Colorimetry

What if we could smell colors?

*  *  22  *  *

“It’s a simple question, Mr. Jeffries. What color was the victim’s shirt?”

Jeffries stared at the prosecutor, dumbfounded.

“Objection, your honor,” said his attorney.

The judge grinned. “This ought to be good. Grounds?”

It was the attorney’s turn to look dumbfounded. “Uh,” he stammered. “Relevance?”

The prosecutor merely stared at the defense attorney. The judge laughed. “Overruled.” He turned to Jeffries. “Answer the question.”

Jeffries cleared his throat and tried to wet his lips. “Could . . . could you repeat the question?”

“What color was the victim’s shirt?”

Jeffries looked from his attorney to the jury to the judge to the prosecutor and back to the judge. “I . . . it, uh . . .”

“Mr. Jeffries,” said the judge. “May I remind you that you are under oath?”

Jeffries sighed. “I don’t know.”

“I see,” said the prosecutor. “And why not?”

“I . . . I . . . no. I didn’t . . .”

“And why not?” he repeated.

The courtroom suddenly melted away leaving Jeffries sitting in a large, empty white room staring at the man who moments ago had been prosecuting him. Jeffries shuffled backward until he found the corner where he promptly dropped to the floor, curling into a ball. “I’d like to go home now.”

The other man took a step forward and seemed to shimmer for a moment. When the shimmer faded, a woman stood in his place. “Not yet, Mr. Jeffries,” she said placing a hand on his arm. “We still have work to do.”

Color began to swirl around to white room, slowly coalescing into the form of a dank warehouse. A few feet in front of Jeffries was a large clock attached to several small, red cylinders. He instinctively crawled forward and began to examine the device. Its loud ticking seemed be the only sound in the room. At least, until Jeffries heard the woman breathing an inch from his ear.

“You know what to do, Jeffries,” she whispered. “Save me. Please.”

Tic. Toc.

Jeffries wiped the sweat from his forehead. He found a small cluster of wires connecting the clock to the cylinders. Reaching into his pocket, he found a small pair of scissors.

Tic.

Jeffries brought the scissors up to the device and held it next to the wires. After a few moments of tracing them, he narrowed his options down to two.

Toc.

He took a moment to appreciate the cliché.

Tic. Toc.

“Go ahead, Jeffries,” whispered the woman. “Save me.”

“I . . . I’m not sure which wire to cut.”

Tic.

“It’s a simple choice,” she said. “Red wire or blue wire?”

Toc.

Tic. Toc.

“Come on, Jeffries. Red or blue?”

Jeffries tried to wet his lips. Reaching forward with the scissors, he closed his eyes and cut a wire. Even through his closed eyes, he could sense a bright light.

When he opened his eyes, however, he found himself back in the white room. No woman. No prosecutor. No courtroom. No judge. No bomb. Just a dog.

Jeffries reached forward to introduce himself by letting it sniff him. The dog, however, seemed to have different plans. It very calmly and mechanically opened its mouth and let out a wail that sounded less like a noise an animal would make and more like the sound of a vacuum charging at him . . .

. . . threatening to take him away . . .

. . . forever . . .

He woke up and looked down at his paws, relieved to find all four intact. “Come here, Mr. Jeffries,” said a little girl down the hall. “Come here!” Jeffries jumped to his feet and sprinted down the hall, leaping into her arms. “Who’s a good boy,” she asked. Jeffries knew it was a rhetorical question, but desperately wanted to answer. He did the best he could by licking her face.

“Marissa,” shouted a much taller girl in the next room. “Put Jeffries down. It’s time for his lunch.”

Jeffries knew what that word meant, and he leapt from the little girls arms, running for the kitchen. He was met by two bowls that, to him, were identical. He closed his eyes, made a choice and took his chances. He ate from the bowl on the right. The moment he smelled the food inside, he knew it was the wrong choice.

The growling behind him confirmed his suspicions.

“No!” said the taller girl. “Jeffries, that’s Maximus’s. Yours is the blue bowl.”

Jeffries looked down at the bowls again, wishing on some level that they weren’t there at all. That level, however, was several floors below the level that was screaming, “Eat the food!”

So Mr. Jeffries ate from the gray bowl on the left.

The Long Game

What if history was cyclical?

*  *  21  *  *

“Go, Spartans, Go!”

“Bat, Bat, ooooh, Bat!”

