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

The Devil And The Dating Game

The Devil And The Dating Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bachelorette Number Two?” the host asked.

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

“And Bachelorette Number Three.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sucker, Lucifer thought.

Sucker, Faith thought.

 

All Rights Reserved © April 2020 John J Vinacci

The Memory of Justice

The Memory of Justice

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

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

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

“Just do it, puta,” the convict said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All Rights Reserved © December 2019 John J Vinacci

The Dragon Code

The Dragon Code

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why not?” the dragon asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I don’t understand,” Baldwin simpered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All rights Reserved © November 2019 John J Vinacci

The Simulation

The Simulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All Rights Reserved (c) July 2019 John J Vinacci

Barton Saves The World

Barton Saves The World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?” they asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All Rights Reserved © July 2019 John J Vinacci

All Possible Worlds

All Possible Worlds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

All Right’s Reserved © April 2019 John J Vinacci

The Lottery 2040

The Lottery 2040

“You are now and always will be my friend, Aston, no matter what happens,” Mercedes soothed. “No matter what happens, I know in your heart that you’re one of us.” The words streamed off the raven-haired beauty’s tongue like a gentle brook.

Aston wasn’t convinced. And the lithe hand on his shoulder might as well be making things worse, not better. They weren’t kids anymore; they were nineteen now and had to register for the Lottery last year in accordance with their laws. Now that that they were entered, well, what if he won? Could they really remain friends?

“Excuse me while I worry anyway, ‘Sadie,” Aston muttered as he shook the young woman’s delicate hand off his shoulder. His fine blonde hair whipped on the wind as he skewed his chiseled jaw.

“Two babies were born last year and only one person died,” Aston continued in his crisp English. “Of course there’d wind up having to be a Lottery this year, just one year after we registered. What are the odds? Dammit.”

“It’s the price we pay to live the way we do. You know that,” Mercedes confirmed as she stroked her diamond necklace. She replaced her hand on Aston’s shoulder and turned him about with all her meager strength. She stared wide-eyed into his.

And the young man was soothed. Those clueless, doe-wide brown eyes of hers; they always got him. She just believed in it so much. His beliefs weren’t quite on the same level.

“I suppose,” Aston relented a touch. “At least your ex, Jaguar, is in it, too.” Aston never liked Mercedes’ ex, at least not since the pair hooked up about this time last year just when Aston began to have feeling for Mercedes. Mercedes and Jaguar broke up shortly afterwards, Mercedes saying they had different perspectives on things though she never said exactly what the difference was. “A good twist of fate will see to it that he wins,” the nineteen year old said dryly.

“Spoken like a gentleman,” Mercedes nodded softly.

Did she even hear me or is she actually that stupid? the young fair-haired man wondered. He didn’t really know why they were friends or why he liked her so much. Maybe she was the necessary antidote to his intellectually induced pessimism. Ignorance is bliss, after all. Or maybe it was biology; they were both young and hot. But then so was most everyone in their community. Aston turned back around towards the stage and tried concentrating on determining the future.

“There he is! The minister is approaching the podium,” Aston popped. He reached back to grab Mercedes’ hand and nearly crushed it with equal parts fear and excitement. She winced, then smiled, then brought her lips near Aston’s ear while the baby-faced officiant took up the stage.

“Aston, have you thought about what will happen if I win? Will you still be my friend?” Mercedes was forced to step back as Aston shooed her with both hands and said something like ‘sure, sure.’ His ambivalence went unnoticed by the young beauty’s naivety. She shrank back as the minister approached the microphone. Aston rose to his tippy toes and obscured Mercedes’ view.

“Bugatti Venyon…” the priest dribbled.

Aston’s fist rocketed into the sky, self-preservation assured. Best tp lay the part at any rate. “Wooo! Yeah! Bugatti! Get out of here you miserable slumdog!”

Aston’s theatrics were infectious to the point of violence. The prim-and-proper crowd of elitists began to boo and hiss like snakes. Like wolves, they began tearing at the tuxedo of the man whose name was announced.

The minister raised his hands simultaneously and scowled. “Settle down! Everyone settle down! Mr. Venyon forgot to sign his Agreement to Disperse Property form, that’s all. Settle down!” Aston and the crowd slacked back, fixed their ties and smoothed their dresses. Everyone raised their eyebrows and shrugged their shoulders at each other. No big deal.

Mr. Venyon, checking a scratch across his cheek with a white handkerchief, approached the stage, signed the form handed to him by the minister and settled back into the crowd, his eyes leery of his neighbors.

“Alright then,” the minister said as he placed the form on top of a large stack beside him on a table, “Let’s get on with the business at hand.” The smooth-faced magistrate reached into a bowl, whirled his hand, then quickly withdrew a folded strip of paper. He unfolded it, squinted, confirmed the name with the priestess beside him and approached the microphone once more. The crowd before him was silent, their mouths gaped like fish with hook in mouth.

“And the winner of this year’s lottery is…” A pin dropped but nobody heard it, “Mercedes McLaren. Mercedes McLaren.”

Aston spun around to find his best friend pale as a ghost. Her arms were folded across her chest and her chin brought low. “Aston?” she barely spoke. “You’ll still be my friend, right?” her broken voice and crooked brow asked. “You could come visit me. It’s allowed.”

He was trying to stare into her eyes but her eyes were closed to the dark energy reaching out to grab her, assail her, to reject her. In Aston’s peripheral vision, a score of hands emerged to blot out the sun. A sack of coal lodged in his stomach while his mind scrambled for something to say.

