Mom makes me shave my ears.
Shoulder to shoulder the cadets stood in rigid formation beneath a joyless sky the color of galvanized steel. Shrieking winds knifed through their uniforms cold and unforgiving, their pants and sleeves snapping like flags.
Fifty had been selected to colonize a faraway planet: twenty-five men and twenty-five women. They had been chosen with meticulous care from an extensive battery of test results. For months, they had been stabbed with needles and deprived of sleep, spun wildly in circles and interrogated under hot lights. They had been locked up in perfect darkness until they didn’t know the time of day. Or the day. Or the year.
They had been abandoned to live or die on a jungle planet turned loose with no water and no food for two weeks, a grim microcosm of Darwin’s survival of the fittest.
Together the cadets had learned by necessity to function as a single unit. Each member had demonstrated exceptional psychological stability and physical stamina as well as a high estimated capability for reproduction.
They were the elites of the elite.
Now finally they had arrived, all their training leading them to this day. Motionless statues, their faces revealed no emotion as they stood on a vast expanse of asphalt behind the Universal Exploration and Expanse Building. Here they teetered on the precipice of history receiving last words of encouragement before embarking on this final voyage, a voyage from which none of them would ever return.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said a stern and impeccably groomed colonel as he paced back and forth before them, hands clasped behind his back. “Today your names will be added to those of the greatest explorers humankind has ever known. Pages of text will laud your courage and children will be taught of your sacrifice for centuries. This mission, YOUR mission, holds the key to unlocking secrets that the universe has held captive from the beginning of time and space.”
He stopped and regarded each of them deliberately for long ponderous moments. “It would be impossible to overstate the value of the contribution each of you is making. As your commanding officer, I am proud to have known you and I thank each of you for your exemplary selflessness and dedication.”
The cadets stared into the distance.
As one might expect at an event of this magnitude, a large crowd had gathered to watch the ceremony. Some of the spectators were family members and friends of the cadets. Some were reporters. Most were strangers growing bored with the pomp and circumstance and eager to see the launch so they could get out of the cold and on with their lives.
Amongst this latter group was a man who was decidedly insane. He shouted to the colonel, “you make it sound like they had a choice!”
The crowd gasped and murmured uneasily, whispering and shivering and fidgeting about nervously while the wind whistled and kicked up grit.
The colonel turned and cast a disapproving glare at this unexpected interloper and immediately four military policemen waded into the crowd to take him.
The lunatic, who seconds before was packed in tight, found himself standing alone in a broad circle of space as though he were the lone contestant in some otherworldly dance contest and all eyes were fixed on him.
“You’re being hustled,” he advised the cadets who stared at nothing without expression. “You’re being played for chumps. Do you think you had a choice in this?” he cried. “Did you really think you could say no?”
The crowd chattered appalled and the MP’s broke through and grabbed this rouser of rabble under his arms dragging him backwards through the crowd, his legs sprawled out behind him. He went limp and said no more and soon he was gone of no more lasting significance than a streaker at a football game.
But the disturbance had punched a hole in the festive atmosphere such as it was, and the colonel had lost his enthusiasm for the dramatic. The ceremony wound down quickly afterwards and the cadets mingled through the crowd hugging people they knew and shaking hands solemnly with those they didn’t receiving heartfelt “be safes” and “good lucks.” A few of the cadets gave brief interviews and posed for pictures until eventually, the last of them was loaded into a transport and scuttled to the launch site.
On the ship they sat in two neat rows facing each other as they contemplated to themselves the magnitude of leaving their home planet for the last time. Hearts beat fast and breaths came shallow and mouths were dry as they clenched their hands into fists and relaxed them then clenched them into fists again. None of the cadets really saw the others, each was looking inward instead.
FIVE said the transponder in their helmets and the ship jumped to life and began to hum.
FOUR Louder now and they began to vibrate in their seats.
