Man, oh, man, you shoulda' seen it. What a sight, never to be seen again on this old earth. The sky was lit-up in millions of different colors shooting this way and that way and one would of have sworn someone slipped some of that there LSD in my water. I don't have any idea if you will ever see this or not, this thing has got all those egghead scientific fella's stumped.
They don't know their ass from their elbow, is what my daddy would say. Anyway, if this survives, and I don't, and you do, or you find it in 1000 years or something, hell, this ain't no Bible, so don't go a'worshiping it or anything. It's just my account of what happened on the last night of the last day on earth. I ain't no scholar or nothing, so excuse my writing right off the bat.
Me and my family are up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, one of the prettiest places on earth if you ask me, but course', I'm from here and kind of prejudiced. It's about midnight here,12:15 a.m. to be exact, and you can see camp fires as far as the eyes can see.There must be millions of them since the power went out. That happened all of a sudden about six weeks ago and since then, it's been every man and family for themselves, and one hell of a ride.
I'm writing this journal because my granddaddy said we need to keep records about our lives and pass them on to the next generation. He said, before he died that is, that it might come in handy one day. Coursin', he was a root doctor and could see into your future for a few dollars. Free, if you had a chicken or pig or something. Hell, I seen him do it. But, back to the future, if there's gonna be one.
Everybody predicted it would be a nuclear war or global warming or a million other things, but no one, at least that I heard of, said a damn thing about the sun exploding and taking out all the communications everywhere. I'm sure the president and some others are still in contact, but everyone I know used up what gas and shit they had weeks ago. Right now, it's a 110 degree's and it is in the middle of winter, at night.
You don't see many people in the daytime, they are all under some kind of shade, suffering. The rumor is this is the last night anyway, so I decided to write this down for posterity, I guess, not that it will do much good. People are stupid, always have been, always will be.
If you have to die, and believe me, I hate it as much as the next man, this is sure as hell one crazy way to go out. It is a kaleidoscope of colors shooting across the sky and exploding somewhere, anywhere, but not here, not yet anyway. It seems like God or Karma or fate or whoever is in charge and believe me, I ain't never been a big believer either way, decided to stop us from killing each other.
Decided to stop all the butchering and raping and pillaging that we do to each other. It's like someone got tired of all the waste and wealth in one place and the pain and suffering and starvation of people just thousands of miles away and decided it just weren't fair. And it ain't..
People fighting and killing each other all the time is insane. I got to say this and no one is going to stop me. Not now anyway. It seems like the color of a person's skin has decided the have's and have not's. I ain't got a lot of time to dwell on this, but this country I live in has been killing brown people for almost 11 years now in some war and it ain't solved a goddamn thing. No, they made it worse is all, cause of profit and the rich wanting more and more while us poor-ass people get less and less. It's sinful, is what it is.
I've seen some of those rich people on the highway, out of gas in their big 'ole luxury buses trying to get somewhere cooler. They got wads of cash and gold and diamonds but none of it means shit up here. WATER, that's right, water is the currency now, it means everything, or did. I seen a man get his brain's blown out over a cup of warm water. Yep, that's right, and his kids were right there and nobody helped them. Nobody. It is every man for himself and you take care of you and your's.
My family's been in these mountains for hundreds of years and we know where every drop of water that can be found is, and ya' know what? There ain't no more. We got enough for tonight and that's it. I want ya'll to know that I had to kill some people, some bad people who tried to take my family's food and water. When this all started, we mountain people round here got together and closed off the roads.
We had to. People were going crazy trying to get up higher and higher in the mountains. We killed to protect our own, of they would have killed us. I'm on top of the mountain now and in a few hours me and my loved one's will be dead. I'm going to kill everyone in my family after they fall asleep, then kill myself. Better that, than to watch them all suffer. I won't have that, I just won't!
Man, look at those colors. I'm not a religious man, but I've always been spiritual and this my friends is something out of this world. Millions of colors streaking by, it's almost like one continuous rainbow as far as the eye can see. I got no advice for anyone who survives whatever the hell this is. How do you survive the Sun Gods? Sounds funny don't it? "Sun Gods". But I've heard it from time to time these last few weeks. If I was pressed, and I ain't and no one would take my advice anyway, I would tell people to find out everything this world has ever done, and do the opposite. Man ole Man, did we fuck this old world up or what?
It's getting near time. I want to go and kiss my babies and my wife. Hug my mama and shake my daddy's hand. He don't know much of what is going on, ain't in years. But there was a time when he was a man's man. He would probably be doing something different, damn, I wish he would wake up for a few minutes and tell me what to do. But, if wishes were horses, daddy always said.
