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The Millennium Predictions


Nikki and Darren (Actors Justin Nichols and Sophia Bush)

Seagulls falling out of the sky raised a line of puffs on the barren beach as they smacked  into the sand.

Darren glanced upward shielding his eyes from the blazing sun.  Nikki, lying on the pink towel next to him, rose on both elbows.  She screamed.

More birds pelted the beach.  A few hundred yards to the south, it was raining seagulls.  “It’s coming this way,” he told the hazel-eyed beauty.

“Head for the water.  It’s the only safe place,” he shouted.

They raced towards the incoming tide, extending their long, lean bodies over the surf.  The couple pummeled the aqua water with furious crawl strokes, side by side.  When they were far enough from shore, Darren pulled up, treading water.  Nikki’s head broke water just as a wave rolled over her.  She came up coughing and spitting water.  Darren reached out.  She flattened her curvaceous body against his hard torso, encircling his neck with long, slender arms.

Thunder rumbled.  The waves grew higher.  Darren watched in disbelief as the storm of falling seagulls engulfed the Canyon Ranch Spa and Hotel.

“The ‘Millennium Predictions’ are coming true,” Nikki gasped.

The seagull storm swallowed up the hotel.  The bird-cloud mushroomed towards the sleek concrete and steel skyscraper to the north.   The sky darkened.  A  squall rippled towards them from the macabre scene unfolding on the shore.

Darren held her tightly.  “I’ll always love you, even if the world ends.”

Nikki pushed away from him with a wild-eyed expression.

Cut,” the Director yelled from the filming platform six feet behind them.

The computer-generated effects Darren had spent hours studying the night before dissolved on the screen of his imagination.  The newly built Canyon Ranch Hotel gleamed in the South Florida sun, perfectly safe as a dreamer waking from a nightmare in a comfortable bed.

He had been lost in the moment.  He had made it all real.  Instinct and a script two revisions old had taken over.

Darren smacked his head with an open hand.  “Sorry.”

“You’re supposed to say, ‘I thought we could change the future,” the pot-bellied, bearded Director said.  He pulled off his black sunglasses and glared at Darren.  A gust of wind rustled his mane of graying hair.  “Let’s take it from Nikki’s last line, then we’ll break for lunch.”

“Soften your expression,” Nikki told him.  “You look too serious.”

One of the benefits of working with your real-life girlfriend was honest feedback.

They sat at a table for two in the crowded Spa restaurant, next to a picture window overlooking the beach.  Darren munched on an under-sized grain burger with sprouts and raw carrots on the side—no dressing.  Nikki played with a small bowl of whole-wheat spaghetti topped with a hint of marinara sauce—hold the parmesan cheese.

Darren reveled in the few moments of leisurely time they shared before the long night of shooting ahead of them.  Two days of bad weather had thrown production behind schedule.  The production crew had to squeeze six days of shooting into three.  The Director expected actors and crew to stay fresh and energetic, despite the hectic schedule.

Nikki had piled her long red hair in a bun atop her head.  She wore no makeup, only a thin layer of moisture cream for protection.  Darren had met countless beautiful women in his acting career.  Nikki was different from all of them.  She wasn’t self-absorbed, and she wasn’t petty, as most of the women he knew tended to be.  She read voluminously between acting roles, and was a fine painter.  She could be intellectual and sophisticated or simple and playful as a happy child, depending on her mood.

She had stolen his heart shortly after they met at a wedding party eight months ago.  There was only one problem.  It haunted Darren day and night.

“There’s something we have to talk about, Darren darling.  It’s been on my mind for the past few weeks.”

He felt an ache in his heart.  He knew the issue had to come up eventually.

“Not now, Princess.”

“It makes me feel like your daughter when you call me that.”

“I can’t help it.  I believe you’ve come to me from some enchanted land, or sprung up whole from a ponderous book of fairy tales.”

She stopped smiling.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

She appeared to grapple with what to say next.

“Let’s agree to hold off all serious discussions until the film wraps,” he said.  “Until then, we should only try to amuse one another in the few private moments the stingy Director allows us.  Now, stop nibbling at your food.  Eat up.  You need your strength.”

