“How to Commit the Perfect Murder” was an old game in heaven. I always chose the icicle: the weapon melts away.”
― Alice Sebold, The Lovely Bones
I ride the trains at night. I can’t sleep and I have a monthly pass, so why not.
It was almost three in the morning and I was sitting on the Darkwater platform on one of those little seats that fold down.
There was a maintenance worker, a tired looking old man, washing the platform with a faded green hose. He pretended not to notice me and I pretended not to notice him.
The thief came from nowhere, pulled a gun on the maintenance man, and demanded in a loud and obscene voice that he hand over his cell phone.
He did hand it over, without hesitation. I was thinking how big of a loss this was to him, how many platforms he would have to hose down to buy a new phone when the thief shot him, twice, and he went down in a quickly expanding pool of blood.
The thief turned and ran down the stairs. I followed, not slowly but not running either. At street level I saw the thief disappear down an alley between two dilapidated brick industrial buildings. I followed.
The thief was waiting for me. He was yelling something at me – but I couldn’t make out the words. His gun was big – I recognized it as a Glock 21 forty-five caliber. It was a real hand cannon and it was pointed at me.
My Walther PPK 9mm dropped from the holster in my sleeve into my hand. It is a lot smaller than his Glock. But I am practiced, very fast, and I never miss.
“You spend your whole life stuck in the labyrinth, thinking about how you’ll escape one day, and how awesome it will be, and imagining that future keeps you going, but you never do it. You just use the future to escape the present.”
― John Green, Looking for Alaska
No Throwing the Corn
Amanda found an article in the newspaper about some guy that had cut a series of mazes into his cornfield, about a half -hour east of the city – and was charging folks to walk around and get lost. It sounded like fun, so we bundled the kids and a friend up and headed out of town.
It was getting late, the sun was setting as we pulled up. It was a fun place, although everyone was tired and grumpy.
They have a number of mazes. One made out of hay bale tunnels – with instructions posted on the hay. It’s more of a puzzle than a maze. Then there are three labyrinths made up of fencing right near the parking lot. Jim liked those the best.
The main attraction, though, are the two labyrinths cut into the cornfield itself. They are huge, covering about a square mile or so. One maze is more twisty and complicated, the other more open, with long straightaways.
The rules are simple: no running, no pulling the corn, no picking the corn, no throwing the corn, no cutting through the corn. The smell of the ripe, dry cornfield was wonderful.
I can’t speak much of what it looked like because by the time we hit the cornfield maze the night was pitch black. A lot of people were in the maze had flashlights and/or glow sticks – plus some light (and noise) filtered across the freeway from the drag races going on there.
It was fun, wandering around in the dark, dodging the clumps of screaming kids (many ignoring the rule about no running), and trying to figure out the overall layout of the corn. It was easy to get truly lost, especially in the dark. There are clues to help you find your way out, plus a lot of workers in there checking on the customers… though we never needed any help – simply a lot of walking.
It took us about forty minutes to get through the Phase I maze – we probably walked two miles or so. Jim’s knee was aching, so he sat it out while Amy and I made it through Phase II a little quicker.
The kids kept getting frustrated in the maze when we would hit a dead end or realize we were at a spot we had passed before. I told them not to be so bothered, to relax and keep moving. “You have to walk down the wrong paths to find the right ones,” was my fatherly-zen advice.
“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road
“I haven’t heard from Elana,” Sara said to the ghost of her nephew Jimmy.
“Really? Did you expect to?”
“We’ve been friends for years. We used to meet for coffee almost every week and lunch on Fridays.”
“She ignores my texts.”
“She ghosted you.”
“That sucks. I would never do anything like that.”
“But you’re a ghost.”
“Sure. But still. I never liked that term. It gives us a bad name.”
“Do ghosts ghost people?”
“Well, eventually we move on. To another plane – hopefully higher, but sometimes not. If we have been visiting people, live people, ordinary people, that can come as a shock. We disappear. Like ghosts.”
“So you do ghost people. As a matter of fact, you ghost people inevitably.”
“Well, it doesn’t count. We have no choice. It’s always a surprise, unexpected, when we have to move on. That’s how it works.”
“So you are going to ghost me? You said it was inevitable. You just don’t know when.”
“I guess. I’m sorry.”
“You and Elena. Both of you.”
“Which one is worse? Who will you miss the most, me or Elena?”
