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Echo

Echo
     The old man lay dying, kept alive by the machines gathered by his bedside. Other than the hiss-click of the oxygen that maintained the spark of life within him there was silence, until the woman arrived. She slipped into a seat by the bed and put her purse on the floor, under it, then waited for the man to wake.
     The room and its furnishings, in spite of the hospital bed, spoke of wealth and power, rather than the aseptic surround of a hospital. But still, that wealth and power would delay his demise by not one day.
     After a time the man woke, and she said, “You don’t look like a John, to me… Wrong face, for that name, I think.”
      He studied her for a moment then shrugged as well as his wasted frame would permit, before saying, “Yeah, like you figured, my name wasn’t always John. I was born Gordon Brown.” There was silence, as he gathered his strength, then a chuckle, and, “Living where everybody had a name like Martello and Catelli meant I got in a lot of fights. But, that was okay. I liked beating the crap out of shitheads. It made me tough, too…ya know?
     The woman nodded a yes, then, “So, why did you change your name to John?”
     “I didn’t. It got changed for me, because of a…” He was silent for a moment, before saying, “I guess you could call it a kind of dream.”
     “Dream?”
     The old man shrugged, again. “I woke up one morning hurting…a lot. It wasn’t just the hangover. That was bad enough. I felt like… Well, it was worse than being kicked in the balls. It was like knives were shoved into them. But when I reached for my crotch my hands couldn’t make it. They were tied to the bed. I could move a little, but not enough to either reach my nuts or untie myself. That’s when I noticed that my legs were tied, too.” He was silent for a moment, before, “All this happens before I open my eyes, mind you. But then, there’s a brand new pain, added to the rest, and that got my eyes open quick, to find a bitch I never saw before, shoving a straight pin right into my balls. I lifted up to look and there must have been dozens of them in there already, like a goddamned pincushion. And when she saw I was looking, she just smiled, and said, “Good morning, honey,” and pulled another pin from one of those pincushions made to look like a tomato.”
     “And used it?”
     “Used it? Hell yes she used it. And that one, I swear, was as hot as if she’d held it in a flame. But bad as that was I could see there was worse to come. There was one pin in there that was as big around as a damn railroad spike.”
     “And she used that one, too?”
     There was silence for the space of ten breaths, before the man on the bed said, “I don’t know, because that’s when I woke up.”
     “Ahhh…so it was just a—”
     “That was no fucking dream, lady. Not…not… I don’t know what in the hell it was, but I can tell you that my balls hurt for more than three days afterward…bad. I even went to see a shrink, ‘cause I was afraid to sleep. Hell, for months afterward, if I saw my mom’s pincushion in her sewing basket, it freaked me out.”
     “But, you got over it.”
     “Yeah. I got over it. The shrink, he made me carry a pincushion with me for a while, and when I got comfortable with that he had me push in a bunch of pins. That worked.” He laughed. “Hell, it better than worked. I’d finally managed to get a job as an enforcer for a loan shark. Then, one day, I was about to break some jerk’s finger, as a reminder to pay on time, when I had a thought. I remembered how the dream freaked me out, so…”
     “You did that to the man, instead of breaking his finger? You stuck pins in his—”
     Weak as it was, there was a smile in the old man’s voice as he said, “I figured, what the hell, ya know? It hurts like hell but it don’t keep you from work, and it’s so damn embarrassing that it’s even better than a whacked shin or a broken finger.”
     “I’ll bet. So…”
     “So I tied the bastard down and used those pins. You should have heard him scream. I left him, tied that way and hurting—for his wife to find when she got home.”
     The old man closed his eyes, wearing a self-satisfied smile, before adding, “It worked so good that I started doing it regular, like a trademark. And that was so crazy it made me stand out, and got me promoted.” Unable to lift his hands to point, he gestured with his head, to indicate the room around them, saying, “And, it got me here, for all the good it’s doing right now. That dream is the reason I ended up running the local family, and it’s why they changed my name.”
     For a time there was silence, as the machines went about their business. Finally, the woman said, “It’s funny, how an event that momentous can travel all the way to the end of a life and then reflect back as an echo, carrying both the way to that end and the ending, itself.”
     “I don’t—”
     “You don’t remember what you said before you had that dream?”
     “Said? I don’t—”
     “You’d just met the top people in the family, and to them, you said, ‘To be like you guys… Hell, I’d sell my soul.’ ”
     “I… You have to be kidd—”
     “Offer made…offer accepted. That dream was a reflection from this end of your life.”
     “… then…then I’m…dead?”
     “As of a few seconds ago, yes.” She smiled, gently. “You don’t recognize me? I thought you would by now. We met, about sixty years ago.” With that she reached into her purse and extracted a pincushion, bristling with pins. She pointed toward the hand that held it, saying, “It never runs out.” Then she gestured in the direction of his lower body, adding, “And there’s always room for one more.”
     “I— Shit!”
     “Yeah, isn’t it?” She extracted a pin and held it up for his inspection. “Welcome to Hell, Johnny Pinball.”
 

