Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Old School

I was driving along the back roads of our town. I had a passenger in the car with me, a ninety year old woman hunched under a dark hood, only her jaw and the hook of her nose visible.  As we passed by an elementary school, she suddenly spoke up in a voice that creaked like a door that hadn't been opened in years.  She said that she had been a teacher at that school a long time ago.  I nodded and looked over at the school.  It was just a small, one story, brick building.  Across the school yard, on the far side of the building, there was a road which led directly off from the school property.  I could read the sign that was fixed in the ground at the start of the road.  It said "Lathymore Road."  Something struck me as cold and sinister about this road and the dark leafless branches of the trees which formed an arch at its entrance, like claws with long scratching nails.

My passenger explained the source of my misgivings.  She said that there used to be a facility down that road where they would take the children who habitually misbehaved and they would perform lobotomies on them in order to make them a bit more manageable.  She told me that the rest of the children didn't know the exact nature of what went on down that road, but there were rumors.  At recess they would stay far away from the entrance to the road and play their games on the other side of the school yard.  So the road became a forbidding place, overcast with the stale air of suspicion and neglect.

The woman spoke again and I could hear the emotion in her voice from somewhere cold and far off.  She said, "I remember that first day of school every year.  I would stand at the window of my classroom and watch as the mothers brought their children across the yard.  They would be smiling.  The children would be smiling.  None of them knew that before the day was out I would be sending at least eight or nine of the children down Lathymore."  And then she was done and her head fell forward.  I could see that beyond the scratching branches there were houses on Lathymore now, and I had to assume that the facility that she spoke of had either been abandoned long ago or had probably even been torn down.  Those dark days were far behind.  But I had to wonder if there were ever nights when the wind blew a certain way, and the people in those houses would have that sudden chill and that same hint in the air of something terribly wrong.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Grains of Sand

I lived down on the ocean that summer.  The sun seemed fixed far out and low over the waves in the afternoon sky, never moving.  A thin veil of haze passed across its surface, dimming it to a pale white that was softer on the eyes, and yet everything under its light was drained of color like an old foreign movie.  I was staying in a high rise apartment building that was right down on the waterfront.  A tall monument rising out of the sand with walls made entirely of glass, you could see every floor, layer upon layer, and the people within, silent marionettes performing all the endless variations of the waltz of life.

There was a blonde that I went to school with living a few floors above me.  I dropped by to see her.  She lay on a lounge chair in the middle of the living room, wearing a black bikini and basking in the sun.  There was no need to leave the apartment; the sunlight came right through the glass.  She looked just the same to me.  She lifted her sunglasses and smiled up at me and spoke in french with subtitles.  She told me that she had been here all the while, staying fit, eating healthy, the hour never advancing.  I took this in as I looked out the window at the sun and at the long, deep shadows cast by every object in the grey room.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Falling Stars

There was a carnival down on the town's square with games and concessions set up all along the street.  I went down there on a Saturday morning.  There was a booth where a man did amazing things with soap bubbles.  I stopped and watched as he blew a bubble for a little girl in a brown coat who stood before the booth in rapt anticipation.  He blew the bubble in the shape of a toy soldier.  I could make out the shape of the tall hat and the bayonet slung over its shoulder.  He just kept blowing the bubble bigger and bigger.  It grew up higher than the surrounding buildings on the square.  It grew up higher than the ferris wheel spinning across the way.  It stretched high into the sky and the little girl strained to look up, but it grew higher than she could see.  It grew to fifty thousand feet or more.  It grew beyond the blue sky, out into space, towering over our tiny little planet.  Then, unable to keep its shape in the void of space, it finally burst, raining down in droplets of flickering light.  The little girl giggled ecstatically as she raced around in circles, trying to catch the falling stars.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Bugs

Some men in suits and sunglasses showed up on my doorstep one day.  They took me to a secluded compound out in the wilderness, where they had me working long days in a lab, providing only occasional breaks for walks around the property trailed by armed escorts that kept their distance.  There was this one big, old tree that I liked, out at the far corner of the fence line.  I always passed by it on my walks.  It was a great place to stop and rest and think.  Somehow staring at the tree and its gnarled roots helped me focus my mind and sort out the problems I was working on.

In the few months that I had been working in the lab, I had helped create a system that would allow all the governments of the world to monitor everyone on Earth, wherever they were, whatever they were doing, twenty four hours a day.  I had developed the system by reverse engineering software from an exterminating company that combined motion tracking with surveillance technology.  The system gathered a database by marking, coding, and cataloging everything that moved.  It had been designed to track cockroaches; now it would track humans.  As far as implementation was concerned, there was little difference.

