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 Dragon Code

The Dragon Code

Baldwin could not help but drag the tip of the broadsword through the dank cavern and over dunes of gold. The sword had belonged to his father and his father before that; it was a family heirloom he hoped to become worthy of. It was almost as big as Baldwin, though, and weighty. A weapon worthy of a king, it had certainly seen more bloodshed than the fledgling knight. Today, this boy on the verge of manhood – this boy just more than half his father’s stature – hoped his heart could help bear the load. For today he was going to slay Black Veritas, the dragon that once every hundred years laid waste to the kingdom. Today his victory over the beast would come before its latest awakening, thereby winning the heart of the princess, Princess Ardel.

Upon summiting the largest mound of gold coins yet, Baldwin held a hand out to stem the glare of treasure as a single ray of light from above bounced around infinitely. He stood in awe of the wealth strewn across the hundred meter cavern floor; pearls, jewels, crowns, even long-thought-lost paintings. He, too, was lit up like treasure, glinting with golden light off his polished metal armor. It buoyed his hopes. He scanned the cavern for something deeper than treasure, though.

There, between the spilled chest of silver and a small sea of trinkets; a burning red eye with a slitted dark pupil – Black Veritas.

If the beast were awake Baldwin did not know. Perhaps Baldwin’s noise had stirred the dragon but it had not yet come to its full senses. The knight figured he best not delay. He would strike before Black Veritas could come around. Taking the beast’s eye would give Baldwin an advantage. He just had to close the fifty or so meters with the heavy sword before the dragon was rousted.

Baldwin slid down the mound of gold precipitating a cascade of coins. The noise would awaken the most slumbering animal! Baldwin thought. The dragon’s eye did not waver, though, and this gave Baldwin more hope as he lumbered toward his target, flagging under the weight of his armor now. The boy-knight gripped the sword’s hilt with both hands, raised the bloodthirsty steel over his head with youthful vigor, and promptly fell backwards unable to counter his own momentum. He crashed down on a bed of silver almost deafening himself.

“Go away. I’m trying to rest, man-child,” a muted voice came from beneath the landscape. The eye did not move.

“Be still, dragon, so I may slay thee and preserve the kingdom!” Baldwin’s voice cracked as he scrambled back to his feet. He struggled to lift the sword much less keep it steady. His heart pounding against his breastplate, Baldwin’s own sweat stung his eyes and clouded his vision, though he could see the beast had not risen yet. “There, keep steady now!”

“I don’t want to kill you, man-child. I merely wish to sleep a bit longer. When I wake, we can battle properly if you like,” the dragon offered. “Besides, wouldn’t slaying me while I slept be less than honorable for an esteemed knight such as yourself?”

Baldwin approached the eye slowly but surely. “I am not esteemed, yet, but I am my father’s child and will see to it that you are vanquished. You will trouble the kingdom no more!” The young man steadied the broadsword with all his strength and let out an unintelligible battle cry as he plunged the sword’s tip towards the beast’s vision.

The sky was engulfed in coin and treasure as Black Veritas rose with lightning speed. The dragon was as large as twenty men, covered in glossy black scales hard as diamonds, with talons and teeth sharper than anything Baldwin had ever seen. The knight’s sword clanked off the belly of the beast, causing a reverberation that saw the weapon leave the hero’s numbed hand. A grimace flitted across Baldwin’s face as he saw his heritage fall short of its mark. Pain streaked across the young man’s face as he was batted away by the flick of a talon, the armored knight no more than a flea to Black Veritas.

Baldwin crashed as junk among the treasure, the impact made worse by being ensconced in metal. Driven by the spirit of his father’s disappointment, the knight spat a river of blood and unlatched his breastplate and tossed his gauntlets aside. He drew a breath as deep as this cavern and lunged for the sword, the only armament he’d brought. Black Veritas swiftly closed a knived fist around Baldwin’s body and laid the young man into a pile of silver coins. The dragon pierced the knight’s left shoulder with a talon, pinning the young man down. Baldwin let out a high pitched scream before throwing his head back in anguish. Black Veritas lashed his tongue in the knight’s face.

“Why are you so eager to die, lad? Did I not say I didn’t want to kill you?”

“I…I was sent by Princess Ardel to dispatch you! It would preserve her father’s reign and for that she promised to marry me.”