“That’s a hard question. With you, there is that feeling of guilt.”
“Guilt? Because you were driving. That drunk hit the passenger side of the car. You never saw them. That’s not your fault.”
“I know. I know. But I feel guilty. I was driving. You didn’t want to go. I talked you into it.”
“You didn’t twist my arm.”
“Yes I did, a little bit.”
“What about Elena? Do you feel guilt for her too?”
“Why? Well, maybe. I must have done something wrong.”
“Maybe she just moved on, like I will some day. Living people move on too.”
“Moved on? What, moved up? Without me? How does that make it better?”
“Maybe she moved down.”
“That makes it even worse. And I am so lonely. You are the only friend I have left.”
“You need more friends. Living friends.”
“Finding new friends, now, today, at my stage of life… it’s impossible.”
“Your stage of life? How about mine? You need to get out there more. You need to do something.”
“I miss Elana. I miss her so much. Does she miss me?”
“I’m sure she does. I’ll bet Elana misses you even more than you miss her.”
“Will you miss me? Will you miss me when you move on?”
“This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.”
― Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan
Dean4217 was at the base of the tower, picking up a load of concrete and it was time for a Gathering. He was excited to see it in person. At the present height it took him a week to reach the top and another to come back down. Usually, he watched the Gathering speech on the tablet in his cab; so seeing it live would be a rare treat.
He was shocked and frightened by the size of the crowd. He had worked on the tower itself his entire life and he didn’t realize how much support was needed on the ground – several times the people working at the top or along the sides. The speech itself was familiar – they never seemed to change – a dry recitation of feet gained, tons hauled, how many accidents, people injured (Only fifteen killed this quarter!) and so forth. Then, at the end, the usual exhortations – how his Broadway tower compared to the other two hundred-odd towers going up all over the world (as always – somewhere in the middle) and how important it was to keep climbing.
The Leader looked so small surrounded by the vast crowd, even flanked by the giant video screens. Dean4217 though how much better he could see and hear on his tablet and vowed not to waste the time if he found himself on ground level during another Gathering.
His truck was loaded when he reached it after the Gathering had ended and he saw the mechanics had checked out and green-tagged (it no good to break down on the way up) everything so he followed the leader’s advice not to waste and time – starting the engine and heading right for the entrance ramp.
There was always something about entering that ramp – to a driver like Dean4217 it represented the entire enormous project. Yet it was so nondescript, only a wide concrete ramp arching out of the end of the huge staging lot up against the south wall of the tower. Looking up, you could see how it rose and rose until it became a barely visible ribbon and then turned around the southwest corner to continue on up the west side. Another, similar ribbon, the downward ramp was visible above it, a diagonal slash that Dean4217 knew ended on the opposite side. That ramp too was nondescript – and to Dean4217 it represented relief, a job well done, just as this ramp meant the excitement of a new trip.
He took out a sharp saw blade and cut another notch along the metal edge of his dash as he entered the ramp. He had to reach far over to find fresh steel and had stopped counting many years before.
The first few days of the climb were always the easiest. At the lower altitudes the wind wasn’t that much of a problem and the thick atmosphere meant he could drive without his oxygen mask. Still well below the usual cloud level he could look out and enjoy the view. It changed constantly as he drove around the tower, rising with each circuit. Twice a day he would stop at a corner station for fuel, food, and a bit of a rest. These high stops would serve both the ascending and descending ramps and would give him a chance to catch up on the news and gossip from the higher sections of the tower.
On the third day he had risen to the point where he could see the Samsara tower to the east. This was the nearest tower to the Broadway, the only other one that was visible. He wasn’t sure how far away it was – one day some of them had tried to calculate the distance, using the height that it became visible at. Dean4217 didn’t believe it however, the distance seemed too far away. It looked so solid, so close, even though the curvature of the earth caused the Samsara to appear to tip away from the Broadway as it climbed.
He couldn’t help but look at it out his side window, trying to imagine a concrete driver crawling up that vast expanse, like a microscopic ant, looking over at him in similar wonder. It always bothered him that he had never seen the Broadway tower from a distance and had no idea what it looked like, although he assumed it was a twin to the Samsara over there. A dirt hauler in front of him had to stop to tighten a break line and Dean4217 reached across out his left side window to touch the vast concrete wall, trying to make some sort of connection with the overwhelming size of the thing he had spent his whole life helping to build.