 The two teams charged at each other from opposite ends of the field, stopping in the middle to civilly shake hands with each other according to tradition. At least, from the stands things looked civil, which was what was important. Specifically, the alumni section couldn’t see the players trying desperately to injure each other’s hands or hear them muttering horrid threats. The rivalry between the Spartans and the Bulldogs ran deep.

Leo, the Spartans’ mascot, strutted around in front of the alumni section, working as hard as possible to keep them focused on him and not on the players. The members of the Perioikoi, a spirit fraternity, stood around him shouting and ringing their large bells.

After the teams had taken to their respective ends of the field to continue warm-ups, Leo and the Perioikoi took to the fifty yard line where they formed a circle with Leo at the center. He walked around the circle dramatically, gesturing and bobbing his enormous, helmeted head as though giving a rousing speech. The members of the Perioikoi each took a knee to listen, constantly ringing the bells. As tension began to mount, Leo raised a fist and the Perioikoi stopped their ringing.

The stadium fell silent.

One finger at a time, Leo released his fist until he held up his palm which he displayed proudly to the crowd. When he dropped it only to bring a fist right back up, the Perioikoi leapt to their feet ringing their bells louder than ever as the stadium erupted into thunderous applause.

Leo was escorted off the field by the fraternity as the crowd began to return to a dull roar.

The mascot entered a locker room where he was met by an identical copy of himself who high-fived him as the two swapped places. He was just sitting down on the bench when the door opened once more. Having expected it to be his doppelganger returning for some forgotten item, he didn’t even turn to welcome the visitor until he heard a throat clear.

Turning around, he saw nothing. When he heard the throat clear again, he looked down to see a small brown and white bulldog looking up at him.

“Heya, boyo,” said the bulldog.

“What are you doing here?” Leo asked, jumping to his feet. “How did you get in?”

The bulldog laughed. “That was easy.” He looked up at Leo, making his eyes as wide as possible and flopping his tongue out slightly. “See?”

Leo huffed. A cloud of red smoke enveloped him and when it dissipated, what remained was a lanky young man with a goatee. “What do you want, Bat?”

“Straight t’business, eh? Fine. I want an explanation.”

“Regarding?”

“How you did it.”

“You’re going to have to be more specific.”

“How’d you build up such a cult? The rumor going around is that yours wasn’t a coincidence like mine.”

The young man grinned as he sat back on the bench. “You’re worried about the judge, aren’t you? She’s going to be born in, what? Three years? Four?”

“Isidore’s estimating five right now.”

“And you’re worried she’s going to take all of this away from you before the end of the cycle, right?”

“Actually,” said the bulldog, “she ruled on a similar case last cycle, so I’m confident the coincidence of a bulldog mascot whose name happens to be Bat will end in my favor. What I’m worried about is the next cycle. The odds of that coincidence happening again aren’t great.”

“Well, I started over three thousand years ago.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Nope. After the previous cycles that I survived by the skin of my teeth, I managed to weasel my name into the society that history always seems to remember as being complete badasses.”

“You mean Sparta?”

“Yep.”

The bulldog looked confused. “But that’s not your name.”

“Which is exactly what everyone told me at the time,” the young man retorted. “But I was playing for the long term. I knew the culture would fall away, but also that its legacy would remain, so I waited. Sure enough, with the rise of these competitions, I made my comeback.”

“But you name isn’t Sparta.”

“Think through it, Bat. What are those people screaming out there? They aren’t yelling, ‘Go, Sparta, go!’ You’re still thinking as short-term as everyone back then was.

“You see,” he continued, “humans are predictable with their language. Someone from a society called ‘Sparta’ would be referred to as a Spartan. Then, when sports began to take hold, the name was morphed into a plural. Thus, ‘Go, Spartans, go!”

The bulldog looked dumbfounded. “That’s incredible.”

The young man smiled. “Like I said, I was playing the long game. I wasn’t trying to survive like so many others. I was trying to become a god.” He held a hand up to his ear. “And listen. You can hear my cult even now chanting my name. Most importantly, however, I can do the same thing again next cycle with enough power from this one to compound.”

“Any advice for a lowly luck-rider?”

“Bribe the Seven?”

The bulldog scoffed. “Alright, Spartans, I’ll get right on that.”

The young man smiled. “You better get out there. You wouldn’t want to miss your precious Bulldogs getting beat by the Spartans again, now would you?”

“Oh, no. This year’s going to be different.”

“Care to place a wager on that?”

“What’ve you got in mind?”

“A hundred souls?”

The bulldog smiled. “You know what, Spartans? You’re alright.”