If I done something wrong to anybody, I'm sorry. I used to pull a cork from time to time and I also got out of hand as a youngin', I guess we all do sometimes. Nothin' serious, but I am sorry if I hurt anyone. I can hardly see for the beads of sweat, but I got one more thing to say to whoever finds this, if it gets found at all, which I doubt.
Please, be kind to everyone. That's all. All the problems in the world could have been solved with those two words. "Be Kind". How hard is that? Peace to you all
Kenneth Sibbett has published numerous short stories over the years and has recently published his first novel, "A Killer of Angels" available as a Kindle book.
In the Cemetery
Matthew Vernon Whalan is an eighteen year old writer and student at Marlboro College in Vermont.
My sister, Stella…
Before I tell you about Stella shooting the minister, I think you should know a little about me and perhaps that will help you to know her. The first thing I want to do when something goes wrong is to cuddle between Mommy and Daddy in their huge king-sized bed. It is the only place I feel safe, and I am thirty seven, married, with three children.
My parents, or Mommy and Daddy, as I still like to call them, are seventy-nine now and the king bed is long gone, as they both have hospital beds, side-by-side in the assisted living home. Yet that’s where I want to be, even though I can’t and I’m sure if they knew they would laugh for days about it. They have a pretty good sense of humor. I’m Charles. I’m a middle school math teacher. I have a pretty wife, Lydia, although I have never told her about yearning to return to the space under the covers between Mommy and Daddy.
Lydia, I believe, married me because of my father’s reputation as a beloved professor of philosophy at Adelaide College. She thought his charm would rub off on me, but I am a dullard especially at cocktail parties. I am not taken to small chatty talk and isosceles triangles do not make fascinating or humorous party conversations. I fix a bemused expression on my face and stand around holding the same drink all evening and whatever the topic I am bemused. Even about the death of one of Lydia’s colleagues. Yes I heard about that. “Get that god damned look off your face for a change!” she berated me into the wee small hours of the morning. I knew at the next party I would have to suck in my gut, squeeze into my best gray pin-striped suit and red silk tie, comb whatever strands I can find over my bald spot, clip those pesky nose hairs, roll on double the deodorant and corner unsuspecting party goers into making trapezoids out of the white cocktail napkins.
Stella, my sister, lives alone as a librarian should. She is thirty and unmarried and has never had a date. I think she resembles Sophia Loren, not the sexy part, unfortunately the not-so-good-looking part. She does have the long dark hair and long legs, hairy I’m afraid, and she is overly bosomed, but not in a good way, if you know what I mean and her stomach is huge. But I’m crazy about her. She’s a good sister. She has a great bellowing laugh and she doesn’t mind saying what she thinks without any thought of tact.
Stella is a first rate librarian. And she keeps a mean library, that is to say she’s been known to rip patrons to shreds with her sharp tongue. You DO NOT make noise in Stella’s library. She’s bright, innovative, but she is also insecure, feels weird among people, and not good at parties like me.
Stella is an artist of sorts. Not oils. Not charcoal. Well sometimes charcoal. She does caricatures. I think she uses black acrylics. She paints people on white sheets, drapes them over her chairs and sofa, or lays them on pillows on the gold rug. Just walking in to her apartment, it appears as if she is surrounded by friends. Sometimes the friends look like Billy Joel or Rihanna or Frankie Sinatra. She sits amongst these “friends” and eats with them, drinks with them, talks with them--not anything she’d have to be committed for, but when she shot the minister, they said they had to put her in jail.
Not sure how Mommy and Daddy deserved us. They were such great parents. They were like co-joined twins, did everything together and their friends were long standing, actually from the cradle roll. These were Stella and my friends too, and maybe that’s why Stella and I didn’t actually have friends of our own age.
Lydia, my pretty wife, wears her chestnut hair in a long braid that falls down her back and is secured with a butterfly clasp made of dark brown Austrian crystals. She is an associate English professor at Adelaide and she is determined, truly religiously determined, to become a full professor with tenure before her nemesis, Bunny Winslow. Our children take after Lydia in looks, thank God, and they are healthy. There are the two older boys, Rob and Steve. Their interests are computers and cars. Rob is the computer geek and Steve is the car crasher. I’ve told Steve he has got to pay for his own car insurance as it is killing me. But they’re great boys. Never begged me to play ball with them. It’s not my thing or theirs. Now our girl, Katherine, who is three, well she’s all girl, and only wants to be a mommy when she grows up.
What happened to the minister…
Pastor Williams only lost a leg. He knocked on Stella’s front door and that was his mistake. Stella only lets family in her apartment. So she shot him. She said she was aiming for his private parts, but she had never seen a man naked, so she wasn’t sure where the equipment lingered.