At the first refuel stop on the fourth day, Dean4217 stealthily slipped the attendant a credit coupon to get him out of the station quicker than was his turn. One of the water drivers stared at him in frustration, but Dean4217 didn’t care. He needed to get to that night’s stop on time.
His girlfriend Jenny5309 was a rebar driver and she was on the way back down. They had worked out by tablet message that they could get to the same overnight stop on the same evening, if Dean4217 wasn’t delayed. It was always tough trying to arrange a meeting – the rebar trucks took a lot longer to load and it would throw everything out of kilter.
But this time it worked and Dean4217 had barely had time to secure his truck in its spot and get the safety straps down (he was at a height where wind storms could come up without warning) and he heard a knock on his door.
Dean4217 and Jenny5309 slipped their oxygen masks off for a quick kiss, and then then crawled back into the sleeper compartment. He had spent the previous night’s rest period cleaning it out and straightening everything up and had spent extra credits on oxygen bottles so he could charge the whole cube.
“So we don’t have to wear our masks,” he said.
“That’s so thoughtful,” she replied while hanging her mask and bottle on a hook he had provided. “Are you sure you can afford it?”
“Of course, what else am I going to spend my credits on?”
They both had a little laugh at this, then settled back to talk about what had happened since they had last met. Dean4217 thought about how nice it was to hear a familiar human voice. Each had read most of the stories they told each other – Dean4217 and Jenny5309 sent tablet messages to each other constantly. But they didn’t mind the repetition – hearing each other speak live was such a treat. Dean4217 always laughed at her little jokes, even though he had heard them all before and always sighed when she spoke of delays or problems getting her loads up the tower and he empty truck back down.
“You are so lucky, hauling concrete,” she said. “A few minutes of pumping in and you’re off. At the top, all you have to do is dump into the mixer. It takes so long to get all the rebar loaded and tied down.”
“You get a little more rest time.”
“Rest? I have to watch those loaders like a hawk. They don’t care it won’t be their ass if something blows off near the top of the tower.”
They both giggled at that, even though neither was really sure what was funny about it.
The next morning, as she was getting ready to leave, Jenny5309 suddenly became serious. Dean4217 thought it looked like a cloud had passed over her face.
“Dean4217,” she asked, “Why do you think we do this?”
“Why? I’m a concrete hauler and you bring rebar. Without us… and the dirt haulers and the water haulers, and the supplies, and… well, you know, everybody, the tower couldn’t go up.”
“I know that, dummy. But what I mean is that I don’t know why we build the tower. What it is for?”
Dean4217 paused. His father had worked on the tower all his life. He was a dirt hauler. Dean4217 was born in a rest area. At the time it had seemed like it was very high, though now it was barely a tenth of the way up the tower. His father was so proud when Dean4217 had saved enough money working as a steel bender to buy his own truck and start hauling concrete. It was all he had ever known.
“What do you mean why? What else would we do? Where else would all this concrete, steel, water, and dirt go?”
“I know, but I wonder some times. I wonder too, when will it be done?”
“Done? What do you mean done?”
“I mean finished.”
“It will never be finished. The point of a tower is to grow. It can always go taller. There is no end to up.”
“I know what the Leader says at the Gatherings. I’ve heard it all my life, just like you. But I was thinking, surely, someday we will reach an end. Someday… maybe not in our lives, or in our children’s, but someday the tower won’t be able to go any higher.”
Dean4217 had never thought of that. He sat there silent, staring at Jenny5309.
“What will we do then.”
Dean4217 thought of looking across the vast space at the Samsara tower and remembered thinking of the tiny ant, just like him, working his way up.
“I guess we could build another one.”
“I guess you’re right.”
It was always difficult to continue driving on the day after he had met up with Jenny5309. He thought of her on the down ramp, getting farther and farther away from him every second as he climbed. This time was worse; he was bothered by her questions. He was bothered by the fact he had never thought about them before.
At a rest, instead of using his tablet to contact Jenny5309 he called up all the stored speeches of the Leader and searched them for what he was looking for. He found nothing. The Leader had never talked about the purpose of the tower, if there was one, or what they would do if the tower couldn’t go any higher. It was only the usual platitudes: “There is no end to up” or “We must improve our standing in the universe of towers” or “The tower must grow and the faster the better.”