“You eat your grain burger.

“It has no taste.”

“Use your imagination,” she said.

Darren took a bite.  “Mmmm.  He picked up the remaining piece of grain burger and admired it as if it were the Hope Diamond.  “Remind me to ask the chef how they make it taste like dried corn-stalk compost.”

He watched her turn and gaze out the window.  The surf was up, reaching with long fingers, almost up to the concrete foundation of the hotel.  The sun had disappeared behind late afternoon clouds.  He noticed her mood remained somber.

“If you insist on being serious, you might as well tell me what’s on your mind.”   He felt the ache in his chest again.

She sighed deeply.  “These past eight months have been much more than I ever expected, my love.”

“There’s no reason to believe the next eight months won’t be even better,” he said in his best imitation of a well-known motivational speaker.

He had imagined this painful moment too many times.  “I’m concerned about the age difference,” she would say.  “What will happen when we get older?”  No matter what he said in response, her words would mark the beginning-of-the-end their relationship.

“I fell in love with your humor before I fell in love with you,” she said, instead of the dreaded words he had anticipated hearing.

“And you’ve been dying to confess this to me but you didn’t know how,” he improvised.

“Don’t make this into another game.”   Nikki kept staring at him with a horribly solemn expression.

“I’m not from this world,” she said.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t hear you correctly.  The acoustics in here are awful.”

“Please try to believe what I’m about to tell you.”

“It’s perfect, sweetheart.  Who offered you the role?”

“I’m not trying out a character, Darren.”

“Can’t we just be ourselves with the little time—“

“—I am being myself.  Listen to me.”

He stared into the depths of her searching eyes.  Nikki lowered her voice.  “There are about a million travelers like me scattered in every country of your world.”

Chills ran through his body.  “What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about the events depicted in ‘The Millennium Predictions.’  I’m talking about a decision you have to make.”

“You’re telling me they changed the script again and didn’t tell me.  They’ve cut down my role.  That bastard who calls himself a Director doesn’t like me.  That’s it.  Isn’t it?

She stared back at him, perfectly still.  “I’m not talking about the movie.”

“You can’t be an alien.  I’ve kissed every inch of your body.  Every part of you is perfectly, beautifully human.”

“Calm down.  We’re attracting attention.”  She placed a hand over his.  “We have the same origin.  Our ancestors seeded the galaxy with our kind millions of years ago.  It was a grand experiment to study how civilizations develop in different environments.  The project is also intended to ensure the survival of our genome.”

He sat there in stunned silence.

“We thought we could blend in and help your civilization grow in a more constructive direction—until recently.  We’ve determined your problems are too severe.  It’s too late for our help.  Your civilization is a failed experiment.  Our work here is finished.”

“But—“

“—Hear me out, Darren.  Some of us, like me, have formed strong relationships while we’ve been here.  We’re allowed to take one person back with us.”  She held his hand tighter.  “I want you to come with me when I leave.”

“Nikki, please, this isn’t funny.  You must stop it now.”

“I’m not joking.  I understand how overwhelming this must be for you.  I’m asking you to be strong.”

“You’re asking me to give up everything and pop off into space with you somewhere.  Why can’t you stay here with me?”

“Your civilization will most likely destroy itself,” Nikki said.

“How can you make a statement like that and sound so sure of yourself?”

“To put it in simple terms, we can chart the future of a civilizations based on socio-economic, environmental, birth rates, art, scientific measurements and other factors.  Our predictive model comes from thousands of civilizations we have studied.”

Darren strained to wrap his mind around what she was telling him.

“What if you get tired of me?”  The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them.  His composure was melting like a sandcastle at high tide.

“Don’t be insecure,” she said.

“I’m twenty years older than you.”

“It never occurred to me.  The average life span of my people is two hundred years.  A twenty-five year difference in couples is quite common.”

“But I’m not going to live that long.”

“You will once you begin taking the bio-agents we’ve developed to stay young. You’re at the height of your powers, Darren.  I’m offering you the chance to stay that way for at least another five decades.”

“It sounds too good to be true.  For all I know, you’ll put me in a cage five minutes after boarding your ship.”