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Author’s Note:
     One morning I woke with an image in my mind. Someone had a pincushion and was about to use the contents on me. It was not the kind of dream you’re pleased to wake from. But still, I knew there was a story in there, if I could only think of the “why and when” of it.
     Through the day I could feel the details clarifying as my warped mind gnawed at the corners of the image, trying to shape it into something with a useful shape and texture.
     At evening I sat at the keyboard to see what my auto-editor had come up with, and it flowed well, though I still didn’t know how it was to end. That was a puzzle for later, I decided. First came the shaping to see if it read as well as it felt. But apparently the shaping had gone better than I’d hoped for because I finished it, but for editing, in one short sitting. In fact, though, I didn’t know what I would use for the punch line until I found myself typing the last line, and laughing.
 
     I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well.
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Posted by on March 26, 2014 in Short Story

 

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Let There Be, uhh… Light

Let There Be, uhh… Light
 
 
Stray thoughts come. And as always, are going to get me into trouble.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – –
 
So all this talk about God liking or not liking gay marriage got me thinking on a simple question: why does anyone, today, buy into religion? Understand it, yes. Enjoy it as a social thing, of course. But believe without question? I certainly can’t explain it.
 
To start out with, we’re asked to accept as literal and unassailable truth a story that not only can’t be proven; it can be refuted on virtually every page by a reasonably knowledgeable ten year old.
 
Open to the first page of the Bible and what do we find? Right after zapping the universe into existence God creates light.
 
Light? God certainly doesn’t need any. According to dogma he’s been around forever, and only created the known universe on a whim a bit less than six thousand years ago. Obviously, he doesn’t need light. And the fact that he doesn’t while we do, kind of undermines the “created in his image,” idea.
 
Strangely, when light was created there was nowhere to watch from, and nothing to see. So why bother? Why not have light appear along with the sun and stars? That is where the light comes from, after all.
 
No one ever seems to ask about this point. Though the fact that the church used to burn people at the stake for asking inconvenient questions, and still discourages that kind of thought, might explain. Still, you’d think God would want at least the basic science right, like creating the sun, then setting the planets spinning around it. I sometimes wonder what he would say if he read the things they they report him doing.
 
Still…
 
On the surface, light appearing before the sun comes into being seems a crazy idea. But only today. In past times, it not only made perfect sense, it fit the evidence, perfectly:
 
Assume for a minute that you’re someone who’s intelligent, but at the same time, ignorant of such things as diffraction, reflection, diffusion, and optics. In other words an educated and thoughtful person, living several thousand years ago. And as someone living in biblical times, you know with certainty that the Earth is flat. After all, if the world is round people would fall off. Any idiot can look at a steep hillside and see that.
 
So, our scientist storyteller is getting ready to tell his audience how the world and everything in it came to be. He’s fact-checking his story.
 
With that in mind let’s look at the evidence this early writer has, and apply both his intelligence and his knowledge to the world at large so he can write his story.
 
We know light travels in a straight line. We prove that easily enough by holding out a stick on a cloud free day. It casts a shadow exactly the size of the stick, something easily measurable. Raise the stick as high as you care to and the shadow cast by the sun remains the same size. The shadow of a building is neither narrower nor wider from bottom to top Conclusion: light travels in a straight line. And that also holds true if tested with a candle or a campfire. In fact, when tested with a candle as the only source of light, anything in the shadow of whatever is blocking the light is in pitch darkness. That’s an important point, too, because it has direct application in the next point.
 
In daylight, though, the darkness of the shadow isn’t absolute. Obviously, light is coming from all over the sky, not then just the sun. Inescapable conclusion: the sun is not the only source of daylight. And were it removed we would still have day and night.
 
