A clanging ruckus shook Jason out of his sleep. At first, he wondered if his roommate had once again come in late, but Omar’s bed lay vacant. He lowered himself onto the floor and tiptoed out of his room. The metallic banging came again. He stumbled barefoot out of his room, stepped on something sharp in the hallway, and hopped on his uninjured foot towards the dormitory’s kitchen. Jason clicked on the bright light, half-expecting to find a cat knocking things off the counter. He blinked and covered his mouth with his hand.
Huddled in the corner beside the dish washer, Chad Rodgers lifted a stainless-steel mixing bowl and dropped it into a larger one. The cacophony filled the room once again.
Chad’s pale skin glistened with sweat. Dark circles lined his bloodshot eyes. The athlete’s movements seemed labored, but he was determined to bang the bowls together again. He showed no sign of noticing another human being standing over him until Jason wrenched the bowl away. Chad hissed like a defensive possum.
“What are you doing?” Jason hefted the bowl onto a shelf as Chad reached for it with childlike neediness. “You’re going to wake the other guys.”
Jason noticed how his friend’s pupils were dilated. He placed a palm to Chad’s forehead as a mother might. The warmth radiating from Chad caused Jason to withdraw his hand in moments. “What’s wrong, Chad?”
Standing, Jason reached into his pocket for a cell phone only to realize he was still wearing pajamas. “I’ll be right back.”
In the hallway, he bumped into the floor’s Resident Assistant. “What’s that noise all about? People are trying to sleep!”
“It’s Chad. There’s something wrong with him. I think we need to get him to a hospital. You have your phone on you?”
Jason snatched the device out of the R.A.’s hand and called the emergency number. After relaying what symptoms he had observed, the operator asked whether Chad had taken any drugs.
“Chad? No way. He’d lose his basketball scholarship.”
“Don’t cover for your friend, young man. If you know something and you don’t tell us, that could endanger his life. You’d be responsible if—”
“I swear I don’t know of any drugs! Would you just send someone?”
The same commotion of abused mixing vessels sounded. Jason gave the operator the dorm’s location and hung up. He dashed back to the kitchen where Chad had decided to wear one bowl as a helmet while striking it with a metal spoon.
“It’s broken! It’s broken! It’s broken!” Chad chanted the words between swats with the spoon.
“What’s broken?” Jason asked as he attempted to wrestle the spoon away.
“It is!” Chad declared.
“I think his mind’s broken,” the R.A. muttered.
“Chad, did you take anything? Drugs? Medicine? Anything?”
“Your nose looks all shiny, Rudolph.” Chad fell back into peals of laughter. He sounded like a toddler telling a joke no one could decipher.
“I need you to focus, Chad!” Jason grabbed the sides of his friend’s face so that their eyes would have to meet. “Tell me what happened.”
Chad’s tongue lolled out. “Bet you can’t say thunder cracker five times fast!”
“Yep. Definitely his mind.”
Jason could not disagree, though he wished the R.A. could come up with something helpful to say or do. His brain swam laps but came up with nothing better. “Tell me what broke, Chad. Maybe we can fix it.”
Chad turned his head and smiled at some invisible object to his right. “The itsy-bitsy spider went up the water’s house. Down came the rain and washed the spider’s mouse. Out came the sun that dried up all the grain. And the itsy-bitsy spider ate up my big fat brain!”
“This is useless!” Jason felt a jab in his stomach. “He’s delirious.”
Ten minutes of Chad’s raving brought out every dorm resident. Most demanded a return to silence. A few asked what they could do to help. Three recorded video of the chaos and uploaded it to NAYA. Another five minutes later, paramedics arrived to take stock of the situation. They strapped Chad to a stretcher and loaded him into the back of an ambulance.
“You ever see anything like this before?” Jason asked.
“Did he take any hallucinogens?” The paramedic frowned as he prepared to close the back door to the vehicle.
“I don’t think so.” Jason shook his head. “He keeps saying that ‘it’s broken.’ I don’t know if that—”
“We need to get going.”
Once the ambulance door cut off any further information, Jason watched as the emergency vehicle drove away. The siren blared, and red and white lights flashed through the midnight’s dark.
Jason found a seat in the auditorium next to Carter Maguire. They were two of the only thirty students present. Considering Ploford College accepted over two thousand freshmen every year, Jason felt a surge of anger passed through him. The man worked here for decades. Surely there should be more mourners. “Thanks for coming along.”
Carter nodded but made no other reply. Of Jason’s friends, he was the only one whose first reaction to Dr. Vellion’s death had been sober. Rather than commenting on how Jason would have one fewer class to worry about now, Carter had asked how he could help. They say a crisis is the best way to judge a person’s character.
On stage, a short, balding man stepped up to the podium. Unlike Dr. Vellion, this man appeared far from frail, having the physique of a boxer. He even had a scar over his left eye that could have been an old battle wound. Contrary to the man’s imposing stature, he spoke in a soothing tone. “Good evening. For those who do not know me, I’m Dr. Rovain, economics professor at – well that’s not what’s important here. We were colleagues, Dr. Vellion and I. Colleagues and friends. So I wanted to thank you all for coming tonight. And I’m sure that Conrad’s daughter, Lilly, shares that sentiment.”
Dr. Rovain gestured to a woman in her thirties seated off to stage left. She raised a tissue to her nose and nodded.
“Dr. Vellion was a very particular man. One of my first memories of him – we were at a staff mixer before freshmen orientation several years ago. And no one was mingling with anyone outside their departments. I guess that’s a pretty easy habit to fall into. Well, Conrad stood up and recited the definition of the word ‘mixer’ as it is found in the Webster dictionary. He may have even known the language of origin. But he didn’t stop there. No, Conrad always had a purpose behind his every word. He spoke to us about the benefits of mixing in with people of different experiences. How history looks favorably on the practice. And then he pulled out a spinner and had us all playing Twister. Think of that. He coerced us serious-minded academics into an old children’s game to literally mix us up together.”
The small crowd chuckled at the image. Given Dr. Vellion’s typical curmudgeon’s mood, Jason had difficulty imagining his 73-year-old professor in that scenario.
“To Conrad, history was not just a subject to teach. He scoured our world for meaningful patterns and stories. Meaningful not for twelve-page papers for students to half-research. Rather, meaningful for students’ lives beyond their college years. I can only hope that Dr. Vellion’s students appreciated him to the utmost. He was brilliant. Aggravating to a fault. One of the best friends I’ve ever—” Dr. Rovain’s voice cracked. “Ploford College will miss him.”
The chamber echoed with the sound of the economics professor’s retreating footsteps. Someone several rows behind Jason coughed. After half a minute of silence, Lilly stepped up to the microphone. “This all comes as such a shock to me I—” She looked down at a sheet in front of her. The paper shook in her hand. “I don’t have the words for this. My dad – wasn’t the same after my mom – well, she’s another story. I think I should open the floor to anyone who wants to share their memories of my father.”
Jason edged forward on his seat. What would I even say? I knew him for maybe three weeks. That’s it. And my biggest interaction with him ended with me punching a wall after he called me a coward. What am I supposed to do with that? I can’t repeat that story in front of the college’s entire faculty. That would be ludicrous. Not understanding his own motivations, Jason stood from his seat and walked to line up by the stairs.
Three of Dr. Vellion’s fellow history professors gave speeches about how honored they were to have worked with the deceased. Jason thought they sounded sincere, but the words all rang with an atmosphere of obligation. Next came Jason’s turn. He lowered the microphone to his level. His first attempt to speak resulted in a feedback loop that prompted the audience to cover their ears.
“I’m Jason Ramos. I first met Dr. Vellion a few weeks ago when classes began. I don’t have much to say about him except – well, he was the first professor here who took a real interest in who I was. He challenged me. Made me want to become a better version of – I wish I had a chance to know him better. This place just won’t be the same without him.”