We didn’t know she had a gun. But she went hunting with Dad and me one autumn when we were hungry for venison. She took to a gun right away, but we didn’t think she’d go out and buy one. She got the buck for us that day and she took a real liking to dicing it up too. Luckily she didn’t do that to the pastor.
The women’s prison is about ten miles out of town. The prison is gray, typical for prisons I assume; the inmates are tattooed, brazen, foul-mouthed, greasy-haired and crass. Yet Stella doesn’t mind. She became something of a prison star when they found out she could draw famous people. Now, with the sidewalk chalk I bring her she draws the other inmate’s favorite celebrity to share their cells; James Franco, Mick Jagger, Colin Farrell, Sylvester Stallone and Sandra Bullock. Stella has many requests, but the ones she does not honor are pornographic drawings; Stella is a shy and proper lady.
The warden, Ann Muldoon, is a young red-haired woman barely out of college and she was quite willing to make the prison as happy a place as possible so, she allows Stella lots of leeway in making the prison artistic. Because of this, Stella requested some books from her library. Books like THE ART TO DECEIVE and TROMPE L’OEIL MADE EASY, and ADVANCED TROMPE L’OEIL and FOOLING THE EYE and ULTIMATE TROMPE L’OEIL, and an old novel called, THE GIRL WHO DREW TROMPE L’OEIL.
“Here’s your Trump Oil,” I said as I presented the books she ordered. They thumped onto the table between us.
Of course she corrected me. “Tromp loey,” Stella instructed.
“Louie, Louie, Louie,” I sang to tease her.
“LOEY!” she said, about to lose her temper.
After studying trompe l’oeil for several weeks, Stella began to practice it. She told me that in the novel, THE GIRL WHO DREW TROMPE L’OEIL, Marie was able to leave and enter through the deceiving art into and out of buildings, into and out of army camps (for lovemaking), into and out of castles (for espionage), and even into and out of countries.
“Well, it’s a novel,” I said.
Stella got a strange look on her face as if she was not at the prison’s visitor center with me. Then she blushed, laughed, and agreed, “Yes, it’s a novel, of course, I know that.”
The first successful trompe l’oeil Stella drew in her cell was a large castle-sized door, an open door which led to a beautiful green grassy area full of maple trees and pink and yellow lilies. The drawing showed great talent and certainly fooled my eye. It looked like you could walk right through that door and be in that charming yard.
The assisted living home…
I visit Mommy and Daddy once a week in the assisted living home. Mostly they don’t know I’m there. Their hospital beds are side-by-side. White pillows, blue blankets, pale green walls, yellow-specked linoleum floor. They both sleep with their mouth’s wide open, reminding me of halibuts in the Alaskan seas.
“Do they ever wake up?” I ask an aide in an aqua uniform. I think her name is Rebecca.
“Yes, we wake them to take their meds.”
“That’s not exactly living, is it?” I ponder, but Rebecca is gone on her rounds.
I turn on their radio to beautiful music, the kind they loved when they were in their twenties. I hope it helps them sleep, but probably the meds do a better job of it. I listen to the music and watch them breathe in and out, in and out, in and out, and after an hour of ins and outs, I take my leave. My duty is done for the week. I am a good son.
The phone call…
The warden from the women’s prison called one Tuesday.
“Stella is missing from the jail.”
The inmates were questioned and some said she escaped by climbing out of the open trompe l’oeil castle door in her cell. Others said that Stella got “taken care of” by some bad inmates (the punk girl gang) but nothing could be found of her in the jail. There were rumors as to how it was done, like she was stuffed down a toilet, or she was thrown alive into the prison furnace or her throat was slit and then she was cut into thousands of one inch cubes and tossed into the prison stew. It was also rumored that her huge breasts were being tossed around in the volleyball court in the exercise yard.
And yet how to explain the trompe l’oeil of broken bricks that had been drawn with colored chalk on the outside of Mommy and Daddy’s assisted living home. I couldn’t help wonder if she somehow slipped between the bricks and got inside to kiss them goodbye. I searched the outside of my house for days, but found no trompe l’oeil. I was quite sad that Stella chose not to visit here but then several weeks later Lydia called to me, “Come look in Katherine’s room!”
And there behind the white drape was a branch and bird’s nest on our daughter’s wall, complete with a mother and father brown sparrow and three baby blue eggs. Stella, you came!