Doubt that? Let’s go further and select a building with a window on the side opposite the sun. If you place an object in the light from that window the shadow, which obviously cannot be coming from the sun’s light, will narrow with distance from the object. Again, obvious to that ancient scholar: there are many sources for that light through the window, none of them sunlight. And since it’s obviously impossible to have light without a source, the fact that the light exists, in and of itself, proves that God exists and wants it to happen. We know better today, of course, we with our science and our instruments.
 
But people living in biblical times? They had a graphic demonstration of God’s amazing power every-single-day.
 
So certainly God would create that light first. In fact, by the text, he created light, then day and night, both brought into being before he made the sun.
 
So biblical storytelling makes perfect sense if you apply intelligence, coupled with a lack of any scientific knowledge, to the problem. And once it’s written, accepted, and the words are declared holy, who dares question? Only fools like me.
 
Who wrote that particular story? It can’t be God because whoever it was began to get their facts wrong at the top of the very first page. God’s version would be factual, and have the sun, not the earth, at the center of the solar system. After all, God wouldn’t lie. Would he?
 
No one ever asks who was there, taking notes on the day light was being created, either. The tale is written From the point of view of someone relating a memory—but who, in reality, is speculating based on an incomplete understanding of available data.
 
No one ever asks why, if the creation story is true, the light of stars residing millions of light years away from our little planet has already reached us, without the necessity of traveling for millions of years to get here.
 
The Bible is littered with such things. Yet strangely, millions of intelligent people, who could, and should see the obvious, read the opening of the Bible and say, “Yup. That’s exactly how it happened. It says so right there in my Bible.”
 
As you read this, science is driving a vehicle on the sands of Mars, taking pictures and firing lasers at rocks. Science has sent exploring ships to the planets, and beyond even the boundaries of our small family of planets. Science kept my wife and son alive after they contracted cancer. It makes possible such things as you reading this at the touch of a key, and the magic box in your kitchen that provides eternal winter inside its door.
 
Religion? They’re busy arguing over who can have sex with whom, and why they get to dictate.
 
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Posted by on September 12, 2012 in Random Thoughts and Grumblings

 