Upon returning to his seat, Jason felt his friend pat him on the shoulder. As yet another professor delivered a clinical assessment of Ploford College’s loss, Jason turned to Carter and asked if he had made a fool of himself. Carter shook his head.
Dante Fosse loosened his tie. His self-critique led him to abandon the silk adornment altogether. Who in their right minds decided a noose is fashionable? He smiled as wide as he could, his gleaming teeth displaying a lifetime’s worth of careful dental hygiene. Even so, he walked away with slumped shoulders.
“I’m not going.” Dante ran a hand over his short-cropped hair.
Crystal gazed at him as if he had announced his intention to join a monastery. “What? Are you crazy? This is all you’ve been talking about the last two days.”
Nodding, he shrugged as he sauntered over to his sister. “I know. I’m not in the right mood. After everything I’ve seen today—”
“Today?” Crystal’s eyes bulged. “Are you kidding me? You’ve seen worse I’m sure.”
“Worse than a murder?” Dante shook his head and walked back into the bathroom. “There’s a difference between studying crime scene photos and witnessing firsthand the result of such – such violence! That poor, old man didn’t even have a face anymore!”
Her hand rested on his shoulder. He shivered at the unexpected touch. Looking into his sister’s eyes he found warmth that reassured.
Crystal injected her words with sympathy. “If it was really that horrible, I’m sure Alyssa will understand. You can always reschedule these things, but is this really the message you want to send? Your profile makes you out to be this tough cop ready to take on the world and—”
“Then show her. You care about the people you’re sworn to protect, and you don’t have the weak stomach of some wannabe who runs at the first sign of actual trouble!”
Dante glared at his sister. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Crystal backed away a step. “Then talk to someone who does. I just worry that if you let your job interfere now, you’ll never be able to start a romantic relationship.”
“I tried.” Dante frowned at the memory. “My partner – Wexler – she’s such a tough customer. Never seems to let anything get to her. I asked her how she can keep going after all she sees. All she’d say was, ‘Don’t let it get to you, Dante.’ What does that even mean? What even would be the first step in that process?”
Shaking her head, Crystal rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Then find someone else. The department must have a counselor on the payroll. Whatever you do, do not let this become your excuse.”
“Alright.” He gritted his teeth.
“She’s gonna love you, Dante.”
He stopped short, as if in panic. “Love? A bit early for that, don’t you think?”
“Oh, you know what I mean.”
“Do I, though?” Dante allowed the grin to show through. When his sister noticed, she gave him a playful smack on the arm. Their laughs mingled as he at last headed for the garage. “Don’t wait up for me.”
“Don’t worry. I won’t.”
Dante’s car started once he applied his thumb to the print reader. It had been one of the few upgrades he could afford on his salary. As an officer of the law, however, he had to prioritize safety over air conditioning. The mufflers rumbled as he pulled onto the street. Tapping out a beat on his steering wheel, he did all he could to think of anything other than the crime scene and the sticky mess of dried blood that had splattered everywhere.
Most television shows about cops feature a murder-of-the-week, so dealing with violent crime had not been that much of a shock. His academy training featured classes that prepared cadets for approaching homicides. He knew all the department’s protocols and investigative tactics. But there was a difference between reading a textbook and walking into a crime scene, not expecting a mutilated corpse.
Dante kept replaying the dispatch call in his head. There had been no warning of the mess he would have to walk into. He steeled himself as his mind rebelled against his need to clear out all these memories. Don’t let it get to you, Dante. But how?
Upon arriving at Caidella’s Caribbean Cuisine, Dante checked his reflection one last time. He wiped away a few drops of sweat before exiting the vehicle. Mom would’ve liked this choice, taking pride in my Jamaican heritage. I wonder what she’d think of me dating a white girl, though. The waitress, a squat woman in her mid-forties, greeted him at the door with a familial smile despite never having met Dante. Then she seated him at a pristine table for two. He had twelve minutes to glance over the menu before Alyssa Gram arrived. Standing, he grinned at the woman. Her wavy, blonde hair swayed as if it belonged in a shampoo commercial. Her dark eyes looked almost as black as her pupils.
“Hi, I’m Dante. Glad to finally meet you, Alyssa.”
“Uh, huh. Yeah. Sure.” She sat at the table without giving him a second glance.
Did I say that in a weird voice? Dante brushed the wrinkles out of his shirt as he sat. “Have you ever been here before?”
“Huh?” Alyssa busied herself with her phone, flicking through messages.
“I hear the jerk pork is a real treat here.”
“Jerk? Why would you even say that? That’s so rude.”
“No, no. I wasn’t calling you a – you know, it doesn’t really even matter. I’ll just let you look through the menu yourself.”
After a half minute, Alyssa stowed her device in her purse. “Sorry, Dante. I must seem like a spaz. I’ve just had the worst day ever. You would not even believe.”
“Why? What happened?”
Alyssa’s eyes lit up. “Okay, so I was out last night, and my MUSE wires fell out while I was crossing the street. Right in the middle of my song. Well, they got run over by some jerk. So today, I had to go to a Questae provider for a replacement. The wait for someone to help me? It lasted, like, two whole hours! Can you believe it? Two! And when they got to me, they were out of the color I wanted. Terrible luck, right?”
You’re kidding me. That’s this girl’s idea of the worst day ever? “Oh. Okay. I guess that might be a little frustrating.”
“A little? It should be a crime against humanity. I should have you go arrest them for being so cruel. I mean, it must be breaking the Constitution or something.”
“Yeah. You know. We have the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Dante clapped his palm to his face. “That’s the Declaration of Independence.”
“Who are you? The civics police?”
Standing up, Dante looked down at Alyssa. “Look, I don’t think this is going to work out. I need to go.”
“But what about our date? I was looking forward to it.”
“Well, now you can look back on it. Because it’s over.”
Dante turned around and walked to the exit. All the while, he heard Alyssa raising a great stink because she had not eaten yet and had not brought money with her to pay her own way. She screamed that he was an ass. He sighed, disappointment setting in as the restaurant’s door closed behind him.
Hey! Ron Brianson here. When I started Questae, Inc., I hoped for success, but I never anticipated just how fast the market would clamor for what we make. In our ever-changing world, technology is brand new one day and obsolete the next. And that always concerned me. What do we do with the flip phones and clunky desktop computers that no one uses anymore? Where do they go? Responsible consumers take them to recycling centers. But how many people even know those exist? Our society’s obsession with obtaining the newest model leaves the old in a landfill to pollute our planet.
From the very beginning, I wanted to alter the mindset of the industry. How can we sell a product that will not add to our environmental problems? That, I think, has made all the difference. Rather than worry about carrying around a 14-inch computer everywhere, the customer’s brain becomes the computer. Some would argue that it has been an organic computer from the very beginning, so this transition, adding a technological component to the center of our being, felt natural to us.
Once the MPlant started to sell, we of course had to construct expansions. Who needs five different social media accounts? So, we built a streamlined platform that has it all. NAYA lets people do everything they would have done on the old social media sites, whether posting pictures, writing comments, or sharing news. It also has automatic guards in place to eradicate any hurtful content and false information. For many parents, this product has saved lives as it can act as a GPS locator for lost or kidnapped children.
Last year, we put out our most successful expansion to date, the Music Ultimate Sensory Experience. MUSE is the only system with access to every song ever produced and transferred to a digital format. Everything from “Buffalo Soldier” to “Defying Gravity” and “Back in Black” to “Du Hast.” Rather than destroy eardrums with earbuds, we plug the music right into the brain. You get all the benefits of enjoying music without the risk of hearing loss.
