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 Cat Who Could Tell Time?

The Cat Who Could Tell Time?

IMG_4247As I lay at the foot of the warm, cozy bed, a familiar scenario has come to a head.

“Well, look at the time. I believe that’s the sign. Food in my bowl is not far behind.”

I will chew on this wire as I so often conspire, to wake daddy up – “Don’t sleep!” I interrupt.

I will paw daddy’s face ‘til his slumber’s erased. I’ll meow ‘til he gives in, sort of because I’m a prick.

“Fill ‘er up,” I demand, my bowl to its brim. “I am so hungry and this cat waits for no man.”

“Rise, rise!” Our fates are entwined. The clock has struck five, eating time I decide.

Ah, daddy stirs and looks at the wall. “It’s two in the morning, you little bastard,” he retorts.

“A two or a five. So I’m not good at reading signs. But since you’re awake, feed me. I’m hungry. Don’t let me die.” IMG_4248

“Alright,” he concedes. Alright, indeed. He’s not the dumbest of all humans, it’s the futility that he sees.

“Here you go, now leave me alone,” he gives me that line every day at this time. Oh, we’ll do this again in three hours at five.

“Thank you, daddy,” I fake loose a coo. I am cat. I am evil. When I want my foodies, he will say no but he always loses.

 

All Rights Reserved (c) May 2020 John J Vinacci

The Food Fighters

The Food Fighters

Jamaal pressed his little cherub cheeks against the plane of glass. A tray of donuts beckoned him inside their shop with their sugary, glazed veneers. The donuts’ multi-hued sprinkles fashioned themselves into a smile, prophesizing the promise of a good time. All Jamaal had to do was get his foot in the door.

His mother tugged on his hand. Jamaal held fast though, strengthened by youth and emboldened by temptation. Like his Marine Corp father, Jamaal had no intentions of leaving a man behind. He tugged back on his mother’s hand. “Mommy, mommy, mommy! Can I get a donut? We haven’t had any for so long!”

Jamaal’s mother knotted her cheek to one side and loosened her grip. The child had a point – it had been a long time, at least a week. And her son had not given her any problems over that time; shouldn’t good behavior be rewarded? She moved her chin with a curt upward tilt. Jamaal beamed and now lead his mother by the hand into the bakery.

The dizzying array of orbicular sweets threatened to overcome Jamaal’s decision-making tree. Chocolate, or chocolate and vanilla? Sprinkles or no sprinkles? Glazed or powdered? Jelly-filled maybe? The choice was no small task and being on the way to learn something at school, the child should probably hurry.

“Psst! Hey, kid,” a saccharine voice spoke from behind its hand. A donut with white glaze and multicolored sprinkles jumped on top of the display case. It pointed a thumb at itself. “Hey, kid, choose us.”

Jamaal was almost stunned into silence by a talking donut, but he was a child after all. “Wha? Who…who are you, mister?” he asked in a high pitch.

“I’m Dast, er, Danny Donut! You already know me and my family. We’re the best tasting things in this place! We look good, we smell good, we’re chewy before we melt in your mouth; take us with you and your senses will explode,” the donut waved with jazz hands.

Dasterdly Donut“Mom, can we buy a whole dozen?” Jamaal asked tugging on his mother’s shirt. The boy’s mother smiled at her son without her eyes, looked at the donut, then turned her attention to an employee and asked for a double espresso.

“She’s going to say yes, Danny,” Jamaal announced proudly. “She’ll give in. I always get what I want.”

“And I always get what I want,” the donut snickered under his breath. “That was too easy.”

Just as Jamaal was going to point out which donuts he wanted, a healthy orange sporting a fine Italian suit and Ray Ban’s rolled up onto the counter and pointed to Danny. “Stop right there!” the orange shouted. The loquacious donut cringed.

“Oh, no, it’s Agent Orange!” the confection squeaked.

“Wha? You’re a talking orange!” Jamaal proclaimed wide-eyed.