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Baby Talk

Baby Talk
     “Hey Chazz, here’s another load of dead babies. Where do you want them?”
     Charlie Kane looked up from his magazine and pointed toward a clear spot on his desk. “Just drop them here, Max. I’ll get to them tomorrow, maybe.”
     The man placed the small stack of CDs on the desk, shaking his head as he said, “How in the hell did you get such a cushy job, Chazz? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you busy, and you’re not even in your office half the week. I know the hospital had no choice after Big Al gave the order to hire you, but who are you to him? I—” The man stopped, abruptly. Apparently, it had just occurred to him that he might be prying into matters best left alone. He extended his hands, palms outward waving them in negation, as he said, “If you don’t mind saying, of course. I didn’t mean to pry.”
     For a moment he hesitated. But it wasn’t exactly a secret that the godfather of the local crime family had ordered the hospital to hire him, so he shrugged and said, “I’m Big Al’s son-in law, or was, till Frank Calasi and his men shot Susan two years ago.” He pasted on a sad face, then, and didn’t mention the fact that he was the one who pulled the trigger for Calasi. That marriage was a year that felt like ten, and best forgotten. And, his time in hell hadn’t even gotten him a decent job within the family.
     “Jeeze, that’s tough.” Max said. “But, why plant you here? Why not… well, give you something more exciting than this?” He waved a hand to indicate the modest space that comprised Charlie’s office.
     Why indeed? Certainly, he wasn’t going to tell Max that Al thought him a screw-up, and that the job was from a sense of family obligation, only. Did Al suspect him of complicity in Sue’s death? Perhaps, but since Al hated her nearly as much as he had, it probably didn’t matter.
     To Max, he said only, “It’s temporary.”
     The man left, and he went back to his magazine. But that was boring, as would be going home, so he decided to finish with the babies, to kill the evening, then take tomorrow off and spend the day getting the boat ready to go into the water.
     He moved the stack of DVDS closer, placed a tablet in a comfortable position for note taking, and slipped the first dead baby into the computer.
     Two hours later he frowned and hit the pause button. There was something odd about the video. Like the rest it was a film made by a bedside camera, as part of the study of sudden infant death syndrome. And like the others, it showed an apparently healthy baby, who simply stopped breathing and died. This baby, though, like one or two of the others, had been playing—gurgling and learning to make the sounds that would, eventually become speech. And then it died.
     But there was something odd about this baby. He played the video again, and then again. There was nothing obvious, but he had the impression of a slight flattening of the baby’s features, and movement of the baby’s head backward on the mattress, deflecting the bedding by just a fraction, as though a giant invisible hand was being used to block her nose and mouth. Certainly, the baby’s frantic movements as death claimed her seemed to support that.
     Three times more he played the recording. The average person would have missed it, but after watching as many deaths as had he, he had a feel for it that the average viewer wouldn’t have. Did the babies on the other DVDs display the same thing? It was hard to tell, because the cameras weren’t the best quality, and the pictures had been taken in near darkness, but at least one of the others did, too.
     He checked his notes, then pulled images from the archives, of other babies who had been awake and active when they died.
     And there it was. On several of the recordings, invisible unless you were looking for it, something was blocking the baby’s breathing. Those babies were being murdered. But how? And how could he make the discovery work for him? Were he able to learn the trick for himself, he could become the highest paid hit man in history. To know how to kill without leaving a trace? That would be a skill to pray for.
     For the next fifteen minutes, he searched. Then it hit him. There was a common element: the baby’s voice. Although they were babbling and making random sounds, at some point, within the moments leading to their death, they had all uttered the same string of nonsense syllables, “ba-ba-ba-kee,” as part of their play.
     He studied the transliteration of those words, glowing on his computer screen. “Ba-ba-ba-kee? What in the hell can that mean?” Frustrated, he spread his hands “Who the hell would—”
     “It means kill me.”
     “What?” Charlie spun his chair around. But, the office door was closed and there was no one there. Still, the voice had been real. There was no doubt of that. At least he thought there wasn’t. It wasn’t the kind of voice you forgot. It was deep, and gravely, and sounded like the kind of voice the earth would have, were it capable of speech.
     Reluctantly he turned back to the desk, shaking his head and wondering why his imagination was working overtime.