A letter to my sister…
Dear Stella: I don’t know if you will ever read this (I will leave it in our secret place for childhood notes) but I must tell you Daddy has passed away. He went in his sleep. As you know he slept away the last year at the home anyhow, but this time the sleep is permanent. I was able to tell the funeral director that I needed time alone with Daddy before they closed the oak casket. It was all very private and I did climb in and cuddle with him. It was warm and wonderful like those times they would welcome us into their bed in the mornings. I had longed for many years to repeat the wonderful, safe feeling and I will do the same with Mommy when it is her time. I did find out the funeral home did not put on Daddy’s navy slacks, just his red plaid jockey shorts! I was outraged and did speak to them and they corrected the situation as I watched. Apparently they do this all the time, thinking family will not peek under the white blanket! He might have got cold in the grave.
I wish you could have been at the funeral. Of course you know the whole town adored Daddy and they all showed up, thousands, or so it seemed. Mommy wasn’t well enough to be there and she does not understand that he died--just as well.
Going through Daddy’s effects, I have learned some rather startling things, Stella, prepare yourself. Sit down. Calm down, Stella, we have quite a few, in fact, maybe tons of half brothers and sisters. Oh not what one would first think--Daddy was loyal to Mommy--but he did contribute regularly to a sperm bank. And now, keep sitting, more news. You and I are adopted! Now I know why I never looked like Daddy or could ever be compared to Daddy. I assume Mother was sterile. Why didn’t they ever tell us? Yes I have asked myself that too! In Daddy’s notes, he said he wanted to have children of his own even though he would not know them or raise them--thus the sperm bank thing--but he went on to say that you and I were everything he could ever dream of in children, and we must take solace in that. I do believe him. He was a great Daddy.
I hope I see you again, dear Stella. I dream that you are traveling the world, making orange, yellow and purple murals or some such thing. Come home when it feels right.
Much love, my dear sister, your devoted brother, Charles.
P.S. No, we don’t have the same birth parents but who cares?
After Stella went missing from the prison, that’s all I thought about. I did not give a second of my time to the minister that she shot, how he fared, what he was going through—nothing. I couldn’t have cared less. But one day, when I left the teacher’s lounge, there he was on crutches with one blue-jeaned pant leg pinned up near his hip. His shoulders were slumped. He couldn’t look me in the eye, but it was obvious he had been waiting for me.
“Wanna go to Starbucks?” he murmured.
“What?” I said, hoping I had not heard him correctly.
“Feel like getting coffee?”
Oh God, I thought. What is this about?
“Sure,” I said. But I was not at all sure, and right away sorry I had said it. I had just had coffee in the teacher’s lounge. God damn, I am too nice.
I helped him into my car. I had no idea how he had arrived at my school. I placed his crutches on the back floor. He filled the passenger seat. Even with a missing leg he must have weighed 250 pounds. He had a wispy brown beard and thin gold-framed glasses. He was dressed in regular clothes, jeans, blue tee shirt and didn’t look like a pastor. He looked pale--maybe he had the flu--as he was sniffling. His eyes seemed to be studying the floorboard of my Chevy.
“Nice car,” he muttered.
What? He wanted my car because my sister took away his leg?
“It’s been nothing but trouble,” I lied.
When we got to Starbucks, I retrieved his crutches and helped him out of the car. We got situated at an outside table and ordered our coffees. Then he said, “I’m your brother.”
I thought he was being philosophical--but no.
He continued. “When your father died, my mother told me she had used the sperm bank he contributed to and your father was my father too.”
Our coffees arrived. I could not speak. My sister had shot our brother.
In time I found my voice--not much of one--I think I said something like, “Thanks for letting me know.”
I took him home. I hoped that was that.
But several weeks later we started to do guy things together. Ben (Pastor Benjamin Williams) had a boat. We went fishing and we went bowling--not so easy for my brother on crutches. I chauffeured him to the specialist for fittings of his prosthesis the day when it was ready. I introduced him to Lydia and the children. Lydia and I began to attend his church services. Ben accompanied us to cocktail parties and he and I gabbed together all evening while Lydia chatted up her colleagues.
It was a happy familial three month period before Ben started moving me in a bad direction. Sure, he was single but I was very much married to a lovely gal. He liked visiting naughty lingerie shops and getting in communal hot tubs with hot girls. Yeah I succumbed and felt like crap because of it. Then he wanted to go to bars in the next town where he wouldn’t be recognized and drink himself into oblivion. I did that too.
One night we were really socking them down at a sports bar in Estacada when Ben said, “Some women sleep with their bedroom windows open.”
“Oh?” I replied.
“You gotta be choosy,” he advised.
“Really?” I said. I was bombed and bleary-eyed.
