes down to money. Too bad for you that around here it’s true.”

“What happens next?” the prisoner wanted to know, his lip and nose snarled to one side. Dr. Ingla had simply gotten up and walked away, though, before vanishing behind a steel door. “What happens next?” Humberto yelled.

Dr. Ingla joined two colleagues behind the two-way mirror. “Run the sequencer,” she ordered stoically. The scientists observed the two monitors; one was building a visual map of Humberto’s neural circuitry and the other screen was split between measuring neurotransmitter and hormone levels and blood-flow throughout the criminal’s brain. Dr. Ingla’s lips pouted and she leaned forward to punch some commands into the computer keyboards.

“Something wrong?” one of her generic assistants asked. Every time, Dr. Ingla could not remember the man’s name.

“Dopamine and serotonin levels should be lower. Epinephrine levels should be higher. There’s too much blood flow to his amygdala. He’s recalling a favorite memory. That shouldn’t be possible.”

“But you can see exactly what he’s remembering,” the female colleague reminded Dr. Ingla of her research. “Can you display it?”

The lead scientist tacked the keyboard furiously for a quarter of a minute before the world through the kingpin’s eyes popped up on the left monitor. Humberto was at his wedding and standing before his bride at the alter. The priest was speaking in Latin it appeared, had stopped as applause commenced, while Humberto stepped forward to kiss his wife. As the newlyweds’ lips touched, Humberto’s amygdala – his brain’s pleasure center – spiked. His wife whispered into his ear, “Estoy embarazada.”

“Did she just tell him she’s pregnant?” the female colleague asked.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Dr. Ingla’s forehead crinkled. Her own epinephrine levels were rising. Butterflies swirled in her stomach as her brain flip-flopped for an explanation. The physician’s eyes ping-ponged between the monitors and Humberto strapped to the gurney.

“I get it, I get it,” she announced. “He’s so happy it scares him, scared of what the consequences could be for his family. If anyone ever chose the break the rules of The Business. Not what I expected but it’ll still work. Sequence One complete. Beginning Sequence Two…”

Dr. Ingla was talking to herself by now as her two colleagues had entered the white room to tend to the drug lord. The woman lifted Humberto’s eyelids to check his pupils with a small flashlight while the man began unfastening the restraints.

The lead physician slid into the open doorway. “What the hell are you doing? Don’t let him up yet. He hasn’t finished cycling through this memory. Stop! Let the memory cycle through.”

Humberto was already rising from the gurney, his movements not quite as sharp as usual due to the high he’d been administered, but cognizant nonetheless. “We are letting the memory cycle through, doctor, we are,” the kingpin nodded with piercing eyes and a wry smile.

Dr. Ingla’s colleagues approached her without any hint of aggression until they were beside her. Then they quickly latched a hold of her arms and forced her to her knees. The doctor didn’t understand; questions that were bouncing around in her head were now overcome with a burning in her abdomen. Humberto had kicked her so hard she spat blood a foot in front of her. The kingpin leaned sideways to catch Dr. Ingla’s eye.

“It simply comes down to money, doctor. What, you think you’ve paid the police more money than I’m going to pay them over the course of my life? You think my culture, that my people are stupid? They took your money and they’re going to keep taking my money. They’re smart,” Humberto illustrated by pointing to his temple with his fingers fashioned like a gun.

“You’re smart, too,” Humberto continued. “I can think of many applications for your work. Which is why you’re going to work for me now. Every time you think you’re not going to or that you’re going to escape me? Well…” the criminal waved his hands around the bright room.

“This can’t be happening,” Dr. Ingla streamed tears out of her eyes. “I’m just having a bad dream.” She squeezed her eyes shut trying to avoid reality.

“Ah, the difference is, doctor, you’re going to remember this one for a long time.”

Dr. Ingla looked up at her captor, slack in her body. “Please, just kill me…”

Humberto squatted down and lifted the physician’s chin up to his face. “But puta,” he cooed, “we’ve only just begun.” He stood up and moved his lips out of the doctor’s field of vision. “Don’t let her go yet, not until the memories finish cycling through.”

 

All Rights Reserved © December 2019 John J Vinacci

The Simulation

The Simulation

“What if we’re living in a simulation, Adama?” Eva asked, sliding the hookah back towards her boyfriend. “What if we’re something like The Sims, doing only what our programs allows us as our ancestors try to get a better idea how their forefathers lived? Or what if we’re a holographic projection, sort of like shadows of Plato’s forms?”

“I hate it when you get bombed, girl,” Adama responded. “How would any of those things being reality change how you live? If you’re a simulation, you could only do what your programing allows. You’d be bound by the limits of the world laid out for you. You’d never escape the simulation, so what does it matter?”