The dragon looked at the knight sideways and snorted. He withdrew his talon from the young man’s shoulder as quickly as he’d brandished it. Baldwin’s mouth opened but he made no sound as he clutched his wound. “You’ve been sent on a fool’s errand,” the dragon said. Black Veritas circled round his treasure and curled up like a cat.

Baldwin could barely breathe but he glanced at his sword a few meters away. The dragon was the fool for not taking him seriously. “What do you mean, beast?” Baldwin asked as he noisily inched towards the weapon.

“Take hold of the sword again and there will be nothing left of you, not even ash. Do you wish to be vaporized, knight, your existence erased altogether?” Baldwin rested still. “Good. A wise man seeks to live. A brave man seeks to die,” Black Veritas remarked.

Accepting defeat, the knight must know before imposing exile upon himself. “What is this fool’s errand you speak of?”

“Princess Ardel has no intention of marrying you. She is secretly betrothed to Lord Benningfield. She sent you here to die, no doubt tired of your advancements.”

“Scandalous liar!” Baldwin insisted. “How dare you say such a thing of a princess! And Lord Benningfield is her cousin. Such a thing could not be!”

“She’s not even a virgin,” Black Veritas said casually. The dragon licked his bloodied talon clean, leaving it gleaming white once more.

The knight wanted to sit up and raise a fist but he’d lost too much life. “Dare you! How could you know such things?”

“I always keep one eye and one ear open, boy. Do the same and maybe you’d hear the ravens talk. They’re more than mere gossips, I assure you.” The young man looked confused. “Oh, did you think before this day only humans could talk? But now you know differently.”

Weak words fell from the knight’s tongue. “I am dying, hallucinating. I’ve lost too much blood.”

“So dramatic,” the dragon rolled his eyes. “I’ll mend your wound,” Black Veritas spoke as he got up and stepped to the young man. Again he pinned the knight down and breathed a narrow stream of flame onto the wounded man’s shoulder, cauterizing the injury. The dragon casually walked away and curled up in a fetal position again. “You’ll live.”

Wracked with pain but alive, Baldwin turned over on his right side, his head slung like a tankard of mead. “Spared by Black Veritas. I am humiliated. I cannot go back now.”

“Why not?” the dragon asked.

Baldwin let loose with a grunt without bringing his head around. “One does not return from battling a dragon unless they have slain the dragon. It is the Knight’s Code.”

“Says who?” Black Veritas asked putting his head down.

“That is the way it is. That is the way it has always been. Who am I to question the wisdom of elders?”

“Indeed, that’s the way your elders and nobility wish you to think,” the animal mentioned. The dragon lifted its head and directed it towards the knight. “I ask you; if I surpass your elders in age does that mean you should heed my every word? Am I wiser than you because of age or station? Perhaps. Perhaps not.”

Baldwin managed to lift his head and rear it towards the dragon. “You speak in a strange way. And you behave strangely. Why have you not killed me?”

“Because I don’t have a ‘code.’ Nor are you ready to face a ‘beast’ as terrible as myself. And so I am merciful. If we are lucky, this mercy will shed light on the darkness that has been instilled in you since birth.”

“Darkness?” Baldwin queried. “You lay waste to the kingdom every hundred years, killing scores of people and livestock. How is it that I have darkness within me?”

“Darkness, ignorance; whatever you want to call it,” Black Veritas answered. “I have never laid waste to your silly kingdom. All the treasure you see here are offers to appease me so as to ensure I don’t do exactly that. Strangely enough, the offerings weren’t even my idea. I’ve never had reason to attack your encampments. Perhaps it is my power they fear and hope to keep me from coming around at all. They don’t realize they interrupt my rest. If anything, this is what makes me want to slay them, though I do not.”

“I don’t understand,” Baldwin simpered.

“There is wool that has been pulled over your eyes in order to obscure the reality of your life. Do you know what my name ‘Black Veritas’ means? Part of my name is from the ancient language known as Latin, making my name something of a metaphor for ‘Ugly Truth.’ It is a joke your nobility thinks is clever.”

“Another language? English is the only language other than the mindless chirps and squeals of animals,” the young man stated.

“Do you know what a library is?” the dragon asked. Baldwin’s eyes shifted away and he gave a curt head movement. “It’s where books are collected in large quantities and arranged by subject matter. I’m sure your noblemen and women have a library. At least the noblemen do. Your clergy sometimes likes to speak in Latin; it’s a trick they pull to pretend they have a deeper and greater understanding of English than you do.”