“Darling,” she said with a gleam in her eye, “we’re vegetarians, not meat eaters.”

He smiled, despite the feeling of utter uncertainty.  “Do you think we can last a hundred a fifty years together?”

“Wouldn’t you love to try,” she said, deftly lowering one eyelid.

He leaned close to her.  “Do they need actors on your planet?”

“Yes, my darling.  You’ll have time for at least five different careers in the dramatic arts if you get bored.”

“Look at me, sitting here thinking only of myself while you’re telling me the end of the world is at hand.”

“There’s nothing you can do about it.”

“Can’t your people warn us in some way?”

“The warning signs are everywhere.  Only a handful of people heed them.”

“There has to be a solution.”

“There is, darling Darren.  Come with me.”

“You make it sound so simple.”

It’s not that complicated, my love.  You have no children.  Your parents are gone.  And you’re an only child.”

“I’ve taken a lot of chances in my life.  But this…I need time to think.”

“I understand completely,” she said.  “We’ll talk again after the film wraps.   In the meantime, don’t say a word about this to anyone. It could jeopardize my safety.”

“That’s the last thing I’d ever do.”

She looked at him with an intensity he had never seen before.  “We can do this, darling.  I know we can if you give it a chance.  You’re the perfect man for me.”

He squeezed her hand, kissed her, and walked out of the restaurant on unsteady legs.

The woman known to Darren as Nikki turned to watch the sunset through the picture window.  The orange sun plunged into the ocean surrounded by a bevy of pastel pink clouds.   

Darren was perfect, she thought—bright, handsome, hardy, talented and most importantly, virile.  His sperm count ran off the charts.  She had tested it herself with a kit hidden in her dressing trailer.  It was a miracle the man hadn’t accumulated a brood of children inside or outside of marriage.  She guessed it was due to his exemplary character.  He didn’t believe in having children if he wasn’t going to be there for them as a proper parent.

It was ironic that Darren was destined to father thousands of children though he didn’t know it yet.  He was going to be on the star ship with her one way or another.  Preferably, Darren would decide he couldn’t live without her and leave voluntarily.  That way, she could break the news to him gradually during the journey to his new home.  He would have time to adjust to the idea of becoming an alpha breeding male for her dying race.

She regretted lying about the nature of her mission and the prospect of her lover living another hundred and fifty years.  Even with the bio-agents, the strain of steady breeding would shorten Darren’s life span considerably.  But there were much worse fates in the universe than sleeping with gorgeous women like herself who possessed brilliant minds and a multitude of fascinating professional abilities.

The new job came with an array of attractive benefits.  Aside from his conjugal duties, Darren’s schedule would include a healthy chunk of time in a classroom to avoid his becoming a conversational bore.  Good conversation before mating improved the conception rate dramatically.

To avoid psychological problems, Darren would continue his career in the dramatic arts on her planet as she had promised, under careful supervision of course.  She might even be his “girlfriend” for a while to make the transition smoother. Yes, Darren would adjust and eventually thrive in his new role.  His qualities of optimism and flexibility almost guaranteed it.

The more she thought about it, the more good ideas came to her for selling the new role to Darren.   When you sat back and added it all up, she believed he was a lucky man. This was especially true, considering his slim chances of survival on the sordid, troubled world he would soon be leaving behind.

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Too Late For Remorse


The words resounded against the dripping walls.  “Shut up.  Shut up.  Shut up.”

Blood trickled from the corners of Trevor Hartigan’s mouth.  His awareness flickered from the pain coursing through his broken fingertips to the oppressive heat in the room, to the crooked expression on the interrogator’s ugly face.

“If you lie to me again, you’ll beg me to kill you after what I do next,” the Confessor snarled, baring his nicotine-stained teeth.

Trevor’s spine ached from about a half-hour of confinement lashed to a straight-backed wooden chair.  The duct tape wrapped tightly around his upper body dug into his back and chafed the skin on his abdomen.  It seemed he had been sitting in this tiny dungeon for hours.  He cursed himself for whatever carelessness had landed him in this predicament.  He suspected it was the girl.  He had let down his guard in a moment of weakness.  Blanca had to be one of their spies.  He worshipped her, had asked for her hand in marriage, and she had betrayed him.