“It was my mistake,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“I mean who in their right mind would fall into her bedroom because she is such a dog! She didn’t have to shoot me. All she would have had to do was bump me with that humongous stomach or bop me with that hanging ass and I would have been down for the count. She didn’t have to shoot me!” Ben was laughing hysterically. “Did you ever see such a dog?” he asked.
I laughed and nodded my head in agreement and I kept nodding and agreeing, and then I got nauseous--not from the whiskey--but from realizing he was making fun of my sister. How could I have participated in the denigration of Stella?
My agreeing sounds got quieter and less convincing and soon I was whimpering like a piglet that can’t find his mommy. There was only one thing I could do. I pulled Ben off the bar stool and onto the floor where I de-panted him and then I took off his prosthesis, hailed a cab and went home.
The next day I mailed his prosthesis back to the church.
I deceive my brother…
At the party for the nemesis Bunny Winslow’s getting tenure (which left poor Lydia with a permanent frozen smile), I bumped into the police detective who came to Stella’s apartment when she shot the minister. Detective Bledsoe, Bunny’s cousin, made a reference to my sister, saying he was sorry to hear what happened at the jail because Stella was from such a good family, but they just had to arrest her, and “besides she confessed to the shooting.”
I replied, “Well, what would you do if some bloke crawled in your bedroom window at one a.m.?”
“Oh no, you’ve got it wrong,” Bledsoe said. “She said he knocked on the front door!”
“And I say you are wrong, my friend. Stella told me he came through the bedroom window, falling in fact on the floor, and she didn’t know who he was and she shot the devil out of him as anyone would do, don’t you agree?”
“Are you sure?” he asked. “The bedroom window?”
“Oh my god,” he said and left the party as if he was late for something.
I use my brother…
As it happened the bedroom window entrance rang a bell with Detective Bledsoe. That was the modus operandi of the infamous bedroom bandit that had evaded the police for five years. So the detective got a search warrant for Pastor Williams’s house and I’ll be damned--they found his attic, his rooms and the garage full of stolen items. Flat screen TV’s, computers, diamond rings, Ipods, cell phones, silverware, antique rifles, fuchsia lipsticks, pink nail polishes, bedroom slippers shaped like bears, ladies’ panties and bras, and lots of panty hose. The items were listed in the newspaper. Apparently my brother, the minister, stole everything that wasn’t bolted to the floor.
Now at the cocktail parties that Lydia drags me to, I begin all my sentences with “My brother, the one-legged thief….” and I regale the small crowds that gather around with stories about my bad boy brother.
I am suddenly quite popular. Sometimes Lydia looks at me as if she doesn’t know who I am.
This story originally appeared in print in The Sheepshead Review.
Papa says. “I love you Jimmy,” at least three times every day, just so I’ll be sure.
He loves me, “A bushel and a peck and a hug around the neck,” almost all the time. And when he doesn’t love me he pretends.
“I love you Sport,” is what he says when he’s pretending.
Papa pretends real good—not like Mom. She loves me too, when she’s around, but Mom is mostly somewhere else.
“She does the best she can,” Papa says, “Sometimes she needs a break.”
Mom cried a little everyday for a long, long time and then she started crying more. Now she takes pills, like the ones that ‘keep me comfortable’.
Papa says the crying’s not my fault, but I think it is. I know what’s true, even if I know it kind of slow. Slow means careful, the way people drive in school zones, and Papa says there’s nothing wrong with that.
“Down syndrome’s not so bad,” Papa says. “But when leukemia came along, your mama couldn’t take it.”
“She loves you, Sport. That’s the pure-D truth.”
When Papa calls me Sport I know it’s all pretend. Other times I’m Jimmy, or Big Jim, or Jimbo. He does it every time, so it’s not hard to figure out. Especially when he takes me to the doctor every Monday morning.
Dr. M doesn’t call me Sport, but I can tell when he’s pretending too. We call him Dr. M because he comes from the other side of the world where names have too many letters. Papa says Dr. M’s people don’t like Americans much.
“But Dr. M’s OK, Sport. Dr. M likes you just fine.”
He ‘keeps me comfortable’ with pills, but he talks about me like I’m somewhere else. Taking a break, like Mom.
“This will dull the pain,” he tells Papa. “One pill in the morning and one before he goes to bed.”
I see Dr. M once a week, lots more than I see Mom. I talk to him but he won’t answer back. Papa says it’s because I’m an American, but that can’t be right, because Papa is American too.
“He’s your doctor, Sport. Dr. M knows best.”
Kids with Down syndrome get leukemia all the time, and Dr. M keeps them comfortable while their Moms and Papas ‘face the facts’.
Papa’s really good at facing the facts, but Mom can hardly do it at all.