The Signature

Why is Coach K so good?

*  *  20  *  *

The moon shone down, bathing the Earth in its blue light. Mama Killa strolled across the park toward a single white bench on the far side where a man was waiting. She watched him look over at her, down at his watch, then back up at her. In a blink, he was standing next to her, his unnaturally bright green and yellow suit filling her vision.

“You’re late,” he said with a smirk.

“You’re early,” she responded, never slowing her stride.

The man shrugged. “Potato, tomato.” He took her arm and escorted her to the bench where she sat down heavily. The man seemed to make no noise as he sat next to her. “So have you considered it?”

Killa began to dig around in her purse. “Yes, I’ve thought about it.”

The man watched her for a moment, feigning patience. “And?”

She continued to dig. “And I don’t think anyone will take it.”

“That’s not really your concern, now, is it?” he said indignantly.

“Aha!” Mama Killa said as she pulled a handkerchief from the depths of her purse. “I knew it was in there somewhere!” She began to gently dab her forehead. “It is my concern,” she said, “when you’re talking stakes like this. No one would be foolish enough to take such a deal, and you know it.”

The man smirked. In a blink, he was behind Killa, rubbing her shoulders. “If you’re so sure that no one will take the deal, give me a chance. What harm could it do? Let me offer it to someone.”

“That’s just it,” she replied, now dabbing the handkerchief under her arms. “The way you’ve structured it, you don’t have to make one deal. You have to make the same deal 26 times. Do you really think you’ll be able to find 26 people over the next seven centuries who are willing to go along with this?”

“Honestly,” the man said, now pacing in front of the bench, having apparently grown nearly a foot, “I’m not sure. But that’s not the point here. Is it?” He leaned over, placing his hands on Killa’s knees. “Will you or will you not give me permission?”

Mama Killa sighed. “I suppose I don’t have much of a choice. If I’m going to put my big smelly foot in my own mouth, I better be ready to find out what it tastes like.”

The man was sitting next to her once more, a grin smeared across his face. “Wonderful. Shall we make it official?” With a flourish, he pulled a large pink quill from inside his jacket and began to move it through the air as though writing. “I, Old Nick,” he said, as though writing out a contract only he could see, “do hereby accept the authorization granted me by the illustrious Mama Killa to bargain with a line of mortals for the fate of the world according to the terms laid out in article 73 subsection ii of Vor’s Testimony.” He handed Killa the quill. “If you would, my dear.”

Mama Killa stared at him, pursing her lips. “26 people.”

“Yes.”

“All of the same ethereal line.”

“Correct.”

“And they each have to take the bargain? Every generation?”

“Absolutely.”

“And if you miss a generation?”

“Game’s over.

“But if they all take it . . .”

“Then it’s all mine.” The man grinned.

Mama Killa sighed, lifting the quill. “No one would take that deal.” With a flick of the wrist, a series of sparks flew out of the end of the quill, forming her signature.

The man in the green and yellow suit, now standing on Killa’s other side, snatched the quill from her and returned it to his jacket pocket. As the signature faded away, he started walking across the park. “We’ll start with A.”

The Blue Devil

What is a blue devil?

*  *  19  *  *

Dantalion dove through the window, shattering the pane of glass. With a roll, he landed and kept running, gripping his wide-brimmed hat in his hand. “Au revoir!” he shouted as he leapt onto the back of a horse and rode off into the night.

Once in the relative safety of the forest, Dantalion dismounted and took the bridle out of the horse’s mouth.

“You know,” said the horse, “if you’re really going to try and keep up this whole French persona, you’re going to have to learn more of the language than ‘au revoir‘.”

“It’s worked for me so far,” said Dantalion. “Besides, it doesn’t really matter if they think I’m French. All that matters is that they know I’m not me.” The phone in his pocket began to ring. “Now if you’ll excuse me,” he said to his horse as he retrieved the phone, “I have some business to take care of.”

“Your grace,” said a desperate voice on the other end of the phone. “Something terrible has happened.”

“Yes, Julian,” said Dantalion in a suddenly much more formal accent. “What is it?”

“Your grace, I’m afraid . . . I’m afraid the duke has been murdered.”

“Surely you’re joking,” said Dantalion, trying hard not to let the grin on his face reveal itself in his voice. “I just spoke to my father this morning.”

“I’m so sorry, your grace. Perhaps you should cut your pilgrimage short and return home.”

“You’re absolutely right, Julian. I suppose the holy land will have to wait a while longer before being graced with my presence. I shall see you tomorrow.” He hung up the phone.