He focused on the gap between his tormentor’s chipped front teeth.  The gap reminded him of a missing board in a white picket fence.  He imagined crawling through the hole in the fence to freedom.

“Save your energy and kill me now,” Trevor said in a low voice. 

The pain in his body only served to sharpen his mind and resolve.  He carefully hid this fact with every word out of his mouth, every subtle gesture.  He had to convince the Confessor he was telling the truth.

“I’m a professional, Hartigan.  I’ve seen every trick in the book.”  The Confessor picked up a scalpel from a row of surgical knives glinting on a steel tray next to Trevor.  “You’ll tell me what I need to know or I’ll cut out your eye.   I want the names of your confederates.”

Beads of sweat ran from Trevor’s forehead.  He blinked reflexively to keep the moisture from stinging his eyes. 

“I’m a loyal citizen of the Conglomerate, Brother Confessor.  I’ve been falsely accused by inferior minds jealous of my position.”

“You are a traitor and a fool, Hartigan.  You enjoyed wealth and privilege as the Conglomerate’s Master Architect.  You had the opportunity to design buildings that would have lasted for centuries.  Your fame would have spread around the world.  You threw it all away when the girl convinced you to join the resistance.”

The Confessor ripped off his cowl.  His head began to transform into the head of a Praying Mantis.  Long, spindly legs sprouted underneath the Confessor’s navy blue robe.  The garment burst apart as the insect grew taller.  The roof of the room suddenly blasted skyward, as if it were the second stage of a rocket.

Trevor was so terrified his heart nearly stopped beating.  Blanca had told him the resistance knew very little about the aliens due to the group’s limited resources.  Trevor imagined no amount of training or preliminary briefing could have prepared him for what was happening before his bleary eyes.

The Confessor-turned-insect continued to grow past the height of the former ceiling.  Trevor stared upwards just as the giant creature’s claw reached down to pluck him out of the cell, chair and all.  He turned away, unable to look at the monster’s bulging eyes and chewing mandibles.  He felt certain the Mantis was preparing to eat him alive.

Looking down from the twenty-foot high vantage point in the giant insect’s grasp, Trevor saw a honeycomb of cells on the ground similar to the one he had occupied seconds ago.   On either side, a straight rock face soared hundreds of feet from a makeshift pine wood floor.  It was hard to make out more details in the bluish-gray light emanating from a source somewhere above them. 

Trevor figured the interrogation installation had been carved out of a massive cavern somewhere underneath the city.  A huge construction crane positioned in the middle of the complex plucked the triangle-shaped roof off another interrogation cell with its multi-story steel arm.  Another poor soul was about to be scared further out of his or her wits, it appeared. 

Trevor thought of Blanca again.  It was impossible to keep her out of his mind for more than a few minutes since the time he had met her.  How could she have done this to him?

“The girl isn’t a double-agent, as you suspect,” the giant Mantis said.  She will be arrested soon after she leads us to more members of the resistance.

How could the creature know he was thinking of Blanca?

“To answer your question, I can read a human mind when I get in the same room as one.  Your thoughts during our session have revealed most of the useful information you have to offer.  This final stage of the interrogation process makes any remaining secrets as easy to suck up as fresh meat off a dry bone.”

All of the nerve-endings in Trevor’s body went numb.  “I’m glad Blanca showed me I was working for a race of alien monsters instead of what I thought was a multi-national energy corporation.”

“You are the monster,” the Mantis said.  “The Conglomerate will soon be well established in every country of this world as more of us arrive.  In ten years, it will no longer be necessary for us to transform into human form.  The human race will cease to exist.”

Trevor heard his bones cracking as the creature’s claw closed around him.

He screamed.

“Shut up.”  The harsh voice came from far away.

Trevor’s eyes opened.  The first thing he saw was the gray ceiling of his solitary jail cell.  He rolled off the bunk bed and sank to his knees on the cold concrete floor.  The smell of disinfectant and urine filled his nostrils.  He moaned. 