“Why would the clergy engage in such deception?” the knight tisked.

“The same reason powerful people always lie – to maintain their power over you. Let me ask you a question, good knight; why do you fight for them?”

Baldwin needn’t mull it over. What a dumb question from a seemingly intelligent dragon. “It is my station. My bloodline demands it. Just as the blood of our God runs through the nobility, so knighthood runs through my bloodline. I am compelled to perform a duty through both antiquity and fealty. It is the way of things.”

“Again, says who?” the animal wondered observing its talons. “The nobility? Isn’t it interesting that the rules they say you must obey are rules that benefit them the most. This I know, for I’ve been around much longer than any of you think. I am also not an idiot.”

“Your mockery of me does not persuade me, dragon,” Baldwin replied.

“Oh, don’t be so touchy, boy. You were born into ignorance and were never taught to question it. What are you to do but accept a lie you are told all the time? If a big enough lie is told frequently enough, it will be believed. But you do not have to go on being an idiot. You do have a choice.”

“What choice?” the young knight laughed humorlessly. “If I go back wounded they will ask me what happened. If I tell them the truth, that you let me live, they will make me the court jester. I cannot lie and I say I slayed you because they will ask for proof. If I say I never found you and I was attacked by bandits they will say I am unworthy. You may be right, though, that I do have a choice; I can go into exile. They will assume you killed me.”

“Do you not want the princess’ hand anymore?” Black Veritas queried. “I’ve heard she is quite fair, though her deception does leave something to be desired.”

Baldwin looked away and lowered his eyes. “Is it really true, that she is betrothed to Lord Benningfield?”

Black Veritas’ mercy suddenly turned to pity. He sat up. “It is true. The nobility always marry within their family tree. They believe this keeps their bloodline pure. Even they are not capable of telling themselves the truth.”

“What shall I do? All is lost,” the young man bemoaned.

“You’re correct that you cannot tell them the truth, for they shall kill you before you can recite our conversation before the public’s ear…” Black Veritas studied the knight from head to toe. He regretted wounding the lad though on the other hand the man-child was quite determined upon the onset of his attack. The situation was not impossible to turn around.

“You believe in the decency of telling the truth, knight. But the truth is that the truth is a matter of perspective. If you are willing to tell a small lie, you can have your heart’s desire. You can become the king,” the dragon offered.

“This small lie sounds like it will be a matter of perspective,” Baldwin chewed.

“You are a quick learner, Baldwin, Son of Halfred. Yes, this I know as I know much. Here,” Black Veritas said as he plucked one of his scales from his hide. The animal rolled his eyes wide as he did so.

“I did not think that was going to hurt that much,” the dragon spoke. “Take my scale and fashion it into a shield. You can say you took it from me in battle and used it to protect yourself from fire, proving your resourcefulness and that you’ve slain me. But do not go back to your kingdom first. Take as well any of the riches you see here and go to Fort Blackwater. There, you can inform Captain Langford of your wish to overthrow the nobility, which he’s been wanting to do for almost two decades now. He’s too old to challenge you for the kingship but he will gladly accept the post of captain of your royal guard.

“When you are king, then you can tell the truth. But with the nobility too powerful right now, your own deception will be necessary to overthrow them. They are too clever in taking advantage of the truth and so you must fight fire with fire, so to speak.” Black Veritas slunk away and buried himself under a mountain of allegedly enchanted runes.

Baldwin took the scale which seemed amazingly light. How could it deflect his father’s sword? Magic, or something more truthful?

“Why are you helping me, dragon?” the sweat-matted blonde youngster asked.

“You are young and your mind is not so corrupted that it cannot change. It is not too late to improve your station and elevate your kingdom in the process. For I do not believe in telling lies unless it is necessary to do so. Your necessary lie will overthrow liars whose lies kill your brethren and cause untold misery. I am sympathetic to the suffering of all animals,” Black Veritas answered from below. “Such is the Dragon’s Code.”

“I thought you didn’t have a code, dragon,” Baldwin remembered as he stood up.

“You are beginning to think independently. Today you have claimed a victory,” a muted voice returned.

The young knight turned and started away, then stopped and cocked his head back. “And why should I trust this lie of yours. Is this game for the throne a joke to you?”