Agent Orange“Yes. Very observant, young man,” the orange replied in a cocksure tone. “I’m here to help you, son. You see, this donut doesn’t exactly have your best interests at heart. If anything, Dastardly Donut here intends to hurt you more than help you.” The fruit sounded like an old-timey newsreel, and just about as educational.

Why would the donut do such a thing? Jamaal couldn’t figure it out. “What is he talking about, Danny?”

“Don’t listen to him, kid,” the donut sneered. “He’s just mad because we’re more popular than he is.”

“I’m not going to lie to you, young man,” the orange started, “Donuts are very popular, but that’s not necessarily a good thing.”

Jamaal didn’t know what to believe at this point. “Gee, Mr. Orange…”

“Agent Orange,” the fruit corrected.

“Mr. Agent Orange, why does the donut want to hurt me?” the child wondered.

The orange rolled a bit closer to Jamaal, put one hand on the kid’s shoulder and removed his shades with the other so he could speak earnestly, eye-to-eye.

“Kid, one donut from time to time won’t hurt you much. But this donut here wants your mother to buy him and eleven of his closest friends. Problem is, too much sugar in your blood over a short period of time can be very damaging to your long term physical and mental health. Although a donut will make your brain feel really good for a little while, what that sugar rush is actually doing is addicting you to that feeling. Let me tell you something, kid, being addicted to anything isn’t good for you. Worst of all, a donut has almost no nutrients besides sugar. It’s all calories that will slow you down and make you hungrier, making you feel bad when there’s no donut in that mouth of yours. You’re sure not going to grow up big and strong like your dad if you eat donuts all the time. You do want to be like your father, right, kid?”

“You know about my dad?” Jamaal asked, incredulous.

The orange slipped his shades back on. “Agent Orange does his homework, son.”

The dastardly donut hastily shoved the orange out of the way, landing the fruit on its backside. “He’s fooling you, fool. He wants you to eat him instead.” A half dozen jelly donuts grabbed Agent Orange by the arms, restraining him.

“It’s true, I would rather you eat an orange,” the citrusy agent struggled. “Listen, kid, fruits like me are sweet but also have fiber to make you feel fuller longer. We also have lots of important vitamins and minerals like vitamins A, C, and E, and calcium to make you healthier and stronger. I’m so strong see how it takes so many of them to hold me back?”

A sprinkle fell off the dastardly donut’s brow and bounced off the counter. “You are going to eat a donut,” the donut snarled. Jamaal stepped back.

“I’m afraid not, Dastardly Donut,” Agent Orange said. “It looks like the cavalry has arrived.”

A trumpet sounded from on high and everyone looked up (except Jamaal’s mother who was calmly sipping an espresso). Parachuting from…somewhere…two yellowish-green (or is it greenish-yellow) tropical fruits wearing bandoliers dropped onto the counter.

“Oh, no!” one of the jelly donuts shrieked. “Papaya Troopers! Run!” The jelly donuts turned the orange loose and spun on their edges.

“Not so fast,” one of the papaya’s furrowed its brow. The carica food took two small, almost round, smooth red fruits from its bandolier. It hurled one at the closest jelly donut, exploding the unhealthy snack across the counter.

“I guess he wasn’t ready for that jelly,” Agent Orange quipped of the mess. The orange fruit jabbed a thumb at Jamaal.

The armed papaya launched a cherry right at the child’s face which the boy instinctive caught in his mouth. There the bomb exploded, taking the young man’s flavor virginity.

“Wow, that tastes really good,” Jamaal noted.

“And it’s good for you,” the orange spoke. Meanwhile the donut that had almost fooled the child had rolled away but stopped itself at the threshold of the shop’s entrance.

“As ever wrapped up in yourself to notice me getting away, Agent Orange,” the dastardly donut swiped. Then he tucked his arms and legs in and rolled out the door and into a gutter.