THREE Now the high whining of the propulsion drives engaging and heavy kachunking sounds as massive suction cups released the ship from the launch pad one by one.
TWO The windows went black as anti-gravity shields slid along the side of the ship and locked securely into place.
Twenty years later a bright but rambunctious child was whispering across a classroom to his friend when the instructor called his name clear and loud.
“James!” he said and the boy froze.
“James, since you obviously have this course figured out and no longer need to pay attention, why don’t you tell me the story of Outbound I.”
The boy hesitated and a few of the children tittered. Uncertainly, in what was more a question than a statement he said, “it was vaporized at lift-off?”
“Good,” said the instructor. “And what was its mission to have been?”
“They were going to be the first colonists on Epsilon 7,” said James, “but the ship malfunctioned and exploded before they left the launch pad.”
“Excellent,” said the instructor. “It appears you may learn a thing or two this year in spite of yourself.”
The class laughed and James laughed with them although he didn’t get the joke.
“One more, James, and you may sit down. What were the names of the colonists on Outbound I?”
James stammered for long seconds and felt his ears go hot. Just as he was about to confess his ignorance the instructor broke into a wide grin and the class roared.
“Just kidding, James!” he laughed. Nobody could remember all those names!”
James grinned broad and sat down relieved, his interrogation complete.
“Ok class, that’s enough of that” said the instructor, “I’d like to have you turn your attention to the wall screen, please and let’s take a look at Outbound II…”
This story is a response to the one-word prompt Fifty.
Now try this: A Difficult Decision – Short Short Story
Beneath curdled skies, her bloodcurdling screams.
There are moments in life that determine our fates. Call them crossroads or decisions, determinations or resolutions, the labels matter not. What matters is that a choice must be made and the reverberations of that choice will be felt for the rest of our days.
Agnes has arrived at such a place.
She sits with two cards in her hand, a ten of spades and a six of diamonds, the blackjack dealer standing before her. No one sits beside her, her fellow gamblers having been relieved of their assets and long since gone home. It is a few minutes past four in the morning but the casino is bright, the music loud, and the building is pumped full of oxygen. From where Agnes sits it may as well be two in the afternoon.
She is winning.
Agnes has been conversing with the dealer all night and he’s heard all there is to hear about her grown children and their grown children and their children too. He knows her favorite books and where she goes to church and about her ladies clubs and that she crochets. And as the hours have come and gone, they have talked and laughed and sparred back and forth, him winning a hand, her winning two, him winning two hands, her winning one.
And finally they have built to this moment, she having thrust all her winnings, all her savings, to the center of the table in moment of do-or-die madness. Her heart is galloping, her hands shaking and she doesn’t know if she wants another card so she stalls by confiding, “I can’t believe how well this night has gone. I never win anything.”
And here the dealer stops and gives her a look, a look of warm sympathy as though he understands what she means but can’t allow her the sentiment. He says, “Don’t say you never win anything, Agnes. Don’t say you’re unlucky.”
She smiles without looking from her hand, her mind racing as she strains to calculate her odds.
“In my line of work, you hear it all the time: So-and-So is lucky but not me. So-and-So has a rabbit’s foot or a horseshoe or a four-leafed-clover wedged up their ass but not me.”
Agnes blushes at the unexpected profanity but says nothing, still studying her cards.
“Can you tell me the number of times you’ve said, ‘I could have been killed’ or ‘I should have been killed’ or ‘I nearly died’? Can you tell me how many close encounters you’ve had where looking back you wonder how you walked away? The odds that any of us has made it this far are remarkable and if this doesn’t leave you feeling lucky or blessed, I don’t know what will.”
Agnes doesn’t know how many times she has cheated death. The number is probably somewhere between five or ten times she imagines, maybe a couple more.
“When people think of luck, they think of money. They think of lottos and raffles and game show prizes and all of those things are well and good,” the dealer says. “But Life…Life is the ultimate prize. To be alive, to awaken each day and to breathe and to laugh and to cry…these are the prizes we need to win, the alternative does away with any complementary parting gifts.”