I had misgivings about my role on all of this, of course.  I didn't want to see everyone constantly monitored any more than anyone else did.  But I felt better somehow, being involved.  Someone was going to do this, and at least I could be there to make sure it was done right.  Plus, being on the inside of the project had given me the chance to design a glitch into the software that would be accessible through a back door in the program.  That way I could crash the whole thing if it started getting out of control.  I just had to keep this glitch a secret, and pass it on to my successor, and they could pass it along to someone, and they would have to safeguard it though the generations, until it came time to bring the system down.  I turned from the tree and nodded to the guards.  I was ready to get back to work.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Late Night Television

I found a brittle newspaper clipping tucked away in the pages of an old book.  It was a news article about a tragedy that had occurred on set during the filming of an episode of a popular black and white science fiction show from the 1950's.  The episode was called "The Last Race."  The exact details of the tragedy were extremely vague and enigmatic.  The article just mentioned that something had happened in the background of a shot.  It didn't say how or when or what.  But I was quite familiar with the show, and I watched reruns of it nearly every night before I went to bed.

One night as I was brushing my teeth, the episode in question aired.  I sat down on the corner of the bed and leaned towards the TV to better scrutinize the screen.  "The Last Race" was one of the later episodes in the show's run, and the show's failing budget was apparent in the episode's extremely simple composition.  The episode consisted almost entirely of a wide shot of a small winding race track lit up with flood lights at night as race cars zipped around the tight turns.  The story was supposed to be set some time in the future, involving a final race for the fate of humanity.

At one point in the story one of the drivers wrecked his car.  The episode cut to shots of him leaning against a rail at the side of the track where he had crawled away from the wreckage.  These shots were the only other shots in the episode besides those of the race track.  At one point, near the end of the episode, the driver delivered a climatic monologue grasping at all the potentials of mankind lost to trivial and barbaric spectacles, establishing the rather labored twist that the last race was actually the human race.  And that's when I saw it.

In the background of the monologue shot, just beyond the floodlights that shone on the injured driver, there was a crowd of extras gathered behind the track's railing.  These people were there to represent the audience watching the race.  In the middle of the driver's monologue, just at the very edge of the frame, I saw a distraught woman that seemed to stand out from the crowd.  Rather than cheering on the racers, as the extras were presumably instructed to do, she looked about frantically, clutching at a handkerchief.  Then she looked directly at the camera with tormented eyes.  It was that way that she stared at the camera that really caught my attention and made her stand out.  I could see that something was horribly wrong.

Then, driven by who knows what inner turmoil, the woman unexpectedly climbed the rail and ran out onto the track.  All of this transpired in soft focus at the corner of the screen.  I might never have noticed it if I hadn't been looking.  As the woman ran out of the shot, I could see the flicker of the headlights of the cars zipping by out of frame.  Then an arm from the crowd reached out frantically after the woman and the fingers of the hand curled into a claw as though something had slipped beyond their reach.  I could only see the arm and the hand, but it wasn't difficult to piece together what had happened.

The episode continued with no acknowledgement of what had transpired in the background.  After the driver had delivered his speech, he slumped limply against the railing, having apparently expired.  Just at the moment that he died, just at the exact moment, the woman appeared again in the background behind the rail, standing still and staring towards the camera with those same tormented eyes.  And then in a blink she was gone.  It was as though her image had been inserted into a single frame, just as the driver was dying.  Maybe an editor had grabbed a shot of the woman from earlier footage in a clumsy attempt to try to smooth over what had happened and to maintain continuity.

I didn't know what to make of it, but I found the whole thing very unsettling, especially that final out of place image of the woman.  I couldn't get it out of my head.  I decided to go downstairs to get something to drink, but all the lights were off down there.  I crept down the stairs, still shaken by that uncanny feeling.  It was pitch black.  I couldn't see anything.  I stumbled around in the dark, trying to find a light switch along the wall.  But when I flicked the switch it did nothing.

I started to panic.  I felt like there was something down there in the dark with me, staring at me as the woman had stared into the camera.  I kept trying switches but nothing worked.  I felt my way along the walls and the furniture, contoured shapes in the blackness.  I gave up on trying to find a switch that worked.  I just wanted to get back upstairs.  I found my way back to the staircase.  I could feel the rough carpeting along each step as I climbed up on my hands and knees.  I lifted my head to look to the top of the stairs, where I should have been able to see the light from the bedroom.  I saw nothing.  Just more blackness.  I knew then that it wasn't the switches.  It was me.  I had been stricken blind.                   