     “And since you asked me to kill you so nicely…” A wave of heat swept over him from behind, and the texture of the air in the room changed. Someone, or some thing, was in the room with him.
     Every hair on his body attempted to stand on end, as he whirled in his chair to face a vision right out of nightmare. How it got there he had no idea, because there was no way in hell that it could have come through the office door. It was far too big for that. Something, was crammed into his office, its bulk occupying virtually all the space he and his desk were not. There was no doubt that it was real, and solid, though. The stench of its body had a solidity of its own, bringing tears that he suspected were as much for his coming fate as for the assault on his sinus cavities.
     Slowly, he sorted out a jumble of visual impressions. Eyes came first. They were the size of basketballs, and patterned in shades of black, other than for fire-red lightening jags of what he guessed were veins. There were teeth, of course… rows and rows of them. The less he thought about them, the better. The fact that they were set in a mouth that was grinning broadly was not at all reassuring, especially given what the beast had just said.
     The body came next, though that was hard to think of in terms more definitive than, “Oh my God!” both because it was so overwhelmingly close, so huge, and so hot that he wondered if his clothing might soon catch fire.
      Holy shit, I’m sitting next to a special effect! That he would die seemed assured, but the beast was so far outside both possibility and reason that it was too much to accept. So much so, that his mind began to function again, doing what it did best, looking for an angle.
     “Hang on a minute,” he said, his mind searching for possibilities. “If you’re going to kill me, at least let me know who’s doing the job, so I can be properly appreciative.”
     Black irises focused on him from a scant two feet away, giving the beast a cross-eyed look. What he took to be its forehead creased in response to his words.
     “You’re not…frightened?” It wasn’t easy to tell if the words of a talking cement mixer carried tones of curiosity, but the fact that he wasn’t already dead brought a flicker of hope. If he could convince Big Al that he was interested in his sister—given the way she looked—perhaps he could work with this guy. The trick was to keep him talking.
     “Frightened? Sure. But I’m impressed, too. Those are pretty spectacular muscles.” At least he thought the various bulges under its pebbly skin might be muscles.
     “Really? Thank you. I work out.” The beast shifted a bit, and took a breath that depleted most of the air in the room, then flexed. It was impressive. But then it exhaled, and he had to close his eyes and focus on remaining in control of his digestive system.
     “So, who are you, and what brings you to my office?” he finally said, regaining control and opening his eyes again. The view hadn’t improved.
     “You can call me Nacky, and I’m here because you called me, and gave me permission to kill you. I really appreciate that.”
     “I don’t think—” Then it hit him and he pointed to the baby’s image on the monitor. That baby… You killed it simply because it babbled ‘Kill me,” in your language? Are you some sort of a pervert?” It occurred that he hadn’t been terribly diplomatic, but what was said was said.
     The beast shrugged. “Those are the rules. It was a legal kill.” Its tone on the last few words sounded a bit defensive.
     “But… you eat babies?
     “In a manner of speaking.” A finger the thickness of an elephant’s trunk pointed in Charlie’s direction “I suppose you don’t eat calves liver. Or lamb chops?”
     “I… Well, sure, but those are animals, not people.”
     The beast was smiling again, as it said, “Take my word for it. You’re not people. You’re barely above a monkey in intelligence. In any case, you have your question answered, so now—”
     Think Chazz, think! Nothing came so he went with desperation.
     “Wait! Won’t you at least explain what in the hell is going on? You don’t physically eat the babies, and you sounded like you wanted me to be scared when you kill me. Maybe… maybe if you explain, that will scare the crap out of me and make me taste better?”
     Nacky cocked his head in what seemed interest, so Charlie added, “Unless you have to be somewhere?”
     “No. I have time.” The creature settled himself, and leaned toward Charlie, something that inspired no confidence, as it said, “My people kind of screwed up.”
     “Screwed up?”
     “Yeah. Once we were geeks like your people, though we evolved from carnivores not monkeys. So, hunting is pretty big in our culture.” That squared not at all with his claim that he didn’t actually eat the prey, nor that the prey was composed of helpless infants. This whole thing made no sense.
     “I know what you’re thinking,” Nacky said, shaking his head. “But hang on for a minute, because it comes together…
     “Anyway, our science types gave us a way to live forever, move from place to place by just thinking about it, and to improve our bodies to what you see here.” He pointed toward his torso. “So naturally, we redesigned the chassis to make us even better hunters, and to scare the living shit out of our prey. And since we no longer needed to actually eat what we kill, they also fixed it so we could taste the lives of our prey, instead of their flesh.”