“Some of your philosopher think all of life is but a game. You can play the game and take it for what it is worth or be dead now. Leave me and let me sleep, knight, least I feed on all your cattle the next time I wake.” A single eye opened from beneath the runes. “You are a pawn now but this does not mean you cannot become a king.”

Baldwin nodded and leaned over to pick up his sword. He fastened it to his back and started off. “Thank you for opening my eyes, Black Veritas.”

“May they never rest, o’ noble knight. Be they open to lies that grow into giants in the darkness.”

Baldwin never did become king. He did overthrown the nobility but understood that to hold onto power as king, lies were required to navigate the ever-present but secretive maliciousness of the court. Thus he dispatched nobility altogether and relinquished his title as Sir Baldwin to become instead Baldwin the Wise. But that is a story for another time.

 

All rights Reserved © November 2019 John J Vinacci

Secret Santa

Secret Santa

Stewart dare not touch the cookies. It was tempting, sure enough, what with the warm scent of doughy sweetness pervading the house. Hints of vanilla and chocolate whirled around each other on a carousel of flame that popped out of the fireplace. The cookies were meant for someone else, though, a very special man at that.

As the odd snowflake or two drifted to the ground outside the window in the twilight of Christmas Eve, Stewart tugged on his stocking to ensure it was secured to the fireplace mantle. He glanced at the small side table beside the armchair turned towards the hearth. There, the plate of cookies were flanked by a tall glass of almond milk. (Stewart was looking out for the Big Guy’s health.) The scene was set for Santa’s arrival. Pristine as it was, how could Santa not visit this house? It would be rude to ignore such an invitation. But this wasn’t just about the presents, no sir. Stewart – curiouser than a black cat – could barely disguise his ulterior motive.

“Don’t try to stay up late to see Santa like last year,” Stewart’s mother had warned, “No one has ever seen him. He’s…he’s very shy is all. Just leave him be and you’ll get presents. Stay up too late and his elves will eat you before you ever catch a glimpse of him.” Of course, the boy’s mother was being absurd; elves made the toys Santa brought. They didn’t eat children. And Stewart had heard somewhere that elves probably didn’t even have teeth for there was no dentist at the North Pole.

The seven year old’s mother had been warning the child off trying to catch a glimpse of many things lately, ever since the child’s curiosity saw him walk in on his parents entwined in a very unusual way. His parents should have seen it coming, of course; they were making too much noise and had forgotten the boy’s tendency to investigate the world. While they wanted to instill this trait in their five children, their explanation to Stewart for what they were doing was awkward and made them think he was too young to know about certain things. While the truth always comes out eventually, parents can at least stave off the inevitable. So while it is agreeable that a child is curious, a child also needs to be patient until it is their time to be endowed with certain knowledge. It would be a child’s own fault if they were impatient.

Stewart hadn’t considered any of this since his intrusion and subsequent lecture about – What was it? Birds and bees? – and purposefully set out to expose all the world’s secrets. Why are mom and dad always trying to hide stuff from me? I’ll show them, the lad thought as he glued a fishing line to a cookie before he had topped off the stack. So what if I see Santa? What does he care? Stewart had run the fishing line down the leg of the table, behind the Christmas tree, behind the sofa, around the corner and all the way to his bedroom where he tied the other end of the line to a small bell. As soon as Santa took the cookie, Stewart would know the jolly old man was in the house. Then he’d know if Santa was for real. He’d been hearing things at school…

In the two minutes since he last looked at the time, a heavy blanket of fog fell gently upon Stewart’s eyes. He fought the sands of sleep as if it were some wicked witch, chomping his bottom lip just short of drawing blood. As he bit the third time to ward off the Sandman, the bell jingled. The boy’s eyes flew open as he threw his beloved stuffed bear, Grimm, aside. A clever boy, Stewart stopped himself from setting his foot on the floor with too much fervor least Santa bolt like a reindeer. A ninja in a white forest animal print onesie, Steward slid his own little hooves down the hall.

Stewart peeked his head around the corner into the living room and there he was in the glow of the tree’s lights – Santa Claus. His back turned to the Stewart, Santa appeared taller than the child expected, though rotund enough for the occasion. With a cookie in one hand, the old man seemed to be taking stock of the Christmas tree, titling his head back and forth as if judging if the tree were worthy of having presents underneath it. Santa brought the cookie to his mouth, took a bite and quickly dropped his hand to his side. “Store bought,” he muttered without pleasure.