Dean4217 assumed these bothersome thoughts would leave his head as he climbed, day after day. As he neared the top of the tower, the work began to grow more difficult. The air was thinner and he sometimes he had trouble keeping his head clear even with the oxygen. The wind was now a constant howl and keeping the truck on the ramp was a chore, especially rounding a corner and getting used to the gale which would now be swirling from a different direction.
He couldn’t look while he was driving, but he found himself staring outward at every rest station instead of talking to the other drivers. He was now well above the tops of the cloud layer and looking out all he saw was a vast blanket of white, interrupted by the gray mass of the distant Samsara tower. He found he could not take his eyes off it – it was tough to tear them away when it was time for him to head out.
He had to wait behind two other concrete haulers at the top. Everything had to be strapped down across the flat top of the tower because of the incredible force of the winds. He watched the water trucks loading into the mixer and the bundled workers struggling to unload, bend, and place the rebar off of a steel truck.
When it was finally his turn to dump, he hooked up his safety line and carefully inched out of his cab and down to the surface. First he bent down and felt the top of the tower in the same way he had the wall at the bottom, over a week ago. It felt the same. It was, after all, part of the same structure.
Dean4217 fought his was over to where the mixer operator was tied to a steel chair, manipulating levers to add concrete and water to the rolling tank, and then pump it over to where the rebar benders had finished a section. The operator paused, surprised to see a driver out of his truck under these conditions.
“Hey,” Dean4217 said, “I’m Dean4217.”
“I’m… uhh, I’m Willard3309.” There was a pause, as if the operator had to think for a minute to remember his name. The air was very thin.
“Listen, I’ve been thinking,” said Dean4217, “How much farther do you think we can go? The air’s getting pretty thin.”
“Well, there’s no end to up.” Willard3309 repeated the mantra. “And there’s been some engineers up here already. They’re working on pressurized cabs, helmets, and armored worksuits. I don’t think there’s any stopping us once they get all that figured out.”
“I see.” Dean4217 stared at the mixer operator for a long time, trying to decide if he should say what he was about to say. He realized he had no choice.
“Why do you think we are building it?” he said.
“What do you mean why?”
Dean4217 started moving his mouth, as if he was chewing, trying to figure out what to say next, when both men noticed an excitement among all the iron workers. It was strange they were silent in the constant roar of the wind, but they were all unhooking their straps, adding safety lines, and moving off toward the edge of the tower. Dean4217 realized he didn’t know for sure which edge it was, but the crowd began to grow, everyone looking out and gesturing wildly.
Dean4217 and Willard3309 hooked their safety lines together and Willard3309 began to move them toward the gathering crowd. They moved quickly, Willard3309 was very used to the top of the tower and knew all the handy clip rings and tie-off points.
At the edge, they put their heads up against another and found out what the excitement was about.
“Another Tower! We’re high enough, we can see it!”
Looking out over the edge, Dean4217 could make out a tiny sliver of light gray against the dark purplish blue sky.
“We think it’s the Wildsmith. The engineers have said it would grow into our view sometime soon. We need to wait until nightfall, we should be able to see their lights.”
Dean4217 was filled with excitement. Another tower! Imagine!
His heart was beating so hard he could barely stand. He stood and stared, though he wanted to get back to his cab and tablet so he could tell Jenny5309 about what he saw.
He remembered that he had a question that was bothering him, but in the excitement, he completely forgot what it was.
“One day when I went out to my wood-pile, or rather my pile of stumps, I observed two large ants, the one red, the other much larger, nearly half an inch long, and black, fiercely contending with one another. Having once got hold they never let go, but struggled and wrestled and rolled on the chips incessantly. Looking farther, I was surprised to find that the chips were covered with such combatants, that it was not a duellum, but a bellum, a war between two races of ants, the red always pitted against the black, and frequently two red ones to one black. The legions of these Myrmidons covered all the hills and vales in my wood-yard, and the ground was already strewn with the dead and dying, both red and black. It was the only battle which I have ever witnessed, the only battle-field I ever trod while the battle was raging; internecine war; the red republicans on the one hand, and the black imperialists on the other. On every side they were engaged in deadly combat, yet without any noise that I could hear, and human soldiers never fought so resolutely.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
Even with her new cane, the walk to the park was difficult. Joann needed her artificial hip replaced again and didn’t want to go through that pain another time. The excitement of the day sped her up, though, and thoughts of the past decades made the time go by quickly. She found her bench – dark green paint peeling a little more than it did a year ago – and sat down.