“Wow,” said the horse. “Even I almost would have believed that if I couldn’t see you.”

“Thank you,” said Dantalion with a bow. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get some rest before I go visit my dearly departed father.” With a final bow, he removed his wide-brimmed hat and matching blue cape and placed them carefully in the hollowed-out trunk of a dark oak tree alongside a long bloody saber.

The next day, Dantalion was met at the front door of his family’s estate by his faithful servant, Julian, a lanky sort of man with a handlebar mustache that completely contradicted his incredibly formal and elegant demeanor. “Your grace, it is so good to see you even under such . . . distressing circumstances. I trust your flight in was smooth?”

“Yes, Julian, thank you,” Dantalion said as he handed the servant his coat.

Julian followed Dantalion into the house, placing the coat on a stand as they passed. “There is an Inspector Randolph in the parlor awaiting your arrival.”

“Good,” said Dantalion. “I have a few questions for him.”

In the parlor, Dantalion’s presence was announced by a slight clearing of the throat of Julian which snapped the inspector to his feet. “Ah,” he said a bit too informally for Dantalion’s taste. “You must be the duke.” He extended his hand.

“Thanks to some fool offing my father, yes. I guess I must.”

The inspector retracted his hand nervously. “Yes, your grace. My sympathies to your family.”

“Naturally,” said Dantalion as he took a seat. “Now, what do we know of my father’s killer?”

“Well, your grace,” said Inspector Randolph, “it seems that your father was murdered by a rather notorious French assassin.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. Julian here saw the man and described him as a short, slender man wearing a blue cloak and hat. He killed your father with a single thrust of his blade. No one knows how he got in the house or why he targeted your father. All we really do know is that he leapt from that window right over there.”

Dantalion noticed for the first time the boarded-up window in the direction the inspector was pointing.

“If he is so notorious, inspector,” said Dantalion coolly, “surely you must have a name that you can give me. Something that I can carve into the bedpost at night while I ponder my revenge on this blackguard.”

The inspector squirmed nervously. “Unfortunately, your grace, we have no real name. We merely have the name that the press has given him over the years.”

“Say it,” said Dantalion hungrily. “Say it.”

“The Blue Devil.”

Dantalion sat back in his seat and pressed his fingers together. “Yes,” he said. “I do believe I’ve heard of him before.” He repressed a smile. “Now tell me everything you know about him.”

Her Last Day on Earth

Why is the sky blue?

*  *  18  *  *

The first time Melanie saw the sky was her last day on Earth.

Melanie was born in a cave. Her parents had both been born in caves and dammit, that would be good enough for her. Shortly after she was born, however, there was a tragic cave-in that claimed the lives of both of her parents and sealed her inside. The moles raised her after that.

Melanie’s new family was nice enough. They cared for her, protected her, taught her how to live in her new environment and raised her into the person she was supposed to be.

What they were unable to teach her, however, was how to survive on the surface. In fact, the “surface” was a very heated point of debate among the moles. Some claimed that the surface didn’t exist. Some believed that was where they would go after they died. Others seemed to know more than they were letting on, but refused to discuss it. Melanie believed the surface existed, but had no interest in waiting until she died to see it.

On the night of her sixteenth birthday, Melanie made the decision to leave her world behind and take the plunge: real or not, she was going to see the surface.

As Melanie dug, she found that the earth became easier and easier for her to move around. She also began to feel as though her lungs were too full. She had never breathed this much oxygen at once before.

Finally, Melanie reached the surface, and it was . . . utterly disappointing.

The air was very different from below, but it wasn’t right. Where was the bright yellow ball? Where was the beautiful green grass? Where was the sky that was supposed to surround and engulf you? Where was the surface world she had been promised?

In a desperate act of defiance against her entire existence, Melanie, for the first time, stood fully erect on her own to feet and screamed to the heavens, “What did you do with it?”

Much to her surprise, her rhetorical question did not go unanswered.

“I took it away.”

Melanie, who had grown up with voices connected to unseen friends her entire life, didn’t question the source of the voice. “Why would you do such a thing?”

“Simple,” said the voice. “They didn’t deserve it.”

“What about me?” Melanie asked. “Couldn’t you put it back for me? Do I deserve it?”

Silence.

Melanie was beginning to consider the possibility that she had offended this all-powerful voice so badly that it would return, when she got a simple response. “Ok.”