“But she loves you Sport. That’s the Pure-D truth.”
This week we don’t make it all the way to Dr. M’s. We start off, just like always, but Papa runs over a cat. He says it’s an accident, but he uses my pretending name.
We feel a bump and hear a squeal, and the cat takes off, dragging its back legs.
“Dang!” Papa would have said worse, but he doesn’t like to curse in front of me.
He tries to catch the cat but it’s too quick even with a broken back.
Papa gets a little sick beside the car and then he gets back in and tells me how the cat is hurt real bad and it’s going to die for sure.
“I’m sorry, Jimbo. I’m real sorry, but I couldn’t catch it.”
“Too bad,” I say. “Because then we could take it to Dr. M’s and he could keep it comfortable.”
Papa gets sick all over again, almost too fast to roll down his window.
“Was it a boy cat or a girl cat?” I ask Papa.
If it was a girl, maybe she has kittens. They’ll be sad when she comes home with a broken back.” I say that while Papa’s busy being sick, so he doesn’t answer.
“We’d better go home, Sport.” The cat he hit is black and that’s real bad luck so it’s no good taking chances.
“You know about bad luck, Sport. Things can always get a little worse.” I think he means my leukemia. When you’ve got something like that, more bad luck is the last thing you need.
Papa drives back home real slow, looking out for cats all the way. He calls Dr. M’s office as soon as we get there, right after he drinks a little glass of ‘snake bite medicine’. Papa’s so afraid of snakes he takes an ‘ounce of prevention’ every now and then just to be safe. He has a little glass that gives him just the right amount.
Papa talks with Dr. M’s office a very long time. Sometimes he uses his outside voice and says words I’m not supposed to hear.
But mostly he says, “I can’t do this anymore,” over and over, until he calms down and starts ‘facing facts’ again.
“I know,” Papa says. “I know, I know. Let nature take its course.”
He hangs up the phone and stands in front the sliding glass doors at the back of the house. He stands real close until his breath fogs up the glass and then he prints a word in the fog. He wipes it out before I have time to sound it out, then he opens the door and runs outside chasing squirrels that are playing under the big oak tree by the fence.
They are way too fast for Papa, and that’s a good thing for the squirrels. He talks bad about them for a real long time when he comes back inside. And then he says, “I only want what’s best for you. You know that, don’t you Sport.”
It’s one of those times when Papa just pretends to love me. I don’t answer him. I just stand by the sliding glass doors counting squirrels. There are five of them, just like a hand full of fingers. By the time I’ve counted them three times, Papa’s drinking another little glass of ‘snake bite medicine’.
The squirrels start playing in the yard again, like they always do. They don’t know why Papa wants to kill them, but it doesn’t matter. The world is full of things that want to kill a squirrel. Their brains are way too small, so they forget real fast. Just like Mom forgets to come sometimes on visitation day.
This time she remembers, but she starts crying right away.
“Take a pill,” Papa tells her. “Take a deep breath. Count to ten. You’re scaring Jimmy.”
“I’m not scared,” I tell them, even though I am—scared Mom and Papa will get into a fight like they always do when Mom comes over.
“Papa hit a cat,” I say, because I can’t think of anything else. “And then he got mad at the squirrels, but now everything is all right.”
“Squirrels never hold a grudge,” I tell mom. “Neither do cats. Even black ones that give you worse luck than you already have.”
“It’s all right, Sport.” Everything is all right with Papa. “She’s not crying ‘cause of you.”
That makes Mom cry even harder, so I take her by the hand and lead her to the sliding glass doors and count the squirrels.
“One, two, three, four, five.”
She laughs a little. I don’t know why the numbers make her laugh, but it’s much better than crying so I count to five all over again. I can do this all day if it makes Mom happy.
She sniffs and wipes her eyes and asks me how things are.
“Just fine.” There isn’t much to say now that I don’t go to school anymore, because she and Papa both agreed, “There isn’t any point.”
I have a bruise shaped just like Texas on my belly, and I show it to her because I think she’ll like the colors.
“Austin is the capitol of Texas.” I put my finger in the middle of my bruise where Austin would be. I know all about Texas because Papa came from there and it’s the biggest and the best at everything.
“He bruises up real easy,” Papa says. “But it doesn’t hurt a bit. Does it Sport?”
I say, “Dr. M. keeps me comfortable.” And that starts Mom crying hard again. She cries so hard she has to take a break.
“Call me,” she tells Papa. “You know . . . If things take a turn.”
Her shoes make lots of noise as she walks to the front door. She finger-waves me a goodbye and then blows me a kiss, and then she’s gone. Driving off to where she goes until she feels better.