     “And?”
     “And it’s better. Plus, with nothing coming through the pipes you don’t need toilet paper no more.
     “No, I mean what happened then.”
     “Oh… well it turned out to be boring. Nothing can outrun us. Nothing can kill us. Nothing even presents a threat. So even when we moved off our own world and went exploring, we were hunters with nothing worth hunting. Worse yet, we were a threat to other races, and that pissed them off enough to do something about it.”
     Charlie rubbed his lips in thought, as his mind sought an angle. There seemed to be none, so to keep the monster talking, he said, “So… you went to war?”
     “We didn’t get the chance. Hunters like us tend to be solitary, and focused on the chase. The others, they got together to work against us. They didn’t like us wandering all over their worlds and killing their people.”
     “I can imagine.”
     “Yeah, but they couldn’t kill us, so they fixed things so we couldn’t kill them either. Then they made life even more boring.”
     “How?”
     “By fixing it so we couldn’t hunt them anymore—or anyone, unless we had their okay.”
     Charlie blinked in thought. “So, babies saying ‘Kill me’ are, what…a loophole?”
     “You got it. It’s not much, but it is a loophole, and makes this place a popular vacation spot.”
     “But… babies. Where’s the sport—”
     “Where’s the sport in any of it? I told you. We screwed up, and now we’re stuck with it. Nothing can beat us and nothing can outrun us.” He shrugged, before adding, “Adults are a lot better tasting, but the rules are the rules.” He scratched. “And you said the words, kiddo, so… It’s my turn in the rotation, which means I get an honest to God adult to taste.” He looked apologetic, and shrugged, as he added, “Normally, I’d give you a running start, to make you feel like you have a chance, but with me blocking the door…
     The beast leaned toward him, but he held up his hands in a wait gesture.
     “So that’s it? You guys are reduced to killing kids? The men and women from your world come here to kill children? That’s absolutely pathet—”
     “Listen, you take what you can get. You know? But no, we don’t all eat babies. The women have a thing about that—even no-brain kids like those on your world. For them, it’s fires.”
     “Fires.” Not a word of this made sense. The creature currently bringing the room to furnace temperature was so powerful it was unkillible. It could travel through space, apparently by simply willing it. It somehow knew when a child’s babbling simulated its language, from an unknown distance away. And, their females liked to watch fire victims die—or maybe they liked to personally toast them. That wasn’t clear.
     He, and the others like him, weren’t examples of the best their race had to offer. They couldn’t be. The fool who was currently threatening him was more like an intergalactic idiot, with no more actual brainpower than Big Al’s bodyguards. But, that wasn’t something to think about yet, because Nacky was talking again.
     “Yeah, they like fires. But don’t knock it. Taking lives via fire has the victim in the right frame of mind for the very best feeding. And that turns the ladies on, thank you very much. If you’ve never gotten some loving from a flame-bathed female you haven’t gotten any at all.”
     There wasn’t room for Nacky to stand, but he came as upright as space permitted, as he said, “But talk isn’t entertaining, and you’ve had your answer, so let’s get started with—”
     “Suppose…suppose I could supply you with all the victims you want—adult victims.”
     Nacky settled on his haunches, blinking. “What do you mean, all I want?”
     “Just that. Suppose I got lots of people to ask you to kill them? Suppose I even got people to shout that they wanted to be burned alive? Would a female be grateful to you for pointing to that? I mean—”
     “Go on.”
     “Here’s the thing.” He had a handle on the angle, at last, and it was beautiful. “I have a friend, and he often has people who need to be… removed. So suppose I was to send one of those people a letter, advertising a new club—an exclusive club. And suppose this club has a secret password. You figure the guy will practice it a few times before he goes to the club?”
     “… Clever. And the fires?” There was definitely interest in the beast’s voice.
     “Well… Suppose instead of asking to be killed, the guy shouts, ‘Hey, please burn me up,’ in your language? You figure a girl would be grateful for a favor like that?” Big Al was going to pay well for untraceable deaths. In fact, why limit the action to only the city, or even the country? Why not think in terms of politics?
     Still, there was one thing that nagged, so he extended a hand as he said, “But there is one thing.”
     “Mmm?” A frown replaced Nacky’s smile.
     “Well… It’s about the babies. You gotta stop that shit. It’s just not right.”
     “Done… as long as you can provide the product.”
     Relaxing and leaning back in his chair, Charlie waved a hand in Nacky’s direction.
     “Call me Chazz… I think maybe you and I can do business. In fact, I see this as the start of a positively beautiful friendship.”