Melanie suddenly found herself unable to see anything at all. After a lifetime of dilation, it took her eyes several minutes to figure out how to deal with the sudden onset of stimuli. When her eyes quit burning and her headache subsided, Melanie opened her eyes to view the surface she had always imagined.

The grass was greener than any of the stones she had found back home. The sun was more yellow than the squash she had had with breakfast. The enormous white sky looked like it could have picked her up and carried her away. Most importantly, there was a pool of water where Melanie saw her reflection for the first time. She had an angular face, pale from a life below ground, framed by dark hair and punctuated by two eyes that were a deeper blue than anything she could have imagined in her wildest dreams.

“It’s incredible,” she said.

“Thank you,” the voice replied. “I’m rather fond of it.”

“Then why would you ever get rid of it?”

“As I said, they didn’t deserve it. I didn’t want to get rid of it, but they weren’t taking care of it.”

Melanie couldn’t let this world slip away from her. It was all too amazing. “What if I take care of it?”

“That’s impossible,” laughed the voice. “There’s far too much for one person to do.”

“Well,” Melanie countered, “then what if I make sure everyone else takes care of it like they’re supposed to?”

Silence.

Melanie again began to ponder the possibility that the voice had been offended by the direction of the conversation. She was saved from such ponderation by the voice’s simple reply. “Ok.”

Melanie suddenly felt her feet lifting off of the ground. The sky that she felt could have picked her up now seemed to be doing just that. She felt herself begin to expand and enlarge. It wasn’t that there was really any more of her, just that what there was of her was spread over more area.

She felt her body move past the sky into something beyond. Her head, however, remained with the sky and continued to spread until her enormous blue eyes enveloped the entirety of Earth, covering the white sky behind.

And so to this day, Melanie watches over the Earth, ensuring that it is being properly cared for by man and mole alike.

Consequences

If there was an artifact that increased all probabilities of success for you but in the process shortened your life span, what would a gambler do?

*  *  17  *  *

“Again.”

The coin flipped through the air.

“Heads.”

Heads.

“Again.”

The coin flipped through the air.

“Tails.”

Tails.

“How are you doing that?”

Darius smirked. “It just . . . comes to me.”

“Do it again.”

“No no,” said Darius. “I’m saving up for something big.”

“Like what?”

Darius pointed to the television. “Like that.”

“No way.”

Darius shrugged. “It’s worth a shot, right?”

“And you think it’ll work?”

“Only one way to find out.” Darius reached into his pocket and pulled out a green stone about the size of grape. It was jagged on one side as though it was broken off of something, but the other side was perfectly smooth. He slammed the stone onto the table and began muttering words he barely understood. “Certes, the boon which mine eyne do clepe mine shall iwis mine be.” He was never entirely sure whether the stone physically reacted to the phrase or not, but this time, he could have sworn the stone heated up.

Six hours later, Darius found himself standing outside the very auditorium he had set his eyes upon earlier that day. The auditorium where he would put his new good luck charm to the test. The auditorium where the Victoria Secret Fashion Show was being held.

As he approached the gate, he heard a whisper behind him.

Darius turned to find the source of the whisper, but was met by nothing but an empty parking lot. Shaking off the hearlucination, he returned to his goal.

Until he heard the whisper again. This time, we was able to make out a few words. “. . . iwis mine be.”

Darius wheeled around and was met this time by an old man in a purple turtleneck. The man was completely bald, had no eyebrows, and only came up to Darius’s chest. Darius, considering himself to be anything but an accurate age guesser, guessed the old man to be in his mid to late 160’s. Give or take a few decades.

“You put yourself at great risk,” whispered the old man. “You should not use such power so callously.”

“What are you talking about?” Darius asked.

“The stone,” the old man whispered, eyes wide. “There are consequences.”

Darius suddenly realized that he had at some point retrieved the stone from his pocket and was holding it tight in his fist as though hoping it would merge with him. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, old man.” Darius was shocked at his own words. He knew better than to speak to an elder like that.

“You get what you want, yes. But there is a price.”

“And what would that price be?”

“Your life.” The old man’s eyes were wide once more. “Every time you use it, you shorten your life.”

“Please,” Darius laughed. “I’ve been using the stone for months now and I’m as fit as a fiddle. Heck, my doctor says I’m in perfect condition. His words: ‘perfect condition.’ Now,” he said, turning away from his companion, “I have a show to get to.”

As Darius walked away from the old man, he heard him mutter, “You misunderstand.”

By several twists of fate, Darius was able to weasel his way to the front row. The show was just about to start when a man ran onstage with a headset. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he panted. “The United States government has just issued a statement that a meteor has changed course and is now heading for Earth. We are being advised to . . .”