“Shut up, goddammit.”  The guard appeared on the other side of the bars dressed in a gray shirt and olive pants.  His right hand rested on the .38 revolver strapped to his waist.

All of the colors in this hellhole are drab, Trevor thought.  It seemed like a lifetime had passed since he had taken to wearing bright colors shortly after meeting Blanca.  After a year of dating, they had decided to marry.  He had never been happier in his entire life. 

 “Quiet down and go back to sleep,” the guard said.  “You make any more noise an’ I’ll call the shrink back in here to shoot you up with sedatives.   You’re gonna’ learn to settle down and do your time quietly, if it takes a fist in the teeth to teach you how.  You got that?”

“Yeah,” Trevor croaked.

The guard stepped away.   His boots made a hollow echo down the concrete and steel corridor.

They had placed him on suicide watch.  He had tried to hang himself with a belt.  They stripped his cell of anything he might use to end his life.  Padding protected the walls of his eight by ten foot cell.  He had no such protection against the recurring nightmares and the memory of the accident.  That night replayed in his mind like an endlessly looping horror film.

They had gone out with some friends to celebrate the latest job offer.  He remembered Blanca pushing back her silky red hair and laughing gaily all night long.  They drank and ate at the South Beach bar and restaurant until two o’clock in the morning.  The hours swept by and the drinks went down without Trevor taking much notice.  When the time to leave arrived, Trevor was too embarrassed to admit he was higher than a kite.

At first, Trevor thought an animal crossing the road had hit the front tire when he heard the thunk on Blanca’s side of the car.  Blanca turned to him, wild-eyed.  He had never seen the pedestrian jaywalking across the deserted street.  Trevor had been speeding through the residential neighborhood to make it home in time to get a few hours of sleep before his nine A.M. job interview.  He never made it to the interview.

The victim was a man in his early thirties, the father of three children.  His wife was waiting for him across the street at the front door of their home when the accident occurred.  She told the police exactly what happened.  The man died from a brain hemorrhage on the way to the hospital.

He had dreamed about a career in architecture from boyhood.  After completing Architecture School with honors, he had received job offers from the top firms in Miami.  He looked forward to bringing beautiful buildings and bright, creative children into the world with the passion he felt for his work and his soul mate, Blanca. 

Now, all he had to look forward to was a fifteen-year prison sentence.   After the accident, Blanca wanted no part of him.  His future as an Architect looked dim at best.  What firm worth its salt would hire an inexperienced, middle-aged man with a felony record?

One careless act.  One night of celebration.  A single, poor decision.  The lives of six people tragically altered forever.  If he had the chance, Trevor would gladly change places with the man he had accidentally killed.  But now, it was too late for remorse.

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Zeda and the Jumping Fish


We sat on a flat rock overlooking the pond with the lines of our fishing poles dangling in the fresh water.  Actually, the poles we used were not real fishing poles.  They were made from tree branches strung with nylon lines and hooks my Zeda bought from a nearby bait and tackle shop.  My Zeda could not afford to buy real fishing poles, so he made them instead.  I didn’t mind.  He said they would work just fine.

The early morning sun glinted off the pond and the side view mirror of my grandfather’s 1953 Plymouth sedan.  The reflected light was so bright I had to squint to see.  My stomach rumbled.  I thought of the roll beef my mother had packed for lunch.  The roll beef and Kaiser roll sandwiches wrapped in wax paper sat in a brown paper bag next to my grandfather.  We had found one of the only shady places to sit in this tiny corner of the Essex County Reservation.  We had the pond all to ourselves.

“You said we would have a better chance of catching fish if we got here early.  I think you were right, Pop-Pop.”  I always called my grandfather Pop-Pop when I wasn’t calling him Zeda.

“The water is cool near the surface in the early morning,” Pop-Pop said.  “Fish like cool water.  They go deeper in the pond as the sun rises and the water near the surface gets warmer.”

“I hope we catch a lot of fish,” I said.

“A good fisherman is always patient, tateleh.  It is important to remain patient in any situation and twice as important when you are waiting for a fish to bite.”