She pulled her birthday card from her grand-niece out of her purse. It said “I always think of you as my grandmother,” and that made her smile. She had been coming to this bench on her birthday for fifty years now, she had been looking forward to the silver anniversary.
Joann jumped with excitement as a few birds landed on the little-used playground equipment next to her bench. She chuckled as she thought that the scene was so similar to the one out of that old horror movie, “The Birds,” – though this wasn’t scary. Slowly more and more began to show up, lining up along the bars.
She couldn’t help but think back to the first time she had come here – thinking about James… when she still was in college down the road from there, a half-century ago.
Joann hadn’t actually been out on a date for over a year and she wasn’t sure she was out on one now, but it was close.
That afternoon – she had been working on her graphics assignment in the sixth floor lobby – her room wasn’t large enough to stretch the huge canvas out. She was working on two large horizontal triangular sections. While the rest of the piece was made up of geometric shapes of solid colors, fitted together in what she hoped was a clever, attractive, and subtly symmetrical design, these two triangles required, in her mind, a graduated hue of orange. It went from a bright saturated color a the pointed end to a pastel, almost white at the other. She worked slowly and carefully with an airbrush, slowly layering the colors, learning as she went.
She had been so intent and concentrated she didn’t even notice the boy walk up and sit down in an extra chair.
“Hey! Whatcha doin?” he said, a little bit too loud.
The unexpected sound startled Joann enough that the airbrush spray drifted out of the border a bit.
“James! Look what you’ve made me do!”
She angrily picked up a razor blade and began carefully scratching off the errant pigment. She shook her head at the mistake.
“Sorry Joann, I was just tryin’ to be friendly.”
The still-wet paint came up easily enough and after only a few seconds she looked down at the fixed error. Then she realized that the boy knew her name. For the first time she tilted her head away from the canvas and looked at him. He was a few inches shorter than her, stocky in a pasty sort of way, and had an unkempt shock of long, thin, red hair. He peered back at her through a pair of thick black-rimmed glasses.
She remembered him. His name was James… something… James Ellsworth. She had met him through some mutual friends at some informal group gathering or party or something. He didn’t live there – he couldn’t afford it… she seemed to remember. He was always hanging around, though. Didn’t seem to have anything better to do.
“That’s OK, I guess,” she said. “I didn’t see you come up and you startled me.”
“Sorry. What are you working on?”
She explained her ideas on the piece, how they fit in with the assignment from her graphics class. He listened intently. He even asked what seemed to be half-intelligent questions. After a while Joann began to forget her aggravation at being startled and started to enjoy the conversation.
“Well,” he said, “How much longer are you going to be working on this?”
Looking back at her work, she realized that the paint had dried and she would have to wait until it cured, at least twelve hours, before she could start blending again.
“That’s it for tonight, I’m afraid. I’m going to have to leave it sit to cure before I can work on it some more.”
“You gonna leave it here?”
“Yeah, it’ll be good – I leave big stuff out all the time. Everybody knows to leave it alone.”
“Cool. You hungry? You wanna go get a bite?”
Without thinking, Joanna nodded yes.
James had no car and no money. The only thing he had to offer was some food and some wine at his apartment.
“It’s not far. We can walk it no prob,” he assured her.
It wasn’t far, across the highway on the pedestrian overpass and then down into an older neighborhood of once-wealthy big wooden mansions now run-down and subdivided into tiny apartments for college students.
The only tough part was getting up into James’ place. He rented an attic space in a high turret of of of the largest, but now most decrepit homes. It was little more than a garret and after climbing up three stories past countless wooden doors, each leaking some genre of overblown music; they had to twist up a final spiral stair into his place. He pushed open the thin, unlatched door.
“No reason to lock it. Nobody comes up this high, and nothing inside worth stealing.”
The place was a large single, round room. The entire floor was cheap patterned linoleum. Blankets hung from cords divided up a kitchen, living area and a bedroom peeking around one side. Joann used the bathroom and was relieved to find it clean, although small with only a sink, toilet and narrow standup shower.
When she came back out to the kitchen, he had set out plates with microwaved chicken breasts, mixed vegetables, and rice. He had a cold bottle of some generic white wine and was pouring it into a pair of mismatched jelly glasses.