The last thing Darius heard was the ceiling collapsing.

My Kingdom for Arugula

Can you write a story titled My Kingdom for Arugula?

*  *  16  *  *

Darryl tried to stretch his legs, hoping there was more room in the box to be found. There wasn’t.

He dug in his pocket until he found a small locket. As he opened it, a light billowed out and he felt his material form slipping away. The resounding click as the locket closed was joined by a rematerialization of the world around him, now quite different: there was a wide expanse filled with nothing but a terrainless green ground and a cloudless gray sky. He gleefully stood, stretched his limbs and shouted his approval of the amount of room he now had.

“You know there’s a price. Right?”

“Oh shut up, Roquette,” said Darryl. “This isn’t my first rodeo.”

“No, but circumstances have changed.” Roquette manifested before Darryl: a seven foot tall, red-skinned man who wore nothing but a pair of purple briefs. Roquette’s long blonde hair seemed to be under the impression that gravity was pulling it in the opposite direction of everything else. “Your circumstances to be precise.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s more obsessed than ever. Unfortunately, that means that if you wish to leave this place again, you have two choices: accept her affections or face the colewort.”

“And if I don’t wish to leave this place?” Darryl asked.

“Then you will slowly become one with it as I have until you are merely a manifestation of someone else’s imagination.” Roquette leaned in until their noses nearly touched. “And trust me. That’s not a fate you want. Someone might force you to have red skin and walk around in your underwear.”

“Well at least they go with your new complexion,” said Darryl with a smirk.

“Bah!” Roquette threw up a hand in surrender as he turned away. “So what’ll it be? Embrace her affections or face the colewort?”

The idea of encouraging her in any way made Darryl anxious. He had done so once before and successfully escaped one imprisonment. Unfortunately, that had been years ago and had only reassured her that they were meant to be. He’d been in and out of her various traps and boxes for the next two years. Giving her anything in return for her affection was incredibly dangerous.

On the other hand, there was the colewort.

“I’ll take the girl.”

Roquette laughed. “That is a choice.”

A bright light suddenly filled Darryl’s vision. When his eyes adjusted, he saw her staring down into the box. He quickly stuffed the locket in his pocket.

“Well?” she said expectantly.

Darryl knew what he had to do. He reached out, grabbed her and pulled her into a tight embrace. She grinned as her wide eyes bored into his. Their faces got closer and closer until they were mere millimeters from a kiss.

He felt her warm breath as she whispered, “I love you.”

“Nope,” he shouted as he dropped her and stood up. “I can’t do this. Hey, Roquette? Is it too late to change my mind?”

The world around Darryl suddenly melted away until he was in a room with a single door and a table. On the table was a plate.

Roquette appeared across the table from him. “A much better choice.” With the wave of a red hand, the plate was filled with a massive pile of arugula. Roquette smiled as he handed Darryl a fork. “Eat up.”

He looked at the fork, pondering his future.

“I changed my mind again.”

“Eat the damn vegetable.”

“Fine.”

And Darryl accepted his fate.

The Fifth Rule

What if the protagonist and the antagonist were the same character?

*  *  15  *  *

Or somebody with a broken nose pushes a mop past me and whispers:

“Everything’s going according to the plan.”

Whispers:

“We’re going to break up civilization so we can make something better out of the world.”

Whispers:

“We look forward to getting you back.”

Arthur closed the book and took off his glasses. “Well damn,” he muttered to the empty room. “Bastard was right again.” He rose from his chair, took the book to the shelf and placed it between Fahrenheit 451 and Flat Stanley.

After pouring himself a glass of scotch, sat down at his desk, picked up his phone’s receiver and worked its dial.

“Well?” said an expectant voice on the other side of the line.

“I owe you twenty bucks,” replied Arthur.

“I told you someone had already written it!”

“And one of these days I might learn to listen to you.”

“So what’d you think of it?”

“It was better than anything I could have written,” said Arthur.

“Now stop it, old man. You know that’s not true.”

“Being the world’s foremost expert on myself,” Arthur replied, “I feel quite confident in saying definitively, no. I most certainly could not have written it better.”

“Whatever you say,” said the man on the other side. “Hey, you sound funny. I thought you got rid of that damned rotary phone last year.”

“Are you kidding me? I’m never getting rid of this thing! The wife made me move it out of the living room, but she can’t stop me from putting it in my office.”

“Right. Big man.”