His thoughts were interrupted by the clarity of a memory though, of him sitting at his desk at home in the early evening with an ancient quill and ink well, spokes of sunlight piercing the thin white drapes, drafting his high school graduation essay on why the lottery should be abolished. The lottery wasn’t fair – an accident of birth landed the citizens of this community in their privileged society. So what if everyone agreed to participate? The choice not to got you sent off to the slums anyway. Who wouldn’t agree to stay? Then there was the matter of all people being created equal…

The lad remembered dotting the final sentence of his essay by driving the wet quill through the paper. Aston remembered staring at the essay for a long time after that, until well after the sun went down. Alone in a dark room, he carefully shredded the paper into small pieces. He tore it so slowly he could hardly hear it. He had to be gentle with the essay. Aston imagined there was a time ideas were respected and not blindly followed. As he swept the paper bits out his window onto a light breeze, a metal taste swept through the young man’s mouth when he realized his cowardice. He couldn’t blindly follow his own ideas, could he? At least he could defy them all somehow with littering.

Mercedes’ whimpers stirred Aston. Fingers, claws, were inches from her, ready to cast the lady down. Aston swelled with adrenaline; he knew he was strong enough. He could fight them off; break their fingers, rend their claws, frighten them into backing down. Only he’d never actually been in a fight, not one of them have. There was no fighting here; that’s what the poor did. Violence was reserved to give notice to those who’ve been outcast, to let them know they were unwelcome now. Those were the rules and they made sense to Aston, insofar as the lottery could make sense.

Aston, an unusual boy, saw his action potential stymied by his need to reason, to think things through. He saw it was too late to save Mercedes who – clawed dress and all – was hoisted above the seething crowd. This was the rule, there were no except…

“Proxy!” Aston shouted as loud as he could. The crowd froze and craned their necks back in the young man’s direction. “The rules state a proxy can take the winner’s place.” He said this knowing this had never happened before; no one had ever brought it up.

No one made a sound; not Mercedes, not the crowd. Everyone just kind of looked at each other. One man, almost 35 and soon too old enough for ritual death, finally broke the still. “Are you saying that you want to take her place?” he asked politely.

Aston stammered. “I…I’m just saying that’s the rule. I…” Mercedes, high is the air, hung her head upside down and shot her big brown eyes at him, wider than ever. Her mouth lingered just a touch open, waiting for her friend to come through. “It’s just that…that’s the rule. It’s a thing. I just wanted to remind everyone of that.” Mercedes’ eyes went super-moon as the crowd erupted.

“I will proxy for her!” a suave young Hispanic man with short, shaggy black hair roared. Not an ounce of fat on him, Jaguar’s muscles rippled from out his unbuttoned shirt. The conviction in his voice was as tall as he was. Mercedes was carefully placed back on her feet and the crowd lingered, thinking long about making a move on Jaguar.

“Step aside and I will leave this place quietly. None of you have to get hurt,” Jaguar spoke. The crowd parted like the Red Sea to either side of Mercedes. The Hispanic moved on air passed a dumbfounded Aston. He approached Mercedes and looked down on her, radiating love, burning her with sacrifice.

“I wouldn’t do it for you,” Mercedes whispered and turned away.

“I know, bomboncita,” Jaguar squinted. “But I could not live with the thought of you in the slums, dirty and scratching to survive. You don’t put up a fight against the rules, thinking you stand so little chance of winning the lottery and then winning anyway. Will you really go to live among those you’ve been taught to despise so that the rest of us can eat caviar? Do you know what really happens out there? You grow old if you are lucky, bombon, but if you are lucky you will lose your sweetness. I could not bear that in my heart. Besides, you know how I feel. I will still be the same man out there as I am here. Everyone is created equal no matter where you are from. Out there I will die with honor. Here, I cannot go into ritual death having never stood up for what is right.”

Aston throat burned with acid. Jaguar was taller, more muscular and better looking, and he’d slept with Mercedes. In what other damn ways could Jaguar be superior to him? Jaguar could love. Jaguar could sacrifice. All this superiority was intolerable.

“No! I will proxy for Mercedes,” Aston announced stepping towards the former lovers.

“Nooo,” Jaguar immediately lulled. “I do not think you will survive out there for long. I am stronger. I will do it. For Mercedes.”

“I, Aston Martin, will proxy for Mercedes Pullman. I volunteer to go to the slums and preserve your society. There, in the slums, I will be as equal among the people as I am here.” The whole town could hear Aston rev. “I won’t have your riches, your security, but I will have a dignity you could never take away from me!”

The young minister nodded and two men grabbed Aston by his arms. They fast-tracked him towards the town gate before he could spew any more nonsense. Jaguar winked at the hero and patted his shirt pocket as he was dragged by causing Aston’s face to curdle. With one hand around Mercedes’ waist, Jaguar’s other hand lifted a folded and heavily taped paper from the pocket and kissed it. Aston’s heart hollowed out. His head throbbed for an explanation. Thrown into the dirt outside the town’s gate he finally figured it out: Jaguar was smarter than him, too.

As Aston staggered away he thought he could hear Mercedes’ angelic voice. “You’re the best friend I ever had. You’re still my best friend.” Maybe she’d come visit him in the slums. Would Mercedes waste what little time 37 years gave her though? He wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t.

 

All Rights Reserved (c) January 2018 John J Vinacci