Steward had heard that tone before; his parents used it all the time. He stepped into the living room with no further hesitation. “Sorry, Santa. My parents won’t let me use the stove.”

Santa turned around without hurry and squinted at the young man. To Stewart, the man’s garb didn’t seem so much as red as soiled grey underneath a coat of blotchy red paint. The boy would have taken Santa to be a little tidier but who really knows a person? This is exactly why Stewart had tried to catch Santa Claus putting presents under the tree.

“Hello, little fellow,” Santa said, “I’d ask you your name but you know that I already know what it is. Why are you up so late, Stewart?”

“I…I wanted to meet you Santa. Some kids at school have been saying you don’t exist. So, I just wanted to see for myself.” Stewart placed his balled up hands on his waist. The doubters were wrong.

Santa stroked his wiry white beard. “Mmm, to them I might as well not exist. They’re bad children for saying that and that’s why they don’t get presents. Not from me anyway. That sad fact is that because they don’t believe in me, their parents have to work extra hard to buy presents for them.”

“I’m sure my mom and dad are relieved that their kids are true believers. Especially me!” Stewart closed his eyes and grinned from ear to ear. There’s nothing like being right.

“That’s all well and good, little Stewie, but you haven’t followed the rules.” The boy opened his eyes at Santa. Saint Nick waved at the cookies and milk. “You sure did a good job of inviting me in. You’re up too late, though. Don’t you think there’s a reason you’re not supposed to see Santa Claus?”

Stewart scrubbed his chin. “Gee, I didn’t think much about it. Mom says you’re shy but I don’t see how that could be.”

Santa let out a big ho ho ho and slapped his belly. “Oh, it’s not that I’m shy.” Santa leaned in towards the boy and that’s when Stewart saw that Santa’s eyes were a fierce deep yellow. “It’s because whoever sees me must die.” The jolly old man raised his hands to the sky and whipped them back down. Christmas lights, garland, and streamers came out of nowhere to snake around and gag the lad before he could make a peep. Stewart fell on the floor bound up like a damsel on the train tracks. Santa licked his lips and glistened his sharpening incisors with saliva.

“You see, Stewie,” Santa half-giggled, half-growled, “I can only come to people’s houses who invite me in. That’s been a rule of vampires for…quite some time now. Inevitably some little boy or girl stays up too late thinking they’ll get to meet Santa Claus. Your parents tell you to go to bed for your own good. Your parents tell you to do lots of things for your own good. When you don’t do those things? That’s when other things happen. Bad things.”

“Yourph uh phamphire?” Stewart muffled in wide eyed surprise.

“Of course, Stewie! All the clues are there. Let’s see,” Santa said as he counted on fingers. “Been around for much longer than anyone has a right to be; the red outfit; telepathic; only comes out at night; flies, though I guess the reindeer help with that…”

Santa turned around and placed some presents under the tree having grabbed them from seemingly thin air. The presents were for the family but were any for Stewart? The boy didn’t know. He wasn’t thinking about that now as he wiggled and wormed and tried to scream for his parents. The old man from the north eventually turned back towards the child and picked him up with one hand. Santa slung Stewart over his shoulder like a sack of toys. Stewart struggled but the soul-sucking vacuum of coldness surrounding Santa sapped his strength.

“Between you and undoubtedly several more children that pull this stunt every Christmas, I’ll be fed for another year,” Santa spoke cheerfully. Unnaturally nimble for his age and size, Santa slithered silently out the window he’d come in through. The window closed itself with a light thunk courtesy of some magic vampiric-elf dust.

Stewart’s mother’s head popped around the corner a moment later. She’d just checked in on all the children and noticed that Stewart wasn’t in bed. Maybe the talking she thought she heard had come from the living room? Perhaps it had been Santa seeing how there were presents under the tree now and a cookie was missing. With Stewart unaccounted for, yes, she could only conclude it must’ve been Santa. The matriarch shook her head as she walked over to the glass of almond milk and took a sip.

“Some kids don’t know when to listen,” she said flatly. “Oh, well,” she shrugged. “This is why we’ve got four more of ‘em.”