“Only the biggest,” said Arthur sarcastically.

“Speaking of, are you coming down to Vico’s tonight?”

“I can’t. Thanks to somebody, I have to start all over.”

“Don’t shoot the messenger, old man. I was just trying to help.”

“Yeah, yeah. You’re always just trying to help,” Arthur teased.

“Pfft. You know it! See you tomorrow. And make sure you bring the twenty bucks you owe me. I ain’t about to forget this time.” And without waiting for a response, the man hung up the phone.

Arthur walked over to the bookcase and began perusing for further inspiration. One book in particular caught his eye. “Son of a bitch,” he said as he picked up The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. “I should have known as soon as I thought of it. I mean, it’s not exactly, but pretty damn close.” He returned the book to the shelf and sat back down in his easy chair, retrieving his laptop from the coffee table.

He tried desperately to come up with something new, but he had been beating this concept around for so long that it was the only thing he could think about. “Perhaps,” he thought to himself, “I can come up with a twist on it.”

“Really,” replied a much more derisive version of himself. “You’re going to come up with a twist on a twist?”

“Maybe just a new way to approach it.”

“Yeah,” came the sarcastic response, “that’ll work. I’m sure.”

“Oh you’re right,” he said, surrendering to himself. “There just aren’t any new ideas to have. Are there?”

“Nope. They’ve all been taken.”

“So then what the hell am I doing with my life?”

“Beats me.”

Crossing Cooper

Why did the chicken cross the road?

*  *  14  *  *

“Come on, Ronno! What are you? Chicken?”

Ron stared at the terrifying gauntlet that was the intersection of 56th and Cooper. Cars whirred by so fast that they seemed to merge into a single multicolored streak. He placed one foot on the curb, and when it was met with a blaring horn, he pulled it back to the safety of the sidewalk.

“Ah! Ronno! You had it!”

Ron despised that nickname. He didn’t even understand it. Technically, Ron was already a nickname. If they were going to make his name longer, why not call him by his real name? Or something with some genuine thought put into it.

“Ronno! Ronno! Ronno!”

And of course, the chanting. If he was being honest, he had expected the chanting to start sooner. It never failed: get a group of teenagers together, someone starts chanting eventually.

Ron took a deep breath, closed his eyes, raised his foot and . . .

“Ah, man!”

Ron opened his eyes to see that the traffic on the street in front of him had come to a stand-still. Looking at the light, he realized that he had waited too long. They weren’t going to let him cross like this.

“I guess this gives the chicken more time to work up some nerve. Eh, chicken?” Kneecap was by far the most vocal of the group behind Ron. He was something of a natural leader. Charismatic, vocal, and intimidating but just likeable enough to make him dangerous. Kneecap, of course, was not his real name. He refused to allow anyone to call him by his real name. His family got away with calling him “Whit”, but to everyone else, he was Kneecap.

“Give that chicken all the time in the world, he still won’t do it! He’s original recipe. Couldn’t make it as extra-crispy!” Phin was Kneecap’s right-hand man. Metaphors weren’t exactly his strong suit, but Kneecap didn’t keep him around for his brains.

“So, chicken, how much more time you need?” Kneecap sounded almost polite.

Ron didn’t respond. He couldn’t. All he could bring himself to do was watch the light and hope it didn’t change.

“Maybe sometime this centurion?”

“Century, dumbass,” said Kneecap.

“Hey, I was close!” Phin retorted. In fairness, by Phin’s standards, he was pretty close.

Ron was still staring at the light, and, to his horror, 56th now had a yellow. He was out of stall time. “You know what,” he said in a half-mumble as the traffic on Cooper picked up. “When was the last time you crossed Cooper, Phin?” Ron was surprised by the level of confidence in his voice. He wasn’t sure where it came from, but it motivated him to turn and face his tormentors.

Phin looked shocked. He hadn’t been spoken to like that since he had joined up with Kneecap. “I . . . it’s not . . .”

“Easy, Phin,” said Kneecap calmly. “Chicken here’s just looking for an out.” He turned to face the small crowd. “Are we going to give it to him?”

“NO!” The response was powerful. “Ronno! Ronno! Ronno!”

“What about you, Kneecap?” The sudden silence was equally powerful. An emboldened Ron took a step closer. “When was the last time you crossed?” More silence. “You know, come to think of it, I don’t remember you ever crossing. Does anyone else?”

A murmur went through the crowd followed by silence. Then, from somewhere in the back, it started quietly and quickly gained in strength. “Kneecap! Kneecap! Kneecap!”