Friday, October 9, 2015

Cigarette Butts

I went to work on a farm that fall.  I was sixteen, young and full of energy.  It was a cool and cloudy afternoon, and I had on my blue jean jacket.  There was a lively bustle about the place.  From the barn I could hear the hiss of steaming water through the screen door of the kitchen up at the house and the washing of the dishes dirtied from lunch.  I could hear the machinery out in the fields.  I was hanging up a pitchfork on a peg when I saw a long black car come down the gravel driveway.  It was my uncle, stopping by to see me.  It was break time just then and everyone came up from the fields to smoke and sit by the trees around the house. 

My uncle had borrowed my cigarettes and he tossed the pack to me.  I fumbled the pack trying to catch it and spilled about half the cigarettes out on the ground.  I went to pick one up and light it, but it broke in my hand.  The workers around me all laughed.  I tried to pick up another and suffered the same result.  As I kept trying to pick them up, the cigarettes grew older and stale and dirty, no longer freshly fallen from the pack, until finally I found myself picking up nothing but the crushed and spent butts that had been long scattered around the yard.

The laughter around me dispersed as though carried off on the wind.  I raised myself up on old, tired, and cracked joints and there was no one around me.  My uncle and the workers were gone like ghosts.  The barn and the house were empty, long deserted and collapsing into ruin.  The sun poked through a cloud and shone in a cracked upstairs window of the house in diminished radiance as the day went cold and wasted silence prevailed.  The cigarette butt in my hand had been extinguished ages ago, in completely different days gone by.  I tossed it back to the ground.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Landlady's Son

I rented out a room in the last house at the end of the street.  A tired older woman with deep lines on her face lived there with her only son, a chubby little boy who was about six years old.  His brown hair was always slick and smoothed to the side as though his mother was constantly combing it.  He would often stare up at me as I climbed the creaky stairs to my room.  Whenever I was late with the rent, whenever I had rowdy friends over making too much noise, whenever I came stumbling in at two in the morning and woke this woman up, she would take her anger out on her son.  She would hit him and beat him for anything that I did.
Once, she burst in on a poker game that I was having with my friends and found us all puffing away on cigars, which she had strictly forbidden.  She marched the boy into the room in front us and made him hold out his right hand.  She made us watch as she took his fingers and broke them one by one.  We could see the boy trembling as she started with the thumb.  There was a loud snap and he cried out in pain and fidgeted all about, but he didn't even try to run off.  She held him firmly by the wrist and moved on to the index finger.  She took each finger systematically in turn.  The boy's lip quivered as she took his pinky and scowled at us.  We sat there still.  Even the cigar smoke didn't seem to stir.

It went on like this for weeks.  She hurt the boy in nearly every possible way.  Finally, I came down the stairs one day and she brought him in from the dining room in a wheelchair.  She had crippled him for life for the things that I'd done.  The boy sat crumpled and broken in the chair.  I looked up at the mother through my tears.  "How can you do this?  He never did anything.  I did all of it.  Why does he have to pay for it?"  Her face went red.  She didn't say a word.  She just slapped the boy as hard as she could across his cheek.  His head rolled from the blow but he didn't even seem to hardly feel it.  He slumped in the chair and stared off blankly at the wall.

I knew then that I had to leave.  I went to my room and got my things.  I made up the bed and put everything just as it was when I had moved in.  I straightened the table and chairs and fastened the window latch.  I wanted to leave this woman no cause to complain.  I took a long deep breath of fresh air on the walk out front.  The woman had wheeled the boy to the front window and I could see him there, watching the rain drip from the tree in the yard, watching me as I went.        

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Routes to Work

I was working a new job, and on my coffee break I got to talking to this woman I worked with about different routes we took to get to the office in the morning.  I made a hissing face when she mentioned the way that she went, because I knew that it involved driving down a very steep incline along a narrow set of metal pipes and there was a sharp turn at an elbow pipe junction just at the bottom of this incline.  I told her about the way I took, which was a little less tricky, although you had to go all the way around a complete vertical loop and you could fall at the top if you didn't have enough momentum.

As we were having this conversation, I was picturing all these different ways and routes in my head.  I could see it clearly, but then in my mind's eye I pulled back from the scene and I could see that it was all just a lonely little playground with scattered patches of thawed snow among the wet leaves.  The pipes and rusted bars that made up our routes were part of the swing set and the merry-go-round and the rest of the playground equipment.  The cars that we had driven to work were just diecast toys in the hands of little kids in woolen winter hats, their noses running as they made revving noises with their lips and pushed the cars along.