Agnes nods over her cards grateful for this pep talk and the extra time it affords her to contemplate her hand. “Yes, yes, I suppose that’s true,” she says.
Here, he pauses until she looks up. Then he says, “the multi-millionaire who commits suicide is a cliche. It happens so often yet we’re still surprised when it does. We say things like ‘money can’t buy happiness’ or ‘at least you have your health’ but we don’t really mean it. Deep down, we all think we could solve our problems and buy some purpose in this life if we just had the cash.”
He falls silent and she doesn’t reply. There is a drawn out pause then he gestures toward her hand. “What’s it going to be?”
Agnes swallows hard. “Hit me.”
He peels off a card and lays it before her: the six of clubs.
She stares at the card then exhales in a long rasp. Her hand goes to her chest as she slides off her chair and into a heap on the floor.
“Oh Agnes, we’re sorry. You were so close!” says the dealer. “Looks like your luck has run out.”
Deep in the heart of the Amazon Basin the jungle is so dense, the canopy so thick, that a person could walk ten feet from a blaze orange battleship and never see it.
It was here that Sheldon Dayleon found himself perilously lost. His native guide had wandered off and misjudged the treacherous terrain. He was swallowed by quicksand with Sheldon clueless as to his whereabouts. For hours, Sheldon had called to no reply and eventually reached the grim conclusion that he had been deliberately abandoned.
Sheldon was no adventurer and it was to his credit he had survived this long, living off questionable-looking berries and insects and the flesh of snakes he was able to catch unawares and bludgeon with a stone.
His compass had disappeared when he tried to cross the river. Frantically scrambling for air, he was tossed about mercilessly by the current which was far more rapid than it had appeared from shore. It carried him a mile downstream before he was able to free himself from its clutches clawing his way to the opposite bank exhausted and relieved.
That was two days ago.
Still, Sheldon remained the blissful optimist hacking his way through the jungle with reckless abandon and whistling to keep his spirits up. After his unfortunate encounter with the river, he retained his machete, his canteen, and one waterproof canister of wooden matches. For the matches he was particularly grateful, fire kept night creatures at bay. Still, even sunny Sheldon had to admit, it was troubling that only five remained.
Unbeknownst to him, he was traveling in a loose, meandering oval. He tried to use the sun and stars to guide him but the earth spins and the sky changes and he had no idea how to adjust his path accordingly. Overhead, the vegetation was so lush that he often couldn’t see the sky at all. All the same, he crashed on telling himself that things would work out as they always do and willing away fearful voices when they whispered in his head.
But by Day 6 of his adventure he was ragged and stumbling and no longer able to whistle. It was impossible to sleep in the rain forest. Not daring to let his fire smolder out, he awoke frequently throughout the night. Each morning he was jolted to life by the loud chattering calls of unfamiliar birds and every day he walked and hacked and walked some more which he was physically ill-prepared for. He was also eating very little which took its toll as his days in the jungle accumulated.
Sheldon’s tank was running dry.
Leaning against a tree, he found himself sweating and exhausted in the afternoon heat but unwilling to sit. If he left his feet, standing again would be difficult.
An object in motion.
Aimlessly, he lashed out with his machete but the blade struck something solid and ricocheted with such force that it flew end-over-end from his hand. He experienced a moment of panic but fortunately saw where it had flipped into the foliage and was able to retrieve it without much difficulty.
He fanned open the greenery and discovered behind it an insurmountable wall of gray stone. It climbed to the heavens, at least 150 feet, maybe higher. Stunned, he staggered backwards and stared, his mouth agape.
What on Earth?
He followed the wall slowly with his hands until it ended at a corner. Carefully, he rounded the bend feeling his away along the cool, flat surface until suddenly the foliage broke before him giving way to a clearing of perhaps fifty yards square. He wandered into the opening and beheld a massive structure that appeared very much like the Mayan ruins he had seen in Cancun.