“Sorry about that, Jimbo.” Papa fetches his little glass out of the dishwasher and pours himself another ‘ounce of prevention’.
“She’ll be back real soon. I promise.” He doesn’t call me Sport so maybe it’s not pretend.
“Mom loves you, Jim” Papa says. “That’s the Pure-D truth.”
“Pure D Truth” was first published in the Storyteller magazine, volume 16, issue 3. July, August, September, 2011.
John T. Biggs is an award winning author looking for a genre.
My clients see me only once. I do the rest of the job alone. Still, it seems that most of them would rather avoid that meeting. I think they want to pretend the job is already over. Or it’s the shame. In some circles the practice is still frowned upon, comparing my profession to a hired killer. That’s a silly analogy because the dead cannot be killed. I’d rather call it a type of data processing. A sequence of executed commands to flip bits. Because of that, even colleagues call me a cold-blooded cynic. I don’t protest. Perhaps that’s why I’m so good at this job.
Whether the client likes it or not, the Personal Data Protection Act requires me to handle the documents personally. As there’s no way to avoid it, the clients usually prefer that I come to their place.
For exactly this reason I’m on my way to meet Mister Castle. My blond hair is pulled back in a ponytail. A sweater covers the tattoos on my neck. All my piercings are removed. One thing I learned is if you want to stay successful in your business, you‘d better show up looking professional.
Castle lives in a row house at the far end of the city. As I happen to dwell in an equally unglamorous place not too far away, I take a walk. The street is wet and the air smells of drying laundry. For a Saturday afternoon there’s not much traffic, leaving me ample room to maneuver between the puddles.
I notice some candles left on the sidewalk, not far ahead. Some of them still burn with a weak flame, after surviving the night’s rain. I stop to check the address.
That’s my client’s house.
I walk up to the front door, listening. It’s gravely silent inside, typical for a client visit. With a brief touch of the finger, I wake the doorbell, disturbing the stillness.
There’s some shuffling inside and after a moment, a bulky middle-aged man opens the door. He’s bald, wearing fine round glasses.
“Oh, hello. You must be here because of the job,” he says, after a moment of hesitation. Not many expect to see a young girl doing this business.
“Hello, Mister Castle,” I reply, extending my hand.
He’s about twice my size. The handshake feels like putting on a warm mitten.
“Please, come in,” he urges.
The hallway is almost empty and excessively clean, as if someone had just moved in. I imagine the other rooms are just as sterile, but I’m not invited further. I catch a glimpse of a woman wearing a bathrobe in the far doorway. Her eyes look terribly tired. Dark and sunken. Either she’s been up all night or crying a lot. Probably both. I nod at her, and she cracks a weak smile as she shuts the door, retreating inside.
“How much time do you think you need for this?” Castle asks, handing me a thick envelope.
“One or two days. I’ll call you back at the end of the week.”
“Good. That’s fine,” Castle says, as he shifts from one foot to the other, about to add something to what he’s already said.
“It’s been a very hard time after the accident, especially for my wife. Sometimes... Things just remind us too much about her.”
I don’t say anything. No condolences. That’s not my job and it doesn’t work anyway.
“Please understand. It wasn’t an easy decision,” he says.
I nod, although I don’t care. Hundreds of people die in this city alone every day. All of them leave behind their digital information. Comments, pictures, messages. Mostly rubbish. Carelessly spilling it all over the network. I just clean up after them. Create breathing space for the rest. That, or at least I sweep away the painful memories.
“Everything will be gone,” I assure him, and turn around to leave.
On my way back, I notice cardboard boxes by the door. Bags full of clothing, stacks with teen magazines. I’m certain it will all be destroyed by the end of the day.
Once outside, I open the envelope. Sometimes, clients forget to provide the required documents, and I don’t want to come back for a second time. I flip through the contents. Besides my salary, there’s the death certificate, power of attorney, and some ID’s.
I pick the driver’s license and glance at the picture. A blonde girl, with her head slightly tilted, looks at me, smiling a narrow smile. Shirley Castle. Just two years younger than me.
Soon, I’ll erase her.
In twenty minutes I’m back at my two-room condo. The hinges squeak as I push the heavy door open just enough to squeeze inside. As always, the air feels damp and wet. I load the wood-burning stove and fire it up with my lighter, keeping the sweater on until the room warms up. I drop the envelope on a relatively clean spot on the desk, between food leftovers, books, and ashtrays. Finally, I kick off my shoes and collapse in my chair.