So how do we top that, you ask? Coming this holiday season, is the MUSE-L. The Music’s Ultimate Sensory Experience – Luxury edition comes in five new colors, including my favorite, aquamarine. In addition, we have better targeted the pleasure center of the brain. Our users will feel a sense of contentment with every use. We at Questae, Inc. know that you will crowd the nearest communications stores for more details. Just remember to recycle your outmoded products to receive a 15 percent discount on the purchase of your next Questae product.
This message, paid for by Questae, Inc. Offers and products not available in all regions. See your local communications stores for details. Uploaded to NAYA September 16.
Nothing in the dining hall appealed to Jason. He wondered why he had come for breakfast since he usually skipped it. As he stared down at the tray of hash browns under a heat lamp, he felt a light shove from behind. Surprised, Jason dropped his empty plate, allowing it to clatter against the floor.
“Woah. Wake up, man.”
Jason glanced behind to see Chad standing there, adding a spoonful of hash browns beside the apple, a pile of sausage, and hard-boiled eggs already covering most of the basketball player’s plate.
“What? I’m not angry with you for ditching me yesterday.” Chad popped a grape into his mouth and chewed as he spoke. “Even if you did stay for that long-toothed Neanderthal. You have parents who care whether you get on the Dean’s list. I get it.”
Jason moistened his lips, searching for the right response. Whatever it should have been, the words eluded him.
“What are you planning to eat? Air?” Chad walked away without waiting for an answer. “Meet me at our table, okay?”
Preoccupied, Jason reached out to add a few food items to his plate. The ingredients were a haphazard mush of disparate dishes he could no longer identify. His stiff legs took robotic steps to join his friend.
“I’ve had the weirdest morning.” Jason shook his head.
“Ah, so you heard how that old motormouth bit it, huh?” Chad smirked.
Jason forgot how to breathe for a few seconds. “Chad? Why would you—”
“Oh, come on, dude. You know what kind of man he was. A waste of our tuition dollars, if you ask me. Couldn’t even get a glass of orange juice to concentrate.”
Jason’s heart thudded.
Chad picked up a sausage link and ripped off a chunk with his teeth. “They sent out a cop to ask me some questions this morning. I hope you don’t mind. I said I was with you. After spending all day tearing it up on Troll Smashers, I didn’t really have anyone who could say I wasn’t anywhere near that old goat’s toll bridge.”
“You used me for an alibi?”
“’Course. I’d do the same for you. All you need to do is remember when the broad comes out to ask you questions, make sure you back my play.”
Jason stopped his fork a few inches from his open mouth. He dropped it onto the floor along with the speared bit of ham on its tines.
“Wow, J. You’re dropping everything. Stay away from stained glass today.”
“Um. Is there a way you could say you mixed up who was with you?”
“No way. I practically had to swear on every translation of the Bible that it was you gaming with me all night. Why?”
“I think I’m gonna be sick.”
Chad waved a dismissive hand. “You haven’t even taken a bite. You look a bit pale, but that’s no biggie. So, are you gonna help me out or not?”
“I can’t.” Jason’s big eyes pleaded for forgiveness.
For once, Chad did not have a ready answer. “You – you can’t? Is that it?”
“She already found me this morning. I told her the truth.”
“You sold me out?” Chad’s eyes blazed.
Stunned stammers attempted to negate the claim. “How could I have – I didn’t – I – but she came to my – didn’t know until now—”
“We’re supposed to be buddies, Ramos. I guess now I know what that means to you.” Chad picked up his plate and stormed off to discard his half-eaten meal.
Jason’s head dropped into his hands, inches above his food. All he needed now was for someone to push his face into the mush, and his morning would be complete. Minutes later, he sensed somebody approach and heard a chair across the table scoot out over the carpeted floor.
“Morning, Jason. What’s that you’ve got there?”
He looked up to see Mary Crest. In typical Crest fashion, she wore a loose-fitting plaid shirt and jeans. A black knit cap covered her short black hair. The oatmeal in her bowl had the look of drying plaster. She took a picture of her breakfast and uploaded it to the social media platform, News Access + Your Activities, more popularly known as NAYA.
“It’s a big mess.” He sighed.
Mary smirked at the glop on his tray. “I can see that. I was wondering if you were constructing modern art over here. Are you okay?”
“Ever feel like you wish you could skip a whole day and save yourself the trouble.”
Mary’s eyes glanced at the ceiling for ten seconds before answering. “Nope.”
“Someone killed Dr. Vellion last night.”
Mary swallowed hard on her oatmeal. After a cough, she asked, “Killed? What? How is that not campus-wide by now?”
“Give it a few hours.”
“Man, I’ve gotta put this on NAYA. My MPlant’s gonna blow up with all kinds of notifications when my parents see it. So much for a small school being safe for their precious little girl.”
Jason slapped the table. “How can you be so glib, Mary? He was one of my professors!”
“Look, I’m sorry. I’m sure he was a great guy. But I’ve never even laid eyes on Dr. Hellion.”
“Sure. Him. But you can’t expect me to feel much when I’ve never met the guy. People get murdered every day. Am I supposed to cry about them all to prove I have a smidge of decency?”
Standing to leave, Jason mumbled under his breath, “Maybe we should.”
“Aren’t you gonna finish your breakfast?”
“I can’t stomach another bite.” He picked up his tray and dumped his food into the rubbish bin. His empty stomach murmured, reminding him he would have needed to consume at least one bite to have “another.”
Jason Ramos heard the knock on his dorm room door and growled. He glanced at the clock and wondered why anyone would disturb him on a Saturday morning before 8:00. Flexing his stiff, right hand, he noticed his knuckles had gone a yellowish purple. After pulling on a pair of pants, the trespasser hammered on his door again. Why does that have to be so loud? He massaged his forehead.
“I’ll be out in a moment,” he grumbled.
“Police! Open up.” It was a woman’s voice
An officer? Jason scanned the room and gulped. Not seeing any of his roommate’s contraband, he crossed the room and let himself out. Closing the door, he stationed himself between the cop and his room. “How can I help you, ma’am?”
Officer Wexler wore a dark blue uniform and cap. Unlike campus security, she had an air of authority about her that made Jason want to fade away into the background. “You are Jason Ramos, correct?”
“Yes. What’s this about?”
“I just need you to answer a couple questions. Could we step inside?”
Jason looked up and down the hallway. A few guys on the floor stared his way. He tried to glance at the carpet, but fear would not allow it. “Is that necessary?”
The officer’s eyes fixed on him with icy determination. It was a glare that said she would have her way no matter what. “I’m taking statements from Dr. Conrad Vellion’s students. Could we step into your room, sir?”
Jason stuttered as he opened the door and beckoned Officer Wexler inside. “Dr. Vellion? What do you want to know?”
Wexler took half a minute to appraise the dorm room before answering. She frowned. Her nose wrinkled at the musky scent of sweaty socks. “As I understand it, Mr. Ramos, you were involved in an altercation with the professor yesterday.”
“An – an altercation?” Jason tried to suppress a guffaw. “I’d hardly go that far.”
“Then describe it to me, Mr. Ramos.” The officer took out an electronic pad and stylus.
Jason ran a hand through the morning tangle on his head. He felt a jolt in his stomach. Realizing he had not thrown on a shirt to cover his scrawny torso, his cheeks colored. “Well it was mostly Chad. He – was making fun of the professor just as Dr. Vellion walked in. They exchanged words, Chad left, and I went to take my seat in class.”
“Dr. Vellion said Chad should leave and go waste his life with a video game or something like that. Chad called him a fool and left.”
“And that’s all that happened?” Officer Wexler peered at him the way his mother would when he claimed not to have touched the last piece of pumpkin pie in the fridge. “You didn’t talk to Dr. Vellion after that?”
“Well, I mean – he stopped me before I could leave for the dining hall. Wanted to talk to me about what Chad had said earlier.”
“What was your reaction to this talk?”
Jason pursed his lips and shook his head. “It was fine.”