Reeling, he stumbled several steps back almost as awed by the massive clearing as he was by the building itself. It had been almost a week since he had seen this much daylight.
At the center of the temple, steep steps laid before him leading to the top of the structure. Under normal circumstances, he would have ascended but he had used the last of his energy fighting his way through the brush to where he now stood and he sank to his knees and then to his side. Within seconds he was sleeping.
He awoke hours later judging by the receding daylight to find himself hungry and dumbfounded all over again by the massive structure that stood before him. As he sat there, legs stretched out before him, a male voice boomed from atop the temple startling him badly.
“SHANTALA QUI CETE OLAGO!”
Sheldon scrambled to his feet eyes darting about trying to locate the speaker. He had learned a few key words when he was in Mexico but was hardly fluent and he had no idea what the voice was saying or if this tongue was even Spanish. It was the first voice he’d heard other than his own in days.
“Uh…no habla,” he croaked. “Me…American,” he said jabbing his thumb into his chest. “Sorry, I don’t know what you’re saying.”
“This is holy ground!” the voice replied in English without a trace of accent. “You are standing on holy ground!”
“I’m sorry, Sir,” Sheldon said backing away, “I’m lost. I…don’t know where I am.”
For long moments there was no response. Then a figure materialized at the top of the steps. It stood, bright and lithe, looking down at him and then descended as though it were floating, not taking the steps at all. Sheldon gawked.
When it reached the ground, Sheldon could see this was an ancient man who looked like a shaman or some sort of witch doctor. He was shirtless and wore a sort of loin cloth. He was draped with necklaces of beads and bones and feathers, his hair jet black and his face crisscrossed with so many wrinkles he may have been 100 years old. Still, he moved with the grace of an athlete and his eyes were bright and alert. He was standing before him in seconds.
“Sir, I’m sorry,” stammered Sheldon, “I didn’t know-”
The shaman cut him off with a wave of his hand and stood staring at him. Sheldon fidgeted uncomfortably.
“You are the one of whom the prophecies foretold,” the old man said finally. “You will come with us.”
“I think maybe you’ve got the wrong guy,” said Sheldon. “I’m an American…a tourist.”
The old man reached out and, obediently, Sheldon took his hand. Together, they floated back to the temple and up the stone stairs. When they reached the top, Sheldon saw a vertical circle of bright light hovering on the roof of the pyramid. The old man gestured towards it and Sheldon stepped in.
He vanished and the old man followed.
The light shimmered and disappeared.
Vince clenched my shirt collar and pulled me close. “This is not complicated,” he said, slipping the vial into my shirt pocket and giving it a friendly pat. “You dump this into his drink then get the hell out of there.”
His face was up in mine but my heart was pumping hard and his voice sounded far away.
“You calmly serve the drinks,” he growled low. “Tell them you’ll be back with their food, walk slowly through the kitchen, down the hall, and out the back door. You’ll find me right here with the engine running and we’ll be drinking on a beach in Mexico before anyone knows what happened.”
“And you’re sure it will kill him? There’s no way it could just make him sick?”
“He’ll be stone dead,” he assured me. “There’s enough in that vial to kill everybody in the building.”
A sudden wave of anxiety threatened to overwhelm me.”Why can’t you do it?”
But we’d been over this many times. Fitzgerald and his cronies knew Vince. None of them had seen me before.
“How do you know he won’t drop dead on the spot? Shit Vince, there are guns around Fitzgerald all the time. What if he…you know…what if he…faceplants when I’m still standing there?”
“It’s a slow moving poison,” he said. “It takes at least ten minutes to kick in but when it does…”
He let the sentence hang, we both knew the ending.