The meal was surprisingly good. Joann had been eating in the cafeteria or various fast-food places around campus for so long, a sort-of home cooked meal, no matter how humble. After they finished eating, James rinsed and piled the dishes in the sink and they finished the wine and another large bottle of something red.
The wine was gone and Joann was feeling more than a little tipsy and she began to wonder whether she was on a date or not. She was beginning to like James more than she thought she would – and he had fed her and given her wine. He hadn’t driven or taken her to a restaurant, but it wasn’t his fault he was a poor student – there were plenty of those around. She fell silent, thinking for a minute, when James spoke up. His voice was a little slurred and Joann realized that she didn’t know if he had drank more wine than her or not.
“Hey, Joanne… I wanna show you something.” He stood up from the table and walked over to the couch. He reached behind and pulled out two cardboard boxes – one a small shipping box and the other the kind you use to sell shoes in. It was a bit bigger than usual – maybe a boot box. Joann noticed that it had holes cut in the lid and pieces of fine screen glued over the openings.
“Watch this!” James said, his face flushed with wine or excitement. “I’ve been working on this for two years.”
He gestured for Joann to back her chair up and then folded the table and set it away. He cleared the other chairs and pushed a shelf back to make as big a space in the center of the kitchen area as he could. He turned on some lamps to illuminate the linoleum as much as possible.
Then, with a little bow and a flourish, he opened the small box up and poured its contents out onto the floor. At first, Joann thought it was only little pieces of paper, like confetti or something, but she saw that each one was glued to a tiny stick. They were a pile of miniature flags, a fraction of an inch high, some were bright red, the rest were green.
James how had the large shoe box and was getting ready to take the lid off. He was getting excited now – he sort of hopped from one foot to the other as he pawed at the box.
“Watch closely! This is really something.”
He slid the lid off and poured out a mound of what looked like some sort of reddish coarse powder. At first Joann thought is was a copper colored rough sawdust, but as soon as it hit the floor it began to flow and move. She realized with a start that it was alive.
“Ants!” she shouted. “Dammit, you dumped out a bunch of ants.”
“Don’t worry. Relax and watch.”
James had some sort of an odd flashlight in his hand. He pointed it at the ants and pushed a button.
“Ultraviolet. The ants can see it but we can’t. It’s what I sue to train them with.”
Suddenly the roiling movement of the large pile of ants began to setting into a shape, a square. James flashed again and the ants swarmed over the pile of tiny flags and Joann realized that they were picking them up – each and was emerging with a flag in its tiny jaw.
Another click and James began to yell.
“Watch this – it’s what took so much time to teach.”
Joann felt her eyes widen and her breath catch in her throat. She simply could not believe what she was seeing. There, on the cracked linoleum, the ants were marching in formation – moving geometric patterns of green and red, colored by the tiny flag that each insect was holding aloft.
They started with a checkerboard of red and green and then the ants marched past each other, forming two separate grids apart. Then they wheeled and separated into two linear ranks that moved past each other. Then they moved in a confused heap until they lined up in one square – red on one side, green on the other, with a graduated mix in between. Finally the square dissolved into a triangle, then a hexagon, then, finally, a red circle. A smaller green disk began to roll around inside the larger circle.
“That was the hardest to do. It took a long time to train them to do that,” James said.
He flashed another code onto the insects and they dutifully dropped their flags in a neat pile. He laid the larger box on the floor sideways with the lid off and the ants swarmed back inside.
“See, they like it,” he said.
Joann was speechless. Five minutes ago she was worried about how to deal with this dumpy, nerdy guy, now she was faced with something fantastic and unbelievable. She felt as if the floor had been pulled out from beneath her feet. She jumped up, breathless.
“Umm, I gotta go!” was all she could blurt out.
“Wait! Don’t you think that was cool! Aren’t you amazed?”
“I… I don’t know what I saw. That was impossible. That scared me.”
“It’s only a bunch of trained ants.”
“But… I feel… I feel the world isn’t the same as it was when I got here.”
“The world is the same, maybe you saw something you didn’t know before.”
That was all she could take. She stammered out an “I’m sorry,” and staggered to the door. The stairs down were steeper than she remembered, the brick sidewalks outside more uneven, the blocks home longer and lonelier than she could imagine.
As she feared, James kept calling her every day for a week. She was so confused. He explained that it was all a simple, though ingenious process, to train the ants. A combination of rewards for proper behavior and an electrified grid that provided punishment for errors – the ants were able to learn amazingly complex tricks. He said it was his ambition to expand his techniques to other species and types of animals.