Officer Wexler turned a page in her pad. “According to a witness, you left the lecture hall ‘distraught and angry.’ Says you punched a wall.”
Jason hid his right hand behind his back.
Officer Wexler raised an eyebrow. “Do you want to revise your statement, Mr. Ramos?”
Jason sighed. “Okay, so maybe fine isn’t the word. Sure, I was ticked. He called me a coward. No one’s ever – I just – I hated that I couldn’t convince myself he was wrong.”
“I see.” Officer Wexler scribbled. “And what did you do next?”
“I ate dinner and went to a party with some buddies.”
“How long were you there?”
“Wait. You’re asking questions about an alibi, aren’t you? What is this all about? Is Dr. Vellion alright?”
“No. I’m afraid not.” Officer Wexler looked up from her pad. “The professor was murdered in his home last night.”
Jason’s eyes widened. He could not shut his mouth. He sank into a nearby chair. “What? Why?”
The cop’s gaze softened along with her tone. “That’s what we’re trying to determine.”
“And you think – oh, crap! No! No way! I did not kill Dr. Vellion.”
“Then help us rule you out as a suspect. What time were you at this party?”
“It was right after dinner, so 6:30ish. I didn’t leave until 11:00. Maybe later.”
“Can you narrow those times any?”
“I wasn’t looking at a clock.” Jason heard his voice crack. “I just wanted to forget – to have a good time with my buddies.”
Officer Wexler nodded. “And these ‘buddies’ of yours have names?”
“Yeah. Sure. It was – uh – Mary Crest, Omar Lafferty, and uh – uh—” Jason snapped his fingers as if that would call the name to memory. “Carter Maguire.”
“Was Chad Rodgers among the ‘buddies’ at this party?”
“I didn’t see him there, but – you don’t think—”
“I’ll need your contact information in case I have any more questions.”
“Of course.” Jason shared his phone number and home address. “Home’s out of state, so I’ll still be here until Thanksgiving.”
“Do you have an MPlant?”
“What? No. Can’t afford the surgery. Or any of the other bits. Not if I want a college education, I mean. Mom says a phone plan is plenty expensive already, and—” Jason realized he was babbling. “Why?”
The corner of Officer Wexler’s mouth curved up. “It just makes transferring my contact from the pad to you a little faster. But in lieu of that, I want to give you my card. If you think of anything else, I want you to call me.”
“Right.” Jason held the card a foot away from his eyes and read the name “Becca Wexler” next to a picture the officer that must have taken five years before when there were fewer frown lines around her eyes and lips.
The officer left his room and closed the door. Jason folded his arms across his chest. His shaky breaths made him feel as though he were still under the officer’s scrutiny. Slimy sweat clung to his body. He knew a shower would make him feel better, but he could not stand on wobbly feet. And his heart thumped hard. Who could have – Why? This makes no sense.
Reggie’s first self-portrait belonged nowhere near the Louvre, let alone a small town’s art museum. He had drawn a large, wobbly circle two inches to the left of the paper’s center. With uncoordinated fingers, he sketched out a smiley face that looked as though the lips were made of a single strip of bacon. Four stick-thin limbs protruded out from the circle’s edge like stretched-out wire hangers. Despite his lack of any discernable artistic talent, Reggie’s parents cooed over the work their three-year-old rendered.
Five crayons in hand, Reggie scribbled a mess of goldenrod, emerald, red-violet, violet-red, and gray all over the portrait. His surreal self-representation bore little resemblance to himself, but he did not have the wherewithal to assess this failing. His mother framed the scrawled image in an aluminum frame.
“We’ll hang it right on the refrigerator,” she said. The frame’s magnet clicked against the appliance as she hummed. She imagined her son’s future, seeing patrons beg to support his work. In her mind, Reggie’s creations would be so evocative as to leap from the canvas.
In the following months, Reggie produced many works covering the silvery exterior of the fridge. With practice, most children demonstrate a modicum of improvement, but the child’s cats, dogs, cows, rabbits, and trees all looked about the same. His insistence upon scribbling unrealistic colors all over the parchments did little to help distinguish what Reggie drew. Days after creating anything, even he could not identify what the picture was meant to be.
In the ensuing months between Reggie’s fourth birthday and his preschool debut, Reggie continued his sloppy production of an ark’s worth of animals. By this time, the family’s refrigerator had few available spaces for new works. His mother wrinkled her brow at her husband’s suggestion to throw out a few.
“He won’t even notice.” He ripped off a picture that could have been a rock with arms and legs or an okapi. “He made this one two months ago. Why do we need to keep it?”
“Don’t you love your son?” The mother’s counter-argument and tears stunned the father into a guilty silence. “He’s going to be great one day. You’ll see. You’ll see!”
A few days into preschool, Reggie busied himself pressing playdough through a mold to make inedible pasta. When Miss Margie tried to stop him from dropping one of his manufactured noodles into his mouth, he screamed and kicked his teacher. The attack would not have been worth mentioning, except Reggie landed the blow at just the wrong time, causing Miss Margie to topple right onto him. Reggie’s head struck the floor hard, lodging the playdough in his throat.
Reggie gasped for air and thrashed about. Miss Margie scrambled to position herself to clear his airway. Her hands shook over his mouth. The pre-k teacher had to force herself to take a calming breath before she could pry his jaws open. No longer trembling, Miss Margie reached in with deft thumb and forefinger and pulled the playdough noodle free. She flicked away the soggy bit of clay and watched for her student’s chest to rise and fall.
Miss Margie bellowed an epithet when she realized Reggie had stopped breathing. She yelled out to a classroom aide to call 9-1-1. As she proceeded through the steps CPR training had taught her, two of her other students screamed. The other four began chanting their newly learned four-letter word as they bounced around the room. They did not know what the word meant, but they liked the way it sounded.
Half a minute later, Reggie coughed. His face regained its color, banishing the bluish tint that had begun to emerge. Miss Margie sighed and collapsed onto her back even as four toddlers chanted a word that would soon cause several parents to file a complaint against her. Reggie spent three days in the hospital following the incident with the playdough.
* * * *
Two years passed. In the intervening time, Mom grew troubled over the way her son’s behavior lacked consideration for safety. She had to hide anything that might harm the boy, stealing them from sight with practiced snatches. On one recent occasion, she had to stash a lighter in her purse before Reggie could ignite himself. She did not stop to think that her son might not be able to flick on the flame. The mere possibility mandated quick action. On the other hand, freaking out over cracked Easter Eggs might have been going a bit far.
Two days into first grade, he drew a new picture. If anything, the quality of his skills with a crayon had diminished so that each line appeared jagged as a cracked windshield. He had never held writing utensils with proper form, but now the implements seemed to rebel against Reggie’s every intent.
“What’s this sweetie?” Reggie’s mom spoke with a calm voice that conflicted with her frown and furrowed brow.
“It’s Crazy the Clown!” Reggie held up his picture of a mutilated circle containing a manic smiley face. He had chosen to smear the page with a scribbled mixture of burgundy, sepia, orange-red, and mahogany. “Isn’t it great?”
“Yes dear. Real great.” She patted her son on the head as she sighed. No longer enthusiastic about Reggie’s artistic endeavors, her mind raced through worst-case scenarios. She feared Miss Margie had allowed her son to suffer irreparable damage and pondered what that might mean for her boy’s future. “Would you like a juice box?”
“Yeah! I want a fruit punch, Mommy!”
“Is that how we ask for things?”
Reggie looked up at his mom with a blank stare. “I’m thirst, Mommy. Want a fruit punch.”
His mom let out a long breath. She carried his surreal rendering, the paper warbling in her unsteady grip. After hanging the picture on the fridge with a green clip magnet, she retrieved her son’s beverage and inserted the red-and-white striped bendy straw.
Ripping the fruit punch juice box from his mother’s hand, Reggie squirted the living room’s beige carpet with the sugary red liquid. The affected area stained like a blood-soaked crime scene.