 

All Rights Reserved (c) October 2018 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

All Possible Worlds

All Possible Worlds

7:00am. Gilliam’s phone vibrated itself off the nightstand while the sound of the phone’s alarm steadily increased. He rolled over towards his side of the bed and reached for his phone with no luck. It was still dark and he could turn on the lamp but he didn’t want to risk anything else waking Celia. They’d been up most of the night talking, a conversation Gilliam kept going at all cost in case The Moment should occur – that awkward pause where the next thing you say isn’t said at all but still required your lips. And The Moment had indeed occurred. Gilliam waited eight years for it, since they were fifteen. So much anticipation, the thunderbolt of The Moment’s arrival had electrified his entire being so thoroughly, he was exhausted after their first kiss.

The young man’s hand eventually found the phone and silenced the ringer before it could wake Celia. Now the choice was whether to go to work and he was thinking he would not. Gilliam rolled himself back towards Celia who was laying on her side and facing the other way. He spooned up behind her and draped an arm over her. As he breathed in the scent of her hair, he thought, This is the best of all possible universes.

7:00am. Gilliam’s phone vibrated itself off the nightstand while the sound of the phone’s alarm steadily increased. He rolled over towards his side of the bed and reached for his phone with no luck. It was still dark and he could turn on the lamp but he didn’t want to risk anything else waking Celia’s friend, Questa. They’d been up most of the night talking about their mutual friend, a conversation Gilliam had tried at all cost to end in case The Moment should occur – that awkward pause where the next thing you say isn’t said at all but still required your lips, just to fill the void. Fortunately, The Moment eluded them, perhaps because Questa knew Gilliam would never truly be hers because of Celia. Gilliam’s been waiting for Celia for eight years for it, since the two were fifteen. With little fanfare, the two had drifted off to sleep in Gilliam’s bed, after Questa solidified a plan for Gilliam to secure Celia’s affections.

The young man’s hand eventually found the phone and silenced the ringer before it could wake Questa. There was no choice but to go to work now. Gilliam rolled himself back towards Questa who was laying on her side and facing the other way. He spooned up behind her, gave her a respectful peck on the cheek, and whispered, Thank you. As he gently rose out of bed, he thought, This will be the best of all possible universes.

7:00am. Gilliam’s phone vibrated itself off the nightstand while the sound of the phone’s alarm steadily increased. He rolled over towards his side of the bed and reached for his phone with no luck. It was still dark and he could turn on the lamp but he didn’t want to risk anything else waking Celia’s friend, Questa. They’d been up most of the night talking about their mutual friend, a conversation Gilliam had tried at all cost to end in case The Moment should occur – that awkward pause where the next thing you say isn’t said at all but still required your lips, just to fill the void. And The Moment had indeed occurred, despite Questa knowing Gilliam would never truly be hers because of Celia. Gilliam’s been waiting for Celia for eight years for it, since the two were fifteen. But Questa couldn’t help herself; it was Celia’s fault after all for speaking about how wonderful Gilliam was despite Celia’s own boyfriend. After much physical affection, the two had drifted off to sleep in Gilliam’s bed, after Questa destroyed a plan for Gilliam to secure Celia’s affections.

The young man’s hand eventually found the phone and silenced the ringer before it could wake Questa. He wanted to rush off to work and figure out a way to excuse what had happened last night. Maybe there was a way to still be with Celia, some day. Gilliam rolled himself away from Questa who was laying on her side and facing the other way. He rose slowly from the bed and cursed himself under his breath. He thought, This can’t be the worst of all possible universes.

7:00am. Gilliam’s phone vibrated itself off the nightstand while the sound of the phone’s alarm steadily increased. He rolled over towards his side of the bed and reached for his phone with no luck. It was still dark and he could turn on the lamp but he didn’t want to risk something blinding the memory of a dream he’d just had. In his dream he’d been up all night talking with Celia, a friend he’d fallen in love with and he’d kept the conversation going at all cost in case The Moment should occur – that awkward pause where the next thing you say isn’t said at all but still required your lips. And The Moment had indeed occurred. Gilliam waited eight years for it, since they were fifteen. So much anticipation, the thunderbolt of The Moment’s arrival had electrified his entire being so thoroughly, he was exhausted after their first kiss. In the dream they fell asleep together shortly thereafter.

The young man’s hand eventually found the phone and silenced the ringer. Now it was time to go to work when all Gilliam wanted to do was linger with the memory of the dream a bit more. Then he thought it didn’t matter; Celia had announced her engagement to her boyfriend of three years last night. The dream faded with his rise out of the bed and the young man couldn’t help but think, I hope there is a universe in which we are together.

 

All Right’s Reserved © April 2019 John J Vinacci