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Author’s Note:
     This story hung in my mind, as a tickle, for years. I even wrote the opening several times, only to put it aside because the tone remained elusive—and because who wants to publish a story in which children are harmed? But one day, there it was, ready to be typed and sent out. And as I thought, who wants to publish a story in which children are harmed? =sigh=
     But it is a good story, and if I didn’t type it out it would flicker around the dark corners of my mind forever.
     I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, and got here from Facebook, pressing the “Share” button at the page bottom will let others know the story is here, and give them the chance to read it, as well.
     And if my little story pleased you, I’m glad. There are other stories posted, as well. You and others like you are the reason I write. If it did bring a moment of reading pleasure, take a moment to rate it. Feedback matters to me. And if you’re in the mood for something a bit longer. make a stop to look at my novels, and read the excerpts to see if they please, as well.
 
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Posted by on May 7, 2011 in Short Story

 

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Echo

Echo
     The old man lay dying, kept alive by the machines gathered by his bedside. Other than the hiss-click of the oxygen that maintained the spark of life within him there was silence, until the woman arrived. She slipped into a seat by the bed and put her purse on the floor, under it, then waited for the man to wake.
     The room and its furnishings, in spite of the hospital bed, spoke of wealth and power, rather than the aseptic surround of a hospital. But still, that wealth and power would delay his demise by not one day.
     After a time the man woke, and she said, “You don’t look like a John, to me… Wrong face, for that name, I think.”
      He studied her for a moment then shrugged as well as his wasted frame would permit, before saying, “Yeah, like you figured, my name wasn’t always John. I was born Gordon Brown.” There was silence, as he gathered his strength, then a chuckle, and, “Living where everybody had a name like Martello and Catelli meant I got in a lot of fights. But, that was okay. I liked beating the crap out of shitheads. It made me tough, too…ya know?
     The woman nodded a yes, then, “So, why did you change your name to John?”
     “I didn’t. It got changed for me, because of a…” He was silent for a moment, before saying, “I guess you could call it a kind of dream.”
     “Dream?”
     The old man shrugged, again. “I woke up one morning hurting…a lot. It wasn’t just the hangover. That was bad enough. I felt like… Well, it was worse than being kicked in the balls. It was like knives were shoved into them. But when I reached for my crotch my hands couldn’t make it. They were tied to the bed. I could move a little, but not enough to either reach my nuts or untie myself. That’s when I noticed that my legs were tied, too.” He was silent for a moment, before, “All this happens before I open my eyes, mind you. But then, there’s a brand new pain, added to the rest, and that got my eyes open quick, to find a bitch I never saw before, shoving a straight pin right into my balls. I lifted up to look and there must have been dozens of them in there already, like a goddamned pincushion. And when she saw I was looking, she just smiled, and said, “Good morning, honey,” and pulled another pin from one of those pincushions made to look like a tomato.”
     “And used it?”
     “Used it? Hell yes she used it. And that one, I swear, was as hot as if she’d held it in a flame. But bad as that was I could see there was worse to come. There was one pin in there that was as big around as a damn railroad spike.”
     “And she used that one, too?”
     There was silence for the space of ten breaths, before the man on the bed said, “I don’t know, because that’s when I woke up.”
     “Ahhh…so it was just a—”
     “That was no fucking dream, Lady. Not…not… I don’t know what in the hell it was, but I can tell you that my balls hurt for more than three days afterward…bad. I even went to see a shrink, ‘cause I was afraid to sleep. Hell, for months afterward, if I saw my mom’s pincushion in her sewing basket, it freaked me out.”
     “But, you got over it.”
     “Yeah. I got over it. The shrink, he made me carry a pincushion with me for a while, and when I got comfortable with that he had me push in a bunch of pins. That worked.” He laughed. “Hell, it better than worked. I’d finally managed to get a job as an enforcer for a loan shark. Then, one day, I was about to break some jerk’s finger, as a reminder to pay on time, when I had a thought. I remembered how the dream freaked me out, so…”
     “You did that to the man, instead of breaking his finger? You stuck pins in his—”
     Weak as it was, there was a smile in the old man’s voice as he said, “I figured, what the hell, ya know? It hurts like hell but it don’t keep you from work, and it’s so damn embarrassing that it’s even better than a whacked shin or a broken finger.”
     “I’ll bet. So…”
     “So I tied the bastard down and used those pins. You should have heard him scream. I left him, tied that way and hurting—for his wife to find when she got home.”
     The old man closed his eyes, wearing a self-satisfied smile, before adding, “It worked so good that I started doing it regular, like a trademark. And that was so crazy it made me stand out, and got me promoted.” Unable to lift his hands to point, he gestured with his head, to indicate the room around them, saying, “And, it got me here, for all the good it’s doing right now. That dream is the reason I ended up running the local family, and it’s why they changed my name.”
     For a time there was silence, as the machines went about their business. Finally, the woman said, “It’s funny, how an event that momentous can travel all the way to the end of a life and then reflect back as an echo, carrying both the way to that end and the ending, itself.”
     “I don’t—”
     “You don’t remember what you said before you had that dream?”
     “Said? I don’t—”
     “You’d just met the top people in the family, and to them, you said, ‘To be like you guys… Hell, I’d sell my soul.’ ”
     “I… You have to be kidd—”
     “Offer made…offer accepted. That dream was a reflection from this end of your life.”
     “… then…then I’m…dead?”
     “As of a few seconds ago, yes.” She smiled, gently. “You don’t recognize me? I thought you would by now. We met, about sixty years ago.” With that she reached into her purse and extracted a pincushion, bristling with pins. She pointed toward the hand that held it, saying, “It never runs out.” Then she gestured in the direction of his lower body, adding, “And there’s always room for one more.”
     “I— Shit!”
     “Yeah, isn’t it?” She extracted a pin and held it up for his inspection. “Welcome to Hell, Johnny Pinball.”
 

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Author’s Note:
     One morning I woke with an image in my mind. Someone had a pincushion and was about to use the contents on me. It was not the kind of dream you’re pleased to wake from. But still, I knew there was a story in there, if I could only think of the “why and when” of it.
     Through the day I could feel the details clarifying as my warped mind gnawed at the corners of the image, trying to shape it into something with a useful shape and texture.
     At evening I sat at the keyboard to see what my auto-editor had come up with, and it flowed well, though I still didn’t know how it was to end. That was a puzzle for later, I decided. First came the shaping to see if it read as well as it felt. But apparently the shaping had gone better than I’d hoped for because I finished it, but for editing, in one short sitting. In fact, though, I didn’t know what I would use for the punch line until I found myself typing the last line, and laughing.
 
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Posted by on March 17, 2011 in Short Story

 

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