She would talk to him on the phone but asked that he not follow or try to meet her. The thought of going back to that attic apartment gave her chills.
Time went by and she began to thaw a little.
Then one day, one her twentieth birthday, he asked her to go to an isolated spot just a bit off campus. There was a bench in a little used park. She sat down and waited, more than a little nervous. Then the first one came, followed by the rest.
And now Joann was in the same place, fifty years later. The bench had been replaced twice, but she supposed James had made sure that the city put the new one in the exact right place. It was funny, she had never seen any children playing on the equipment – though she supposed some must have. Somehow, they all disappeared on her birthday. She was sure James had something to do with that too.
She had not actually seen him in twenty years. After they had left school his life became more and more disjointed. He said that his innovative animal research had made him some serious enemies in the government and that he would eventually have to disappear.
Joann always wondered how much of this was real and how much was paranoia from the strange recesses of James’ brilliant mind. Almost certainly a little of both. Even though she never saw or heard from him anymore, and missed him terribly, she knew he was still out there, somewhere. Otherwise, where would the birds come from?
She sat back and watched the last of the dense flock of birds land on the playground equipment. Most years there were only one type of bird but this year half were some small brown wren and the rest were large gray doves. She purposely had avoided learning types or species of birds – the mystery made her birthday present all so more special. She knew that James had planned something special for the silver anniversary – and having two kinds of birds reminded her of the dual-colored ant flags from so long ago.
She smiled as they lifted into the air, as if on a signal, all at once, in a mass. Rotating in a whirlwind above her, they began to separate into smaller groups and these groups began to form patterns.
Her fiftieth trained bird presentation, her seventieth birthday present, was beginning and Joann was very happy to get to see it.
The story that meant the end arrived late one night. A tiny story, covered in green fur or lichen, shaky on its legs. It fit in the palm of my hand. I stared at the story for a long time, trying to understand. The story had large eyes that could see in the dark, and sharp teeth. It purred, and the purr grew louder and louder: a beautiful flower bud opening and opening until I was filled up. I heard the thrush and pull of the darkness, grown so mighty inside my head.
—- Jeff VanderMeer, The World is Full of Monsters
The world is invaded by horrible monsters – monsters that take the form of stories. The world is destroyed and changed over a hundred years and the author, a writer, is taken over by a monstrous story-packet left on the stoop.
I found this bit of fiction as an audio book on Hoopla. Hoopla… if you don’t know about it – it’s a streaming service that is offered through local libraries. You really need to check it out if you have a card from a booklender that offers membership – there’s some good shit in there. And as far as I can tell, none of the stories it offers are invading the earth.
I’ve been a fan of Jeff VanderMeer, the author, of The World is Full of Monsters, for a while now – ever since reading The Dead Astronauts for the Wild Detectives Book Club. I find his mutating, doomed characters distasteful, but in a good way. Borne is greatness. So I saw this on Hoopla, and decided to give it a listen.
It was a tough, long day at work, and I needed a break, so I listened to the audiobook on my phone, sitting at my desk, office door closed, eyes mostly shut. It helped.
Then, I discovered that the story is published by Tor… and there is a copy online here:
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Wednesday, December 4, 2002. A longish entry, about falling stars.
I have always wanted to go camping during a meteor shower. I’ve tried to schedule a trip to West Texas, Big Bend, during one but the timing has never been right. One year I did drive out with Nicholas, then only a tad bigger than a toddler, and ended out in a cornfield east of Rockwall; but Nicholas was impatient, we were still in the pool of city light, and ended up seeing nothing. Last year I was ready to go out and see the Leonids, but the state was swathed in a belt of thick clouds and nothing would have been visible.
Last Month I read that this year was going to be the last predicted good Leonid storm for a long time, and I didn’t want to miss it. I have a snotload of vacation left that I have to take before the end of the year so I scheduled a day off the next day and drove out after work into East Texas, heading for Lake Tawakoni State Park, where we had gone family camping a while back.
The park office was closed when I pulled in so I dutifully filled out a little envelope, put my fifteen dollars in (nine for the campsite, five for the entry fee, and one because I didn’t have change) and dropped it into the heavy metal tube. The park was almost completely empty – only a few RV’s scattered here and there. I picked a spot on the first loop, choosing one right next to the trail to the bathrooms. It only took me a few minutes to set up my tent.