I wasn’t used to sitting still for very long.  It was almost magical, however, how calm I could be when spending time with my Zeda.  I found everything that came out of his mouth interesting.  I loved the way he played the role of different characters in the stories he told.  He could do anything he put his mind to.  Right at the moment, he was fishing with one hand, reading from a small book in the other, and talking to me.

Something big crashed into the mirror of the pond’s surface.

“Pop-Pop.  I think a meteorite just fell.  We learned about them in school yesterday.  The big meteor comes into the atmosphere and breaks up.  Then smaller pieces fall out of the sky.”

“It’s not a meteorite, bubaleh.  The fish are happy.  They freulich in the water and jump out when the spirit moves them.”

“Wow,” I said.

There was a second splash about a hundred yards away.  “There goes another one.  I’ll bet they all start jumping now.”

“They aren’t going to make it that easy for us to catch them,” Pop-Pop said.  “Fish have more brains in their Kuphs than the average person gives them credit for.”

“If fish were stupid, it wouldn’t be fun to try and catch them, right Zeda?”

“Correct,” my boy.

“Could we go fishing every day before school and on the weekends too?”

“Well, we could go on any day during the week, but not on Saturday.  Saturday is for the mitzvah of observing Shabbas—something your parents seem to have forgotten, ankeleh.”

And so it went, back and forth between us the rest of the morning, until it was time to eat our delicious roll beef sandwiches.  We didn’t catch any fish that day.   I can’t say I was disappointed.

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Something More Than Telewars


Grayson found it hard to breathe.  Sweat poured from his forehead, down his crimsoned cheeks, onto the stiff collar of his white shirt.

The cubicles surrounding Grayson in the sprawling call center buzzed with activity.

“This is Grayson Sellers speaking.  May I have your contract number please?”

“Habla Espanol?”

“I only speak English,” Grayson replied.

“Where are you from, Amigo?”

“We’re not supposed to disclose personal information.  Please describe your problem so that I can help you.”

“Don’t get excited, hombre.  I ‘m just being friendly.

“I appreciate that.  The problem is we have to complete a certain number of calls in an hour.  If we fall short, we have to have a good explanation.  Now, how can I help you?”

“Do you like your work?”

Grayson made no reply.  They hadn’t given him a script for a situation like this.

He peered over his cubicle walls in all directions for signs of his supervisor.  She was cruising three rows to the south in a bright pink dress and one-inch heels.  Despite the low heels, the sturdy woman easily topped six feet.  Her keen eyes scanned the room for the slightest hint of operator error.

“To be perfectly honest, I’m not crazy about working here, but the pay is great.”

“I’m a landscape architect—love my customers and they love me.  Business is booming like you wouldn’t believe.

“I’m happy for you.”  Can we please get to your insurance issue?”

He imagined the explanation for losing control of his temper and the call.  The customer was excessively friendly.

“Working indoors is not my gig,” the caller elaborated.

“I get panic attacks.”  The words tumbled out of Grayson’s mouth by themselves.

“I feel for you, Hermano.”

He heard heavy footsteps approaching.  The supervisor pulled up like an army tank reversing on its treads.  “You’re sweating, Sellers.  Do you have a fever?”

Grayson dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief.  “Just a little summer cold, Mrs. Wilson”

“Be sure to cover your mouth when you sneeze.”

A few rows away, an operator raised her voice.  Mrs. Wilson’s head turned like a turret.  She clanked away.

Another casualty of the telewars, Grayson thought.

“I could use another good man.  Why don’t you call me after your shift?”

“You don’t even know me.”

We’ll talk.  Then I’ll know you better.”

It was against the rules to use customer records for anything except work for the company.  There was a rule attached to almost everything he did inside these walls.

Against his better judgment, Grayson jotted down the name and phone number on his computer screen.

The call proceeded smoothly to completion.

That night, Grayson dreamed of a plant nursery in South Miami he had visited as a boy.  He played tag with his younger sister among acres of Royal Palm trees.  He wandered between rows of potted orchids blooming in beautiful pastel colors.  He inhaled the rich floral perfume.   The warm sun and a cool winter breeze kissed his cheeks.

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