“Shall we go after him, sir?” one of the papayas asked the agent.

“We’ll let him go for now,” the orange ordered. “I’m sure we’ll see him again. Right now, giving this boy an education about food is more important.” Agent Orange turned towards the child. “Kid, do you know what phytochemicals are? They’re special chemicals found in many fruits and vegetables and have been found to have many health benefits…”

Jamaal listened with rapt attention, if not to the information than to the talking food itself.

Jamaal’s mother, wanting nothing more than to pretend the entire situation wasn’t happening, was on the phone. “Yes, Dr. Wenner? I need a refill on my Clozapine prescription. It’s started again.”

 

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

Knucklehead Da Kat

Knucklehead Da Kat

He went out not at all like he came in; a crotchety old man who didn’t give a crap except to be brushed and fed on time, his wet food served exactly the way he wanted less he walk away with that perpetual look of distain upon his face. Yes, he always had that look on his face, not at all uncommon to cats, that you were a complete idiot. Perhaps he was right – humans, so foolish as to enter voluntarily into the co-enslavement that is pet ownership. People don’t always see it that way, but cats like Knucklehead are nobody’s fool. The closer the end got, the less he suffered them. Everyone’s patience runs out eventually.

The first time I met Knucklehead was when my future wife brought me back to her house after one of our dates. She informed me that her Maine Coon was quite skittish, perhaps something in his stray youth having scarred him so badly he was forever on guard. My future wife said I would never be able to get very close, but alas the first time Knucklehead and I laid eyes upon each other he did grace me with but a sniff, cautiously approaching me then backing away just as slowly as if to intone, “Conceivably, perchance, this one is not a complete moron.”

In the preceding years Knucklehead tolerated me, is the best way to put it. He would allow me to pet him for a few moments from time to time, at least until my wife and I got it in our heads that Knucklehead was lonely and needed a friend. We brought home Niles from the Humane Society one July day and it was hate at first sight. Perhaps in understanding that Niles was my cat friend, Knucklehead revoked my petting privileges for some time. No one speaks much of the memory of cats but they are on par with elephants. I was not allowed to touch Knucklehead anymore until I had learned to master The Brush, which I began at first by always catching Knucklehead when he was asleep. By the time he was roused, he was enjoying himself. Though I eventually redeemed myself, there would always be the Niles Incident between us. At least until my wife and I moved to Hawaii.

The weather in Hawaii agreed with Knucklehead, of which he spoke, “The weather here agrees with me.” Our first few nights in Hawaii he was quite vocal about this fact and strained through many a night to let his people roaming freely outside know that he had arrived. In the past seven years of living in Hawaii, Knucklehead grew less skittish and stopped running every time someone new entered the house. It was as if he reached a point and realized that no human bore him ill will, though to be sure, humans were still idiots but they were harmless enough not to walk away from out of feline nature. Who has that much energy? Kittens.

Feeling at home the last few years, Knucklehead settled into regularly schedule times he expected to be brushed and fed. I’d never known a cat to mark the shifting of the sun throughout the seasons and still know exactly what time it was. “Yes, I know it’s still dark out but it is 7:30am. Get the fucking brush.” (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

As the want to move back to the Mainland grew in my wife’s heart, so did Knucklehead protest by staging ‘die-ins’ in which he would give himself things like pancreatitis every four months thereby making us feel he was too sick to fly back to the continental U.S. But time caught up to him, like it will for all of us, and soon he was no longer pretending. Sometimes we’d catch him staring at the wall for unusually long stretches, no longer able to proceed down that already long flowchart cats keep in their head about making key decisions about whether to go to the bathroom. He kept eating, though, but also losing weight. He kept walking around, though, but was obviously uncomfortable sitting down. He kept sticking it to us humans, making us wonder, “Maybe he’ll be alright?” That’s a cat for you, keeping you guessing right ‘til the end because despite all their intelligence, they’re still jerks.