“Reggie! Look what you just did!”
The boy blinked up at the ceiling rather than where his mother pointed. He giggled as he squeezed another ounce of juice out through the bendy straw. The liquid dribbled onto his hands.
Gnashing her teeth, Reggie’s mom stalked back into the kitchen and snatched up a handful of wet wipes. Reggie noticed what his mother clutched in her fist and dashed away. He dropped his juice box on the floor, leaving it to spill another puddle on the carpet.
“Don’t you dare touch that—” Reggie’s mother growled. “And you touched it.”
By the time Reggie’s internal engine ran low on fuel, he had laid sticky fingers on almost every surface in the house. Traces of sugary residue shown in child handprints all over the place, a tempting lure for ants. Reggie’s mom gripped her son by the wrist and scrubbed his hands with the wipes. She grunted and wrinkled her nose as she thought of the mess.
“Why do you have to be so obstinate?” Mom shook her head. “You just enjoy making everything difficult, don’t you?”
Reggie’s mom reached into her purse and withdrew her secret weapon for keeping her son preoccupied. The boy took the tablet with a smile as if he had not just burned off all available energy. With no other distractions to worry about, she began to disinfect the house and eradicate all evidence of the afternoon’s pandemonium. She could not figure out how Reggie had managed to smudge the windows and walls so high up considering he still needed some assistance climbing into cars. By the time Reggie’s dad came home from a day of fishing on his friend’s boat, Mom had only managed to revert a small fraction of the home back to its pristine state.
“Hey, Hun. Do we have any beers?” Dad often asked questions he could have answered with a little investigative work on his part.
“Didn’t you drink enough already?” Mom snarled the words as if preparing to hunt down her husband.
Reggie’s dad either missed the aggravation in his wife’s voice or hoped it would dissipate on its own. “No. Davy stocked up on some weird IPA that tasted like silage. Smelled even worse. Kept all the fish away too.”
“Whatever. Check the fridge.” Not caring a whit for her spouse’s sob story, she did not bother to look up from her work with removing carpet stains.
Dad considered the abruptness, blinked, and reached into the fridge. He appreciated the appliance’s chill far more than that emanating from his wife. After pulling out a bottle of Brewster’s Winter Ale, he slammed the door, twisted off the cap, and gulped down a third of the bitter beer. Lowering the bottle to waist-level, he stared at the fridge door and tilted his head to the side.
“What’s this supposed to be?”
Mom, busy with scrubbing the carpet with a bristle brush, thought her husband had been referring to the massive cleanup underway. “Reggie decided to juice our house.”
“Huh?” Dad could not take his eyes off the new paper hanging on the refrigerator. “No. I meant this.”
Mom at last took her eyes off her task and comprehended. “New picture from our burgeoning artist.”
“But what is it supposed to be? A snow hare blinking in a blizzard?” He lifted his beer to his mouth and downed a mouthful.
“Snow hare?” Wondering where that obscure guess had come from, Mom set the brush aside and marched over to her husband’s side. Her eyes bugged out. Every wax marking on the page had disappeared. If she had not known better, she might have thought someone had posted an unused sheet of copy paper. “What happened to Crazy?”
“He’s gone!” Mom ran fingers through her hair.
“Crazy!” Rubbing her forehead, Mom explained how Reggie had drawn a clown that afternoon before rampaging through the house like a spooked cat.
Dad gripped the bridge of his nose with thumb and forefinger. “Are you sure you put up the right paper?”
Mom stared down her nose at him. “What kind of moron do you think I am?”
Dad shrugged, his palms facing up. “I mean…I’m just saying…” He scratched his scalp as he glanced away from his wife’s increasingly lethal death glare.
“I know the difference between a blank page and one Reggie’s scribbled over.” Mom whispered the words through her teeth.
“Then how do you explain this?”
“I don’t know. How do you explain spending all day on a boat when you could’ve been home spending quality time with your son for once?” Dad groaned and stalked away, still hefting his beer. “You’re not allowed to make me feel guilty for making plans with friends. I’ve barely spent any time with Davy since—” He stopped himself from finishing the thought when he set eyes on his son. “How long has Reggie been on that tablet?”
Mom growled. “Did you miss the part where I said I had to clean up after his mess?
Their argument lasted all through dinner. Thanks to their preference for sarcasm over raised voices, Reggie took no notice of the dispute. Instead, he flicked peas on the ground with his spoon.
* * * *
On the following day, Reggie colored three new pictures. Although the only visible deviation from portrait to portrait was the color, the drawings portrayed an elephant, a tiger, and a lion tamer. Mom wondered where the circus motif had come from as she hanged each one on the refrigerator with floral magnets.
Minutes later, Dad called attention to Reggie’s new artwork. “Ridiculous. Why do you keep doing this? You can’t tell me you didn’t realize you put up three blank pages.”
“What?” Mom insisted she had done nothing of the kind and described each creature down to its mismatched eyes. “I know what I saw!”
“Look, I get that you’re feeling stressed.” Dad placed a hand on her shoulder, but she flinched away. He frowned. “Why don’t I take Reggie with me to the park? It’ll give you a chance to—”
“I’m not making this up!” As much as Mom liked the idea of a few moments of peace, she could not stand the thought of her husband doubting her sanity. “I watched Reggie draw on all three of these papers. Why can’t you believe me?”
Dad sighed and shook his head. “Hey, Reg! Come get your shoes and jacket. It’s a bit chilly out there. Only in the 60s.”
Sniffling, Mom watched her son scamper through the kitchen to the shoe rack by the laundry room. Dad and Reggie trooped out through the garage. At the sound of a car engine revving, she sighed.
Mom opened the kitchen cabinet over the microwave and felt around for a means of calming her mind. Unable to see what she grabbed, she pulled out a PAM spray can at first, which she returned to its place with a frustrated grunt. At last, she took out a rosé bottle with a calligraphed aardvark inked into the label. The wine from “Goode Grapecious Vineyards” may have been a cheap buy, but quality did not seem to matter much now.
The cap unscrewed, a scent of fermented grapes and fresh daisies wafted through the air. The wine trickled into her glass until it stood an inch below the brim. Little bubbles rose to the surface for a few seconds after Mom stopped pouring. She turned around and leaned against the counter, her purse to her back. As she brought the glass to her lips, the alcohol’s abrasive odor almost prevented her from taking a sip. She smacked her lips as the sweet, dry taste flowed across her taste buds.
Within minutes, Mom readied herself for a refill. Something like a squeaky trumpet blared right behind her. Her hand slipped on the wine glass’s stem. Shards scattered across the tile floor. Making use of Miss Margie’s infamous four-letter word, she stooped to pick up the largest fragments, careful not to cut herself on the sharp edges. She frowned at her wasteful carelessness and deposited the glass into the trash.
The second bugle blast started a ringing in Mom’s ears. She spun around and clapped a hand over her mouth, stifling her scream by ten percent. A seven-foot figure towered over her. Standing on two stick-thin legs, the thing’s frame looked like a squiggled circle slashed with random, unharmonious color. Small patches were transparent. Though it lacked a head, unfocused eyes beamed from the middle of its body.
“How is this possible?” Mom had never known of drawings coming to life, but arguing against undeniable evidence when it came close to staring her in the face never occurred to her.
Reggie’s “elephant” roared again, sounding more like a brass instrument than an actual pachyderm. Mom shrank away and gasped in pain as her bare right heel landed on two shards of glass. She lifted her leg and attempted to dislodge the splinters, but another voice caused her to drop her foot back onto the tiles. A smear of red painted the floor.
“Hey! Wanna hear a riddle?” A four-foot figure identical to the elephant in all but hues had appeared out of nowhere. It spoke in an exaggerated, cartoonish voice as if every word led to a punchline. “What do you call a boomerang that doesn’t come back to you?”