One by one, I take the paper and plastic documents and place them in my scanner. As soon as they’re on my computer, I log-in to fill in an online form and submit it. While the system processes it, I wander to the kitchen. After years of tuning, the process has become incredibly fast. When I’m back with a steaming mug of tea, the application is processed. Now I know where Shirley’s data is located, and have passwords to access, or rather, delete it.
I begin by logging in to her social profile. There are options to memorialize it, but if it comes to hiring me, the clients want to remove it completely. They feel uncomfortable just looking at it. There are individuals you suspect are dead, considering their lack of their online activity, but it’s completely different from knowing someone’s really passed away.
So I cut the bonds. Rip out the profile with its long roots from the rest of the network and throw it away. When Shirley’s friends and classmates log in, the link will have been severed. It depends how soon they’ll find out, if ever. As in real life, you never notice immediately when someone’s gone.
I finish the tea and light a cigarette. Shirley’s email is next.
The inbox is full of unread items and I can tell by the from field it’s not spam. For some reason, people just keep writing letters to the deceased, knowing the recipient will never read them. From personal habit, I go through all the unread mail, opening them briefly without reading them. They’re mostly short sentences, but I see longer writings, too. There’s some kind of respect for the ones who wrote all this. Deleting everything at once would be like burning unopened letters. Call it superstition. When that’s finished, I’m about to remove the account completely, but then notice the draft folder is not empty. It’s tempting to open it. Perhaps Shirley had long agonized about these messages, trying to get the words right. Or gathered courage to hit that send button. Could it be a love confession? A plea for forgiveness? If I send them, would it even matter now? But I know there’s no choice. The Pact prohibits me from interacting with the data.
So the email account is deleted. Perhaps one day it will be up for grabs, like an unoccupied flat, so another Shirley can ponder over her letters.
My stomach grumbles. The mixture of tea and nicotine makes me crave for real food. I grab some lettuce and cream sauce.
While dipping a leaf, I open the image-hosting site she’s been using. There are plenty of pictures, most of which are linked to somewhere. Shirley will have to vanish. Whether it’s a blog, forum or gallery. She will disappear, leaving a blank page or error message.
Next comes the complicated stuff. Surely she’s made posts and comments on the Internet. Perhaps she hasn’t been that active. Perhaps she was posting fifty messages daily. That’s why I have software that will crawl all over the net, searching for these fragments of information. Jumping from one to another, looking for something to delete. If she had communicated back and forth with someone, now it will look like he was speaking to a ghost.
I log into her file server. It contains plenty of files ranging from films, books, music and pictures. I start deleting all of them. Meanwhile a server somewhere is deleting this data from a hard drive. I know it may not be deleted completely. That’s what makes data recovery possible. It will only remove the reference to these chunks of bits. Later they could be overwritten by something else. Until then, the data is still there. Accessible if needed. Just invisible. I wonder if it’s the same case with Shirley. Perhaps she lost the reference in this world that leads to the actual her somewhere. If we believe in such thing as rebirth, will another reference be born, linking back to Shirley?
Now, only the dry details remain. Bank accounts, healthcare records, educational background. Unsurprisingly, I’m not allowed there. It’s a lot simpler. With a few clicks, the online system will log-in and delete the data automatically. The only downside is that it will take a while. Looking at the progress bar, I drift to sleep.
The phone rings from somewhere, startling me. I look at the clock. It’s well after midnight.
“Yes?” I answer weakly.
There’s silence on the other end. Then there’s a weary woman’s voice. “I’m calling about one of your latest... assignments.”
Even though I’ve never heard her voice, I suspect it’s the woman at Castle’s house.
“Shirley.” her voice crackles as I stir a memory. “I just wanted to know, how’s the progress?”
I wiggle the mouse to wake the screen. Procedure complete.
“Actually it’s done. I was about to call your husband in the morning.”
“So you’re saying there’s nothing left?”
I pause. What answer would she rather hear? Is that the doubt that keeps her awake?
“Yes. Everything’s gone.”
“I see,” she says. There’s the silence again. Then she hangs up.
I take the contents of the envelope and one by one, feed it to the document shredder. Then put the messy result into the stove. After a few blows the embers start to glow, igniting their prey. I light my cigarette and stare at the fire. It’s as if Shirley and I were sitting around and smoking.
Then the fire dies down. Shirley is gone.
When my job is done, I like to think that all that was deleted will catch up with the owner somehow. Perhaps, rise to heaven for someone. Or join some kind of outworldly information pool where we might end up. But why do I even care about this? All I did was flip some bits. Why does it make me feel uneasy?
And why do I make so many backups?
Janis Zelcans is a network engineer from a small peninsula in Latvia where he lives with his wife, three children, a dog, and a cat.