“You heard ’em, Kneecap,” said Ron with a grin. A look passed between the two of them. In that moment, they both knew that Kneecap had no real options.

“You got this, boss,” said Phin in a whisper.

“Oh no, you dunderhead,” said Kneecap. “If I’m doing this, you’re coming with me.” And without another word, Kneecap licked his lips, grabbed Phin by the arm, and threw himself at the mercy of traffic.

The pair managed to dodge a total of two vehicles before everyone heard a scream cut short.

Ron waited until the light changed and the pedestrian crossing signal told him it was safe before he entered the crosswalk. He paused briefly to kneel down next to the duo. Phin seemed relatively okay. Kneecap, appropriately enough, seemed to be trying his best to get his leg to bend the right way.

“Better luck next time, Whitney,” Ron whispered as he crossed Cooper.

The Double Triangle

What if our deepest desires manifested as tattoos on our skin?

*  *  13  *  *

His arm started to burn again. Homer looked down, hoping for something new, but at the sight of the ninth copy of the same double triangle, he seriously considered removing the arm entirely.

The thoughts of self-disarming subsided as he put on his coat and grabbed his keys.

“Homer!”

He looked around for the owner of the voice.

“Over here,” said Brian, a very lanky man who seemed to be lounging on the bench across the street. Homer joined him. “You decide to sleep in this morning?”

“Sadly, no,” said Homer.

“Again?”

Homer sighed and pulled up the sleeve of his jacket just enough for Brian to see the new tattoo.

“Aw, man. I’m sorry,” said Brian.

“What’re you gonna do about it? Right?” Homer said in surrender.

Brian was suddenly filled with purpose. His posture straightened out and a new tattoo appeared on his neck: three different sized boxes arranged like a medal podium. “I know exactly what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna get you a new tattoo.” Next to the boxes, there suddenly appeared a thick circle. “Right after we get some donuts.”

A brisk walk and half a dozen donuts later, Brian was back to the original task. “Now, how’re we gonna get you that tat?”

“Not all of us get tats like you do, Brian. I didn’t even get my first until I was nearly twelve.”

“Twelve? Are you kiddin’ me?”

“Wish I were. If they showed up more frequently, maybe I’d actually know what I should be looking for.” Homer rubbed his arm. “Of course, when you’re being told to go after something that’s no longer available . . .”

“Believe me,” said Brian. “I been there.” He sat his leg on the table and lifted his pant leg to show off a ring of tattoos around his ankle. “This one here,” he said pointing to one of the dozen or so symbols running from the middle of his calf all the way down into his shoe, “I got back in ’83. I never did get that gumball.”

“Yeah,” said Homer less sarcastically than he wanted. “You clearly understand.” Unlike his companion, Homer could essentially count the tattoos he had on one hand: a broken chain on his left ankle, a parrot on his upper right arm, an eye of Horus on his right shoulder blade, and the nine identical double triangles on his left forearm that had all arisen in the last month. “I think I just need some more time,” he said as he rose. “I’ll talk t’you tomorrow.”

Brian grinned, and Homer noticed a second thick circle appearing on his neck just below the first.

He felt quite confident that a walk was what he needed to clear his mind. What he hadn’t counted on, however, were his feet dragging him to the one place he didn’t want to go. He saw the large oak tree long before he realized which one it was. By the time he saw the small tombstone at its base, he was too close to turn back.

Homer stared down at the grave, emblazoned with nothing but a name and the same double triangle that kept appearing on his arm.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, tears welling up in his eyes. “I am so sorry.”

“You really loved her, didn’t you?”

Homer hadn’t noticed the woman before now. She was leaning against the tree, long arms crossed just above her slender waist. Her green eyes stabbed at his gut as she brushed back a lock of her auburn hair to reveal a large dragon tattoo covering much of her face.

“Belinda?”

“Good,” she said brightly. “So you do remember me.”

“How could I forget?”

Belinda nodded toward the grave. “She talked about you a lot, y’know.”

Homer felt his jaw tighten.

Belinda smiled. “Come on,” she said, bouncing a bit as she turned toward the city. “I’ve got something to show you.” As she walked, Homer couldn’t help but watch her hips sway back and forth, unintentionally lulling him into a hypnotic state. The thing that managed to snap him out of it was the burning on his left forearm.

He looked down to see the new tattoo: a long, coiling dragon weaving in between and around the triangles.

“Well, if you insist,” he said as he ran to catch up with Belinda.