Except Knucklehead. He really was a good boy. He deserves his peace. I hope I was a good father, that I did make him laugh, that I did brush him well, and made his food palatable. If not he’ll be right there with Saint Peter at the pearly gates to whisper in Peter’s ear, “No, not this one. He’s an idiot. He thought I liked him.”

Knucklehead Da Kat passed away on Wednesday, 02.12.2020 after 20 some odd years of shedding wherever the hell he damn well pleased.

Knucklehead 2

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

On Villains and Villainy

On Villains and Villainy

“One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.” – Gerald Seymour in Harry’s Game

When I first heard the Joker movie with Jaoquin Phoenix was being made, I admit I was disturbed in the slightest. Critics of pop culture have long criticized what has seemed like a gradual and unnecessary decent into what seems like an anything-goes mentality for entertainment’s sake. The inundation of sex, drugs, and violence in pop culture appears to be on one hand merely for the sake of titillation. Yet, on the other hand it may be a reflection of the Western world’s dark underbelly it seems the average citizen doesn’t want to concede exists nor accept their explicit or implicit role in.* It is, however, the glorification of the villain that has troubled me the most when it comes to pop culture. I can name countless movies, not to mention countless musical artists, whose villains and villainy outshine their protagonists.

[*Perhaps the same can be said for the world at large.]

To be clear, I prefer my villains to be complicated, for their motivations to be more than evil simply because that’s who the villain cannot help being. Certainly, the new Joker movie is a reflective character analysis in this regard. Even the long string of Marvel movies were part of a story arc that centered around stopping a ‘mad’ Titan, Thanos, from wiping out half the life in the universe. His murderous methods aside – which we assume are wrong – it’s difficult to say what’s wrong with Thanos’ motivations for those of you who are aware of them. I think it’s fair to want interesting villains – the world is not black-and-white after all – but we’ve reached the point where in America’s culture at least, we’re literally rooting for the bad guy.

Case in point; at last night’s WWE’s Hell In A Cell Pay-per-View (I apologize for still keeping tabs on professional wrestling at my age), a character called The Fiend did not win the championship match and fans in the audience were audibly upset. This Fiend character is very popular among the internet wrestling community to the point that fans would rather see him crowned champion than have a face (good guy) retain the gold. I agree that the character is interesting and that the heel (bad guy) needs to win on occasion to maintain the delicate and eternal dance between good and evil alive for the sake of storytelling, but for a crowd to nearly riot when the heel doesn’t win indicates something is possibly wrong with either the Western psyche, the current rules of society, or perhaps a matter of definitions. (It is possibly all of these.) I point to actual current events to make my case.

The election of Donald Trump to President of the United States in 2016 couldn’t make my point clearer, being of the opinion that Donald Trump is clearly a villain. Why; what has he done that is so wrong? I could name a number of things and not be nearly exhaustive: Asking foreign powers to interfere in U.S. elections, accepting the word of despots over his own intelligence community, cavorting with said same despots, backing out of treaties with traditional allies and treating them with contempt, rolling back environmental and civil protections, coddling white supremists and stoking xenophobia, ignoring the U.S. Constitution (this is perhaps because he’s clearly never read it), embezzling from his charities, doing nothing about gun violence, and generally acting like a third-grade schoolyard bully. While I understand the frustration of many modern American voters with the federal government, I was aghast to find out a large swath of the U.S. thought Donald Trump was the answer. In my opinion, I can’t say Donald Trump has never done any good as U.S. president – even a broken clock is right twice a day by accident – but does the good outweigh the bad? No, because all things considered, the person in question wouldn’t be a villain. Inevitably, then, we’re forced to think about what exactly makes someone a villain.

What is a villain? The definition of ‘villain’ is broad throughout various dictionaries, meaning anything from the antithesis of the protagonist in fiction to generally someone doing harm to others in reality. In either case, a villain is typically breaking the law. They are considered dangerous or have behaved heinously towards any given person or group of people. A villain is often considered immoral, and therein lies a problem.