It was busy that night and the kitchen was an asylum. In the dining room, customers were celebratory and ordering weird menu items many of us had never seen ordered before. Ingredients were running low, tempers were running high, and I was oblivious, consumed by the morbid task at hand.
My shift had begun at 6:00 but it wasn’t until much later that Fitzgerald and his pack of goons finally strolled into the restaurant. I was taking orders from a family of four when the gangsters filed by me reeking of cigars and expensive cologne. My knee bumped the table and a glass of water almost tumbled off the edge. Apologizing over my shoulder, I fled through the kitchen doors.
Rodney was standing in front of me looking concerned. “You feeling all right?” he asked me. “You look strung out, Man.”
“Why? What makes you say that?”
“Cause Man, you look like shit! You’re all pasty and sweaty looking. You look wasted or hungover or something. You’re not supposed to start partying until after work.”
My heart was thumping so hard it was making me nauseous.
“That reminds me, you still owe me for Saturday,” he said. “Fifty bucks.”
“Ok. Ok, yeah,” I said ducking into the bathroom. In the mirror, it was clear that Rodney wasn’t lying. My shirt looked like it had come out of the washer and never been dried. It had to go.
There were extras hanging from a hook in the hallway behind the kitchen. They were for emergencies in case someone spilled wine or spaghetti down the front of themselves. I put one on and hustled back towards the dining room.
“Margaret’s swiping your table, bro,” Rodney said casually as he brushed by me, heading outside for a smoke.
Spinning through the cacophony of the kitchen dodging waitresses and busboys and bursting into the dining room, I spotted Margaret, her dazzling smile in overdrive as she wrote down food orders from Fitzgerald and his men.
They already had their drinks.
Margaret laughed at one of their suggestive comments then headed for the kitchen where she was promptly intercepted by me.
“That’s my section!” I said. “You stole my table!”
Margaret blinked and her thousand watt smile dimmed. She considered feigning ignorance but playing dumb wasn’t going to fly and she knew it. It was a bad habit she had, taking other servers’ wealthy looking customers, and a big table like this had proven too much for her to resist.
She nodded meekly and shuffled into the kitchen to place their orders before relinquishing the table to me. The spring in her step was gone.
“I’ll split it with you,” I told her as the kitchen doors swung shut behind her and she smiled weakly at me through the window.
Just hang here until Fitzgerald needs a refill.
I waited with my arms crossed by the kitchen door ignoring my other tables while servers and bus boys sailed back and forth from the kitchen. My best opportunity had slipped by and I wasn’t going to miss another one. Already, my back was slick. This shirt would soon be unwearable too.
After five minutes or so, the time had come.
“Another drink, gentlemen?”
They barked orders while I scribbled. Fitzgerald wanted brandy.
The bar was a madman so I helped Stan with the drinks. My hands trembled as I reached for the vial.
It was gone.
It must have fallen out of my pocket when I was changing-
Frantically, I wove through the crowded dining room and into the battlefield kitchen spinning, avoiding bodies, and willing my way through the chaos. When I reached the hallway, I sprinted.
The hook was empty.
But it had been hanging right there. Right there! That was right where I had left it.
Mesmerized, I didn’t see the back door open.
“I don’t know how you got so wrecked off that shit,”Rodney said tossing me the vial and rubbing his nose. “That coke is trash.”
This story is a response to the one-word prompt Complicated.
Now try this: The Installer – Short Story
Mama noticed I was crying when she came to tuck me in.
“Papa said I was unusual,” I told her.
She sat on the side of the bed and caressed my face, drying my tears. “That wasn’t a very nice thing for Papa to say, was it?”
I shook my head. She sighed and looked at me for long minutes ruffling my hair and petting my face.
“Just remember this when you have children,” she said. “Remember that words can hurt too.”
I nodded and she sang me a lullaby. Then she smiled and said, “You know, Papa wasn’t wrong. You really are a weird little bastard.”
I drifted off to sleep. Mama always knew just what to say.