Eva frowned and reached for the hookah since her boyfriend waved it off. The haze that clothed the upper half of the room’s atmosphere seemed to be enough for him.

“Don’t you think any potential programmer would have a moral obligation to create the best possible world for us?” Eva pondered before making the hookah gurgle.

“Do you think that’s what people do when they play The Sims? No, that’s boring. The program dictates you make them find jobs, dates – all the same things we do, I guess for the sake of doing something.” Adama leaned back on the couch and tilted his head up. The hazy air slipped into his nostrils like a gentle brook.

“You’d be lucky to be an avatar in a game like The Sims,” Adama continued, talking to the ceiling. “Imagine you were in a game like Fortnite. Do those programmers live by a moral code to make the best possible world for their program’s inhabitants? Don’t think so. All the inhabitants of that world do is kill each other.”

Eva blew a cloud of smoke Adama’s way. “You don’t think our ancestors could be trying to figure out what their forefathers were like?” she said with the last remnants of air in her lungs.

“Nah,” Adama replied. “Our records are pretty good going back to at least the turn of the twentieth century. It gets murkier the further we go back, of course, but then we’d be part of some ancient civilization and not inhabiting the twenty-first century. Assuming our records survive into the future. Even if the records didn’t, we’d just be guesses, approximations of their forefathers, and I don’t see how that would be helpful to our ancestors.”

“Okay, so what if we’re projections or afterglow of some real universe?” Eva continued. Adama was regretting talking his girlfriend into taking the Philosophy of Mind course with him at college. She only talked about the class when she got high.

“Are you saying that because we’re a projection that what we experience is somehow devalued by not being the real thing? How would we know we’re not experiencing all the same things, the same feelings, as our real selves? Whether or not it’s the reality of our situation would be pointless. Even if we were projections, how does that change anything? We wouldn’t be able to change our being projections. It wouldn’t change how we behave. We couldn’t change how we behave because only our real selves could do that, right?”

Eva looked down. “Could you smoke a little bit more, babe?”

“Eva, baby, I don’t need to alter my reality that much. I’m good right now,” Adama argued. “Why do people want so much to believe that this reality isn’t real anyway? You want to believe you’re a brain in a jar somewhere so that, what, you can escape responsibility? Find an explanation for why people can be so crazy? Believe that beyond this false reality the universe does in fact care?”

Eva was beginning to see the apple and laid back in the recliner across from Adama.

“I guess you’re right,” she said ad looked away into the recesses of darkness the apartment’s thick curtains threw. “What kind of world would our simulators be living in? Probably the same, huh? I guess it doesn’t matter if we’re simulations, holograms, or if this is as real as it gets. We can only do what we do given the laws of the universe we live in. The truth, whatever it is, doesn’t change much of anything.”

Adama leaned forward and opened his reddened eyes at Eva. “The truth isn’t even the truth. And that’s the truth. I still love you, though.”

“If that’s what either one of us want to believe,” Eva spoke into a shady corner.

“Is it possible for them to say that?” Dr. Amada asked his colleague about the holographic simulation.

“The parameters of their programming appear to allow for it,” Dr. Ave responded.

“What do you think it means?” was Dr. Amada’s next question.

“It confirms what we already know. It means whatever we want it to mean and that’s the truth,” Dr. Ave reminded.

“It hate that the truth is subjective,” Dr. Amada said as he reached for a modified beaker. He took a hose by its mouthpiece and puckered his lips around it.

“If the truth were objective, wouldn’t that be worse?” Dr. Ave rejoined as she waved the smoke away.

 

All Rights Reserved (c) July 2019 John J Vinacci

Barton Saves The World

Barton Saves The World

“Vern? Vern. Vern! Help! I’m being sucked into the light. I think them aliens got me!”

Barton, as a tractor beam tugged on his red-and-black plaid shirt and soil-strew faded blue jeans, pleaded to no avail as he sailed up and away on a stream of blue energy. Though unable to move, Barton felt like he was swimming in the ocean of the evening’s stars. After a few moments, the feeling was peaceful, though Barton worried his brother Vern would pop off his shotgun in his direction in an effort to shoot the flying saucer that seemingly stalled their vehicle. Barton looked down towards his feet and watched as Vern and their Confederate flag decorated pick-up truck shrank.

“WhereamI?” Barton blurted with a sudden shift in consciousness. His soothing ride ended abruptly, his feet landing him on the deck of an extraterrestrial craft. Except, the deck appeared to be made of some translucent material through which Barton could see the lights of his town far below.