To some people, Donald Trump is a hero, a freedom fighter even. He is a protagonist to all those who feel they’ve been ignored, stepped on, or otherwise aggrieved by the federal government. The current president of the U.S. doesn’t play by the established laws, traditions, or unwritten social contract. This makes him a terrorist to some (in that word’s broadest sense) and a hero to others who feel that the current laws, traditions, and unwritten social contract need to be revised or reset to reflect some unspecified glory somewhere in America’s history. (Possible interpretation: When they felt more entitled.) So if a villain can also be a hero, there must either be something wrong with our definition or perhaps there is no such thing as a villain, objectively speaking.

It’s easy to contend there is something wrong with the definition. Scores of English words are too broad in their definition to be of much use or are outright confusing; ask anyone studying the English language. I contend that in modern U.S. culture, the definition of ‘villain’ is so ambiguous as to be vague to the point that many people would not know when they are behaving as a villain. (I’m not sure which is worse, a villain who knows they’re a villain or one who doesn’t know they’re a villain.) It also seems wrong to label anyone who offends us or that we simply don’t like as a villain, but that does seem to be the manner in which many Americans now operate.

Do villains exist, objectively speaking? Not if all cultures are relative, something we have to assume if not all cultures can agree that murder is wrong. (There’s always a caveat.) Villains can exist within a given culture, certainly, as there is no doubt that people have existed that have flouted the laws of a society they are seemingly a part of. Again, though, this allows a villain to be a hero to society’s downtrodden or anyone outside of a society that would like to see that society fail. So it’s hard to say villains actually exist anymore than we can now say heroes exist. Now we can see that heroes merely prop up the rules of society, and this would make them villains in someone’s eyes somewhere.

My original feelings towards the Joker movie have to be misgiven. After all, what does his nemesis Batman do but prop up the rules in Gotham City? Imagine Batman having grown up in 1930’s Germany; what would he have been but a Nazi superhero come WWII? Thank goodness he’s not, but Batman must be seen as a villain by some law enforcement agencies; there are procedures for catching and detaining criminals and subsequently putting them on trial. When this sense of fairness is broken can we agree this is something villainous? In the Joker movie, the central figure that is Arthur Fleck is driven insane by a thousand unfair psychological cuts, so can we blame him for the anarchy that ensues?  Can we blame a mass shooter who goes on a rampage because they think they’ve been treated unfairly?

Hopefully you are saying ‘yes’ because you agree that murdering innocent people, people who have not directly affected the shooter, are being murdered and we have to agree this is wrong no matter what society we belong to. Breaking two fairness rules – making two wrongs – does not result in a right, correct? Unfortunately, any given mass shooter or lawbreaker will have sympathizers. (To say nothing of laws that should be broken either because they are apparently unethical or quite ridiculous.) It would make more sense for a mass shooter to only kill the people that have affected them assuming the punishment fits the crime against them and we’ve never seen that.

If we invoke this rule of fairness which we, Western culture, seem to have forgotten as of late it might be easier to gauge who the villains are when the doctrine of fairness is broken. Given the current impeachment inquiry regarding Donald Trump, his proponents can argue for an investigation into the Bidens ad nauseum, and I’d be okay with that, but so should there just as well be an investigation into Trump. The fact that Donald trump obstructs justice in a manner that most of us cannot violates the fairness doctrine. I think it therefore reasonable to construe him as a villain. Then again, his proponents see this ‘unfair’ characterization as exactly what’s wrong with current American culture (despite these same people not wanting to do anything about solving the problem of mass shootings, which I view as villainous). I can’t imagine asking a Donald Trump supporter what they think made Obama such a villain because it seems like their definition is going to wind up being arbitrary. In fairness, though, I am willing to hear them out. Villains on the other hand hear no one out and simply assume they are entirely in the right.

All Rights Reserved (C) October 2019 John J Vinacci