Mom rolled her eyes, having heard her husband tell this same dad joke at least five times since winter began. “A stick.”
“No! It’s a boom-away-ng! Get it? ‘Cause it goes away-ng!” Crazy the Clown giggled at his “cunning” answer and capered back and forth on his two unbending legs. A bike horn squawked, though Mom could not identify what had produced the sound. “How about another riddle? What do you call a fake noodle?”
Mom knew the answer to that one as well, but she had no intention of playing along with this drawn clown’s games. Especially if she would have to use the non-word “impasta.”
“Do you give up? It’s playdough!” Crazy said, dancing his jig again and sounding his invisible bike horn. Recalling her son’s near-death experience flashed through Mom’s mind, making her gasp. “One more strike and we feed you to the tiger!”
“What?” Mom’s voice squeaked. Her foot throbbed and her mind marathoned. “Lion tamer! Where are you?”
“Tiger thought he tasted good!” Crazy hooted a laugh that more than suited his name. The sound churned Mom’s blood. “Last riddle! What did the ocean say to the sailboat?”
Mom wracked her brain for the answer. Her husband had earned a groan or three from her the last time he had invited her onto Davy’s boat. After a solid minute of anxious thought and temple massaging, she had it. “Nothing. It just waved.”
“Incorrect!” Crazy’s gleeful guffawing brought out goosebumps. “The ocean said, ‘Don’t rock the boat!’ Get it?”
“No! That makes no sense!”
The clown lifted his curved arms in a shrug. “Oh, well. Time to make like tiger chow and feed our kitten!”
The elephant trumpeted a “Wah! Wah! Waaaah!” It kicked open the pantry door, bringing into view a third figure as grotesque as the first two. Snarling, it tottered toward her on two legs, flailing its upper extremities like a car’s antenna in a strong wind.
Whipping her head from side to side, Mom scanned for a means of defense. She grasped the only conceivable weapon within reach. The tiger’s large, potato-shaped body and slow steps made it an easy target. Mom hurled the Goode Grapecious Vineyards bottle, which struck the monstrous tiger between its disproportionate eyes. The bottle exploded on impact, releasing the remaining rosé to splash all over the crayon-rendered tiger.
At first, Mom thought her plan had failed, dooming her. The beast kept waddling like a penguin, inching closer and growling every second. But then she noticed how the scribbly colors began to bleed into one another. The tiger let out a curious roar as if wondering why it had started to wash away. Before long, the faux feline had transformed into a pile of waxy sludge.
The clown tittered. “Didn’t see that coming. Too bad you don’t have any more of that sour grape juice!”
Her triumph had been brief enough, and Crazy’s accurate observation proved she could not rely on one success guaranteeing anything. Mom thought through her options. She could outrun these animate drawings without too much difficulty, but that would leave anyone who came home at the psychotic clown’s mercy. Allowing any threats to her son to go unaddressed would not do. Plus, running with two pieces of glass poking through her foot would make every stride painful.
Then she remembered where she stood. The kitchen contained so many ways to eliminate creatures such as these. Baring her teeth in a determined grin, she formed her plan. All she needed was for the clown to come a little closer.
“Hey, Crazy? Want to hear a riddle?”
Crazy leapt into the air. “Do I ever? Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!”
“Why can you never trust a cloud with money?” Mom hoped this would work. She held her breath until the answer came.
“Because they don’t have pockets?” Crazy, for the first time, sounded unsure of himself. His bacon-shaped grin flattened.
“Nope. Because they like to make it rain!” She had to force herself to laugh at the joke. “That’s strike one! Take five giant steps forward.”
To her surprise, the clown complied. It stood just the right distance away.
“Second riddle. What do you call a pachyderm that never cleans its room?”
The clown giggled, his pitch rising with his anxiety. “A…um…umm…a dinosaur?”
Mom scoffed at the ludicrous response. “No. It’s a Mess-tadon. Strike two! I’m getting out the PAM!” She pulled out the non-stick spray can from a nearby cabinet. “Last chance, Crazy. What do you and a compost pile have in common?”
Crazy moaned and mumbled about how it could not figure out the answer. Mom reached into her purse on the counter and reached inside. Beginning a countdown at ten, she unnerved the clown as she rummaged around for her prize. At “two,” she had it.
“Give up? Answer is…you’re both on fire!”
“Huh?” Crazy’s eyes widened.
Mom pulled the lighter from her purse, flicked it on, and sprayed the PAM at the clown from behind the small spark. Her makeshift flamethrower felt hot in her hand, but she would not relent. Crazy the Clown shrieked as the fire melted it to a liquid pulp. The stench of smoke and charred paper filled the room. Her spray can emptied just as the lighter burnt out. What remained of her opponent resembled hardening lava.
The last thing to take care of was the elephant in the room. Since the beast did not present as an imminent danger, she at last had time to remove the glass thorns in the flesh. With those afflictions gone, a new flow of blood dripped down the underside of her foot until the wound clotted. Cautious not to step on anything else, she approached the last of Reggie’s renderings. It produced a burst of mournful notes. Mom reached out and patted the beast. It felt smooth and gummy, and it left a green and fuchsia residue on her palm.
A sustained humming announced the garage opening. Moments later, Dad and Reggie entered the house chuckling over something one of them must have said in the car. Whatever the joke had been, the laughter stopped when Dad took stock of the alterations to his family’s kitchen.
“What’s all—” Dad grunted and pointed. He raked his hair with quaking fingers. “Broken glass…and wine…all over the place…a mess…like a tornado.” He sniffed. “Blech! What’s that smell? Burnt rubber?”
Reggie cared less about the house’s disarray, paying more attention to the strange creature standing a few feet away. Gasping, he hid behind his mother. “What is that?”
“It’s your elephant that went missing.” Mom ruffled his head and urged him forward.
“But that not look like a elepant!” Reggie dug in his heels to resist his mom’s push. He squinted at the enormous creature as it bellowed the beginning of The 1812 Overture.
“No kidding.” Mom rubbed her hands together. “So you can take care of your new pet. No need to get a puppy now, right? And in the morning, we’re signing you up for art lessons. Honey? Clean up our son’s mess, please. I’m done with that for today.”
Vellion approached his red sportscar in the dim-lit parking garage, his shoulders
slumped from the weight of his briefcase and the day’s challenges. As usual,
most other vehicles had already left the structure for the night. Without his
wife waiting at home, the professor lost his motivation to head there before
security demanded he leave the office. Of all the lecturers employed at Ploford
College, Conrad’s office hours had become the most available. Somehow, that had
not translated into a multitude of students taking advantage.
the key into the ignition of his Zing, Conrad wondered if he were as stuck in
the past as Chad had claimed. Most cars these days would start with a
thumbprint reader. So many ways that could go wrong. It gives new sinister
meaning to the phrase, “I need your digits.” There was something satisfying
about the way a key fit into its slot. It made him the master of his vehicle,
not a mere user. When the Zing roared to life, that was his doing rather than a
program running its course. Of all the dozens of reasons to avoid upgrading his
vehicle, the first to spring to mind involved the classic nature of his car. One
anachronistic tweak would detract from the artwork of this masterpiece.
more he thought about it, the problem coalesced into a clearer picture. He had
grown up in a time just before the world’s progression toward technological
dependency. Back then, having anything more advanced than a color television in
the home had been unimaginable. Now, streaming video on any screen not placed
in a window had become a matter of course. When the dean at Ploford College had
insisted he live-stream lectures for ill students, Conrad had balked, knowing
people would stop coming altogether. His incompetence with the new software worked
in his favor. Conrad could not decide what bothered him most: the rate of
change or people’s dissatisfaction with delayed gratification.