“Shoot. I can see Springfield next door, too,” the country boy observed. Then Barton looked around.

Standing on either side of him were four ten-foot tall lanky humanoids with bulbous grey heads and dark, almond-shaped eyes. They had slits for mouths and noses and were draped in long, flowing technicolored capes. The creatures reminded Barton of a gay-pride parade he’d seen on cable’s number one rated conservative news channel.

“You ain’t gonna do no anal probe on me, ya hear,” Barton punctuated with narrowed eyes. “That’s an abomination to God, ya see,” the stubbly bearded Georgian felt like adding, nevermind what he got up to with Vern’s best friend that one night in the hot tub. They was drunk, ya understand. A man ain’t really responsible for what happens when he’s drunk. That’s what Father Charlie always told the brothers. That man always did have a bottle in his hand, though…

“Barton Winchester, you have been chosen.” The aliens simultaneously lifted their four-fingered hands and pointed at their captive audience.

“Chosen for what?” Barton asked as he stroked his rough chin. He wanted to ask how they had asked him since he didn’t see their mouths move but figured they were using that newfangled technology. What was it called? Bluetooth, he remembered.

“You have been chosen to represent your species. As Earth’s representative, you will now choose.” The aliens pointed from Barton to a set of spheres in front of him. One was red and one was blue.

“Choose the blue sphere and we will give your species the knowledge to combat global warming. We will also tell you how to end income disparity and poverty. And – today only – we’ll tell you how everyone on your planet can have access to clean water.”

Barton was silent for a few moments. “And the red sphere?”

“Choose the red sphere and 99.9% of all the people on your planet who share 99.9% of your DNA will perish when we use our mega-ultimate extreme death ray. If you do not decide, we will disintegrate you and choose another representative. You have one minute.”

Barton was silent a few more moments. “99.9% of 99.9%, huh?”

The country boy stroked his chin some more. For one thing, climate change was a liberal conspiracy concocted by rich scientists trying to scam more money out of decent, hard-workin’ folk. Barton knew only rich businessmen who knew the truth had the power to stop the scientists, so ending income disparity was out of the question. And everyone already had access to clean water. Shoot, all ya had to do was go down to Wal-Co and pick up a 24 pack of bottled water.

Now the red sphere; the red sphere would stop all those illegals from crossing the U.S.-Mexican border and taking away all them American jobs Americans want so much. The red sphere would also take out the Chinese and force everyone – even liberals – to buy American. And, by golly, if the red sphere eliminated 99.9% of all the people who shared a measly 99.9% of Barton’s DNA, the U.S. could annex the land of those pot-smokin’ hippies, the Canadians.

Communicating telepathically, the aliens let Barton know he was on the clock. “40 seconds lef…”

“I choose the red sphere, y’all.” The aliens stirred and looked at each other, then back to Barton.

“Are you sure?” they asked.

“Oh, yeah, yeah,” Barton nodded. “Git on with it.” He poked the red sphere. “This one. This one right here.”

The visitors to Earth shrugged. It had been decided. There was a blaze of light, as if a million smartphone flashes had gone off at once.

Barton found himself standing beside his pick-up trunk. As quickly as he’d been taken away, he’d returned to terra firma. Vern was nowhere to be seen, though his smoldering work boots were left beside the vehicle next to Vern’s shotgun laying on the ground. Barton spat some chew hard at the boots.

“Dammit! Knew them gay aliens were gonna get carried away and screw that up!”

Barton grabbed Vern’s boots and threw them in the truck’s bed. He drove back home to find his wife’s empty gown draped over her McDonalds value meal. At his old man’s house, his father’s overalls and suspenders swayed in a rocking chair on the front porch, the pages of the man’s favorite newsletter, Info Wars, flapping with the breeze. Wherever Barton went in town, there was no one to be found. He even drove next door to Springfield. No one home there either. Them stupid gay aliens, Barton thought over and over.

Trying to find someone, anyone, Barton drove down to the U.S.-Mexican border in Texas. There were always people there flooding into America. But there was no one; no immigrants, no border patrol – no one.

Barton was about to turn around and head back to Georgia when through some wind-swept dust the county boy spied a brown-skinned boy – maybe all of six years old – walking into Texas from Mexico. The young kid was dragging his feet and his lips looked like paper. Barton gasped, jumped out of his truck and lunged for the supplies in the bed of his pick-up. He grabbed Vern’s trusty shotgun and leveled it at the other survivor.

“Not today, boy!” Barton shouted. “America’s full and we ain’t talkin’ no more. Now git! Git, ya hear!”

 

All Rights Reserved © July 2019 John J Vinacci