Rovain, one of his younger colleagues, brushed off Conrad’s concerns. “Oh,
everyone thinks the next generation is destroying our way of life. People
always asking, ‘What’s the matter with kids these days?’ But we’re still here,
attitude was too laissez faire in Conrad’s view. Perhaps his studies of
history had rendered complacency impossible. People who remained silent when
they saw problems allowed the furtherance of evil. History judged such people
as complicit, even if they did not participate. No amount of hectoring would
keep Dr. Conrad Vellion from speaking out against what he perceived as steps
off the right path. Does that make me a codger? Stuck in the past? I don’t
Zing’s headlights cut through the darkness. The radio announcers listed the
day’s headlines. Representative Pommel unveiled his intentions to run a
Presidential campaign. Franklin Motors had recalled one of its older makes due
to an electrical issue. Burger Bum released a new sandwich which had Conrad fearing
the sound of sizzling grease coming through the speakers might be enough to
clog his arteries. Questae, Inc. had announced the successor to The MUSE would
arrive in stores four weeks before Christmas.
he drove down the main road, Conrad fumed about Questae’s continued influence
over the general public. Why would anyone buy one of their MPlants? He heard
a slight crunch. It sounded as though he had driven over a Styrofoam cup. In
the rearview mirror, he could see a college-age girl shaking her fist at him.
Whatever he had done to offend, he could not imagine. At least this one did not
have MUSE wires dangling from her ears. Seems like kids these days can’t
survive without their devices. Put them in a wilderness with nothing but the
clothes on their backs, and they’ll be flailing their arms like inflatables.
Conrad turned at Bergamot Boulevard, pulled up the driveway, opened the garage door, and parked the Zing in its spot. The door clattered back into place as the professor stepped out of his vehicle. He patted the roof as one might do with a prized puppy. Looks like you need a wash.
home!” No one replied. That had been normal for the last three years. Studies
claimed that husbands usually went first, but that had not been Conrad’s experience.
Even so, he called out this greeting as if Jasmine could still hear. He touched
her framed portrait with regretful fingers as he passed. There should have
been more time.
pulled out a container of leftover pasta from the fridge. “You would not
believe the day I’ve had, honey. That Rodgers kid actually called my bluff
today. Didn’t think he’d have it in him.” After the microwave worked its magic
on the meal, Conrad tested a noodle. The marinara sauce had lost some of its
pep in reheating, so he added a second sprinkling of parmesan cheese.
his friend, Jason? I think there’s something about him. I guess it’s a little
early to tell yet. Hmm. This spaghetti might’ve needed another twenty seconds.”
Sighing, he popped the meal back in and grabbed two wine glasses while he
waited. “How about a glass of Merlot, dear?”
filling both glasses with the dark beverage, he set one of them at the place
where his wife should have been. He sipped his Merlot. “They’re talking to me
about retirement, Jasmine. I know it’s something we planned for. Trips to Italy
and Britain. But I’m not sure I could face it now. Alone.”
loud sound startled Conrad. His hand shot up, spilling alcohol on the floor. He
came close to dropping the glass as he realized the noise had been a window
shattering in the next room over.
Conrad stood, his chair groaned against the laminate floor. His unsteady hand set
down the glass. “Is someone there?” His voice quavered as he took cautious
steps toward the front door. A gray brick lay on the floor a few feet from the
great room’s window. His gaze shifted from the intruding object to a hole in
the glass large enough for a grown person to step through. Someone’s broken
in! Where’s Jasmine?
A heavy object slammed into the back of Conrad’s head. He stumbled but did not fall. Too stunned to flee the attack, he turned just in time to see something wooden and rounded swing at his chest. The strike broke a few of his ribs and knocked him to the floor. He lifted his hands to block the barrage and begged for mercy. By the time the fifth blow landed, Dr. Conrad Vellion was dead. The beating did not end when the victim’s heart stopped. The weapon swung even as splinters flew off in all directions.
As he entered Lecture Hall 47, Jason Ramos squinted at his friend. “Codger? Who talks like that anymore?”
“Sorry, Jason. Shall I put it in simple speak so even you can understand?” The student wore the school’s red-and-gold varsity jacket for the basketball team. He tugged at his MUSE wire and dislodged it from his left ear, cutting himself off a device implanted at the base of his skull. He bent down to Jason’s level as if speaking to a small child rather than a fellow undergrad. “Dr. Vellion is an old grump who refuses to change with the times.”
“I do comprehend the word’s meaning, Chad. Jeez!” Jason stopped at the professor’s desk and ran a hand through his hair.
“I mean, have you listened to him rail against our reliance on technology? Every other day, it’s ‘Social media is bad’ or ‘Take that phone out of your face and read a book!’ It’s like he’s never seen a piece of tech he hasn’t hated. You know what I mean? C’mon. He’s stuck in the past. You know it. I know it. And we’re wasting our time in this stupid history class. ‘Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.’ Can you come up with a more clichéd quote? If you really don’t want to repeat history, why do you say the same thing every week?”
A briefcase clicked open behind Chad. “Thank you for that frank appraisal of my teaching, Mr. Rodgers. Perhaps you’ll find your dorm room more to your liking.”
Chad turned to face his college professor. Dr. Vellion stood no more than five feet tall in a tweed jacket. The thin white hairs struggling to cover his scalp stood up on end at the slightest of breezes. With arms crossed, the lecturer stared up at his student awaiting a response.
“Y’know, I am a little behind on my gaming.” Chad grinned as Dr. Vellion’s assured smile faltered. “As Henry Ford said, ‘History is bunk.’”
“A frequently misquoted, misapplied saying. Something you would realize if you actually paid attention to history. But if you prefer to waste your life away with your butt planted in front of a monitor, you must make that determination for yourself, Mr. Rodgers.” The history lecturer pulled out a stack of papers from his briefcase. “If you wish to leave my lecture hall, feel free to do so. Realize, however, that your actions here will have consequences later.”
Chad chuckled. “Can you believe this fool? A monitor? Could he be more out of touch? Come on, Jason, let’s go.”
Chad stuffed the MUSE wire’s auditory stimulator back into his ear and walked toward the door. Jason took a step to follow his friend, but he stopped to glance back at his professor. He gulped as he watched Dr. Vellion slam his stack of lecture notes against the top of his desk to straighten them. His eyes darted from Chad’s retreat to the remaining students occupying their desks.
“Mr. Ramos, either take your seat or clear out. Either way, the spot in front of the blackboard is mine to command.”
His mind flashing to the academic scholarship that made his education possible, Jason made for the third row, plopped down his backpack, and withdrew a red notebook. With a pencil at the ready, he opened the notebook to a blank page. To either side of the young man, most of Dr. Vellion’s other students made similar preparations. A few in the back of the lecture hall, however, spent the duration of the professor’s explanation of the Battle at Gettysburg with MUSE wires plugged into their ears. From the professor’s perspective, technology had advanced too far. People’s willingness to implant devices into their bodies made him shiver, but this new generation thought little of the consequences to progress. Their heads bobbed to the beat of music only they could hear.
“War. What is it good for? If you asked President Lincoln, I’m sure he would respond, ‘Absolutely something!’ Right?” No one made a sound after the reference aside from a hesitant coughing fit. Dr. Vellion tried to ignore those few who appeared to him to have the attention span of a passionfruit, but their apathy irked him. He cleaned his glasses with a clean cloth before repositioning the specs with shaking hands.
As he wrapped up the session for the day, Dr. Vellion reminded his students to check their syllabi for upcoming due dates. The horde of notetakers and MUSE enthusiasts vacated the room, racing to be anywhere else. Last to leave, Jason slung his pack over his shoulders and walked toward the door.
Jason stopped dead in his tracks and gulped. “Yes, Dr. Vellion. Do you need something?”
The professor leaned against the front of his desk, keeping himself aright with hands gripping the edge. “Why did you choose to stay today?”
“I heard everything Mr. Rodgers said to you. Calling me a codger. Saying I refuse to change with the times. You didn’t correct him or agree with him. That leaves me with two options. One, you stayed today because you disagree with your friend but are too cowardly to confront him. Two, you stayed because you agree with your friend but are too cowardly to confront me. Which do you think is correct?”
Jason jerked his head, confounded at the accusation. He adjusted the strap to his backpack. “I – I don’t think I’m a coward.”
“Do you know how Webster Dictionary defines ‘coward’?” Dr. Vellion did not allow his penetrating focus on his student to shift. “One who shows disgraceful timidity or fear.”
“But I didn’t—”
“You permitted your friend to speak about a person whom you believed was not there to defend himself. By not standing up to Mr. Rodgers, you were consenting to his opinion. If you truly agree that I am nothing more than an eccentric, you are too fearful to say so to my face. If you disagree, then you are too fearful of losing a slanderer’s good opinion of you. What would you call that if not cowardice?”
Jason’s mouth worked, but his voice box did not cooperate. Half-started squawks and mumbles were all he could manage. He did not agree, but he felt powerless to articulate a proper response.
“My point is not to shame you, Mr. Ramos. Otherwise, I would have done so with everyone else still here. I simply want you to think about how you interact with others. It all comes down to history.”
“History?” Jason’s eyes narrowed. “What does any of this have to do with history?”
“There was a time when a man came into power. He claimed that several groups of people were the cause of everyone’s troubles. People knew this was not true, but they did not speak up because they were too fearful. They didn’t want to be next. So they went along with the lie. Some of them even started to believe the lie and harassed anyone who called it a lie. Do you see where I’m going with this?”
Shoulders slumping, Jason nodded.
“So which is it? Which kind of coward were you?”
Knowing any further denials would be fruitless, Jason cleared his throat. “The kind who didn’t want to lose a friend.”
“That’s what I thought.” Dr. Vellion packed his briefcase, clipping the latches back into place. “I’ll see you next Monday, then, Mr. Ramos.”
Jason stood still, watching his professor walk out of the room with head held high. “Wait. Dr. Vellion, why did you stop me?”
The history lecturer paused and turned back. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“I teach history so that your generation doesn’t make the same mistakes that mine made. You were a coward today. But you don’t have to be one tomorrow.”
How difficult can it be to remember to file
paperwork properly? Percy Elton kicked a rock as he fumed. Gnashing his
teeth, the human resources bureaucrat felt his spindly fingers balling up. It’s simple! A process a baby could follow.
A helpless baby! What does that make Roger? Can he remember to turn in his
1533s on the second Thursday of the month like a civilized person? Of course
not! That would require him to get off his dumb ass and do his damn job!
in his head reminded him to calm himself. That this was a problem he could solve.
There’s always turnover. When he had
joined the esteemed ranks of HR, the thought of hoping for turnover would have
made his skin crawl. Percy was, after all, supposed to make the working
environment feel safe. But now he rubbed his hands together and grinned at the
thought of watching Roger hear the news. Anyone
who can’t tell the difference between a 1533 and a 1353 has it coming.
* * *
Veckser stepped out the elevator before the doors were all the way open. His
eyes beamed at anyone who passed by. In his hand, he held a coffee carrier
laden with six steaming beverages. On his way to his desk, Roger handed out
each one to the members of his team. Though not a caffeine addict like most of
his colleagues at PWX Sales, he always wanted to keep his people happy. As happy as one can be with turnover always lurking
in their minds.
morning, Faith. How was the weekend?” He held out the last of the brown paper
cups. “Two creams. No sugar.”
God for you.” Faith grabbed the cup with such force, the lid came close to
popping off the top and allowing a flow of scalding liquid to splash into her
face. “You know, I don’t know if I could stand it here without you. The way you
go out of your way to—”
smiled. “Oh, it’s no bother. No turnover for our team, right?”
smile faltered. “Mmm. Smells like Heaven.”
Nothing can smell like Heaven in a place
like this. “You know what they say. A happy team is an efficient team.”
nodded, sipped her coffee, and let go an exaggerated sigh of relief. “Just
limit the talk of – well, you know. No one wants to think about it. Even as a
Sorry.” The word had slipped out his mouth without a thought. The last time the
head honchos of PWX had brought up turnover, the office had become a wasteland
of vacant eyes staring at computer screens. A sweaty stench had overpowered the
floor. Darryl from marketing had needed paramedics to administer a tranquilizer
before he could calm down. Roger shuddered as he made his way to his desk.
had seen turnover in action three months ago. He had always known how terrible
it would be, but to watch it happen to Marci in reception? He rubbed his neck,
imagining how crushing it would feel to face that harsh consequence over a single
hours into the workday, the door to the manager’s office squeaked open. Heavy
feet thundered into the work space. “Attention!” Few mortals could ignore Mr. Tooms’s
voice, and none of them worked at PWX Sales. “It has come to my notice that
someone in this office has been driving down efficiency under my very nose!”
substantial, Mr. Tooms’s nose sniffed out slackers and timewasters like a
know what this means.”
noticed Faith’s mascara running down her cheeks. He wanted to put a comforting
hand on her shoulder, but no one could move while Mr. Tooms boomed. He heard
the boss’s next word resounding in his mind before Mr. Tooms’s voice confirmed
around him, Roger heard whimpers. Dread drained the color from Roger’s face,
hoping he would not know the victim too well.
What? It can’t be me! How can it be me?
Please, no! There must be a mistake! Unsteady on his legs, Roger wobbled to
his feet. “Yes, sir?”
recognize this form, Mr. Veckser?”
hand thrust a paper up close to Roger’s face. Within moments, Roger recognized
his signature at the bottom of the 1353 he had filled out three days prior. A
form detailing resources his team had used over the course of a month. A form
he filled out once a month. Swallowing, Roger confirmed that he knew the form. No point lying.
aware, Mr. Veckser, that you have filled out a 1353 every month for the last
INTERRUPT! Are you also aware that your job requires you to fill out a 1533 and
not a 1353?”
His dry throat would only allow him to whisper.
A form that lists all resources your team will require in the next month. Quite
different from a 1353, yes?”
struggled to keep himself upright. His dizzy mind tried to recall a time anyone
had ever mentioned this crucial information. He was on the point of collapsing,
sure that his time had come. All that effort to prevent turnover, and all for
3 of your employee handbook clearly states that team leaders are to fill out a
1533 every second Thursday of the month. How is it you did not know this?”
Roger felt his stomach squirming with nausea.
of this nature costs our company time and thus revenue. The consequences of
negligence are quite clear. Is that not right, Mr. Elton.”
behind Mr. Tooms, Percy Elton nodded. “That’s right.”
fell to his knees, crying. “Please. I’ll do better. I’ll get it right next
time. I didn’t know. Please don’t—”
now turn over—”
Please! I’ll fix it!” Roger’s heart thudded like a meat tenderizer on a cutting
withdrew a remote from his pocket and pressed down on a large red button. Claxons
sounded. Yellow lights flashed. In the middle of the office, the floor opened
like a mouth. Humid breath stank up the room. Faith wailed, averted her eyes,
and backed away from the long, snaking tongue that sprang up from the orifice.
A hand gripped Roger by the arm and started dragging him toward the mouth in
the floor. Percy’s glee shone in his eyes.
now turn over Mr. Elton for negligence in training team leaders.” Mr. Tooms
retired to his office.
tongue sprang forward, lashed around Percy’s leg, and tugged at the HR worker. Percy
shrieked as he slid closer to the edge and held onto Roger. The two struggled
with each other, punching and kicking as if that could stop the inevitable.
Roger at last wrenched himself free inches away from the foul mouth in the floor.
closed with a crunch, spraying a fountain of hot, red blood.
Tooms spoke into his radio. “Send Clean-up Crew 13. And tell them no dawdling.”