While I wrestled with the aluminum poles I spotted a bright meteor crackling down between two trees. I watched for a while but didn’t see anything else. The peak was supposed to come somewhere around three AM, so I set the alarm on my IPAQ PDA and settled down in my tent to read myself to sleep. Even if I didn’t see another meteor, at least I had spotted one – and my trip wouldn’t be completely wasted. I tried calling home but was on the very edge of cell service. I could hear Nick answer on the other end, “Hello! Hello! Who is it?” but he couldn’t hear anything I said.
It wasn’t much longer until a big diesel pickup rumbled by, screeched its brakes, backed up, and started shining a powerful spotlight on my tent. I dragged myself out and walked over to the official truck. “I paid in the box out front,” I said. “Oh,” said the bearded, grizzled man in the truck. “You here for the meteor shower too?” he continued. “Yeah,” I said. “They say this will be the biggest one for thirty years,” he said, “and we’ll be at another park by then, for sure. There’s a bunch in the other camping loop that’s going to meet down at the dock at three and I think the wife and I will go down there to watch.” “Thanks.” “Well, have a good night.”
It was starting to get cold, so I slithered back into my bag and fell deeply asleep until my IPAQ started buzzing.
The full moon was out and very bright. The park was lit with what looked like a flat blue daylight. It was light enough for me to easily move around and set stuff up. If I had had a newspaper, I could have read it without trouble. There were some engines running and people moving around down towards the lake, and I thought about joining the folks down at the dock but ultimately decided to go it alone. The trees at Tawakoni are thick so I set my folding chair up in the middle of the park road and wrapped myself up in a blanket and my unzipped sleeping bag. My folding chair leans way back which is unpleasant for what I usually use it for (it stays in the trunk of the Taurus) – watching soccer games – but was perfect for stretching back and looking up at the sky. Some small animal, probably a possum (too quiet for an armadillo) shuffled around in the grass beside the road, and then shambled back into the woods.
The bright moon washed out a lot of the stars. It would be impossible to spot any faint meteors. I thought for a few minutes that there wouldn’t be anything and I’d go back home empty-eyed. But after a few minutes the shower started.
The meteor shower wasn’t spectacular; it didn’t make me think of the Fourth of July. Still, it had a powerful ephemeral beauty. There would be a pause, a minute or so, when nothing would happen, then maybe a single quick transient streak across the sky. That would be followed by a little burst – a cluster of four or five and the activity would keep up for a few minutes until it tapered off for another pause. A few falling stars were big enough to scream across a big arc of the sky, leaving behind a little trail of sparks for a split-second. I know they were silent but I could imagine a crackling sound as those fell.
It was obvious how the meteors appeared to flow from a single point, in Leo. They would radiate out, the big ones lingering, traveling across a big chunk, the tiny ones merely a fugacious slash across the dark. It was this temporary nature of the display that fascinated me – a tiny sliver of an instant… then they are gone. I had a big grin on my face, half-frozen there by the cold air.
I watched for a little over an hour or so until the show petered out. I never really went back to sleep – it wasn’t long before the sky began to lighten in the east and I packed everything up. Driving back into the city, I realized that I could go on in to work – it was early enough.
“I’ve been making a list of the things they don’t teach you at school. They don’t teach you how to love somebody. They don’t teach you how to be famous. They don’t teach you how to be rich or how to be poor. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”
― Neil Gaiman, The Kindly Ones
Took a day off work – the COVID-19 vaccination mandate is overwhelming everything – there are so many questions unanswered. It’s been a while since I had my jab and am thinking about a booster, but the FDA Booster Shot decision is putting it into the fog like everything else (I don’t turn 65 for a few months).
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Friday, January 1, 1999 – More than twenty years ago. The kids, at that age, were connoisseurs of fast-food ball-pits – we knew all the ones in a ten-mile radius of our house and most of them along the highways radiating in all directions.
Saturday, January 1, 1999, McDonald’s with Playland
….. House is empty. Holiday is spent.
I needed to get the kids some exercise. Drizzling Wet Warm Fog No day for outside. So it’s off to McDonald’s with Playland.
Nick and Lee are good enough I can let them go around on their own. I can sit and write. notebook on green laminate.
Lee borrows my pen to follow the numbers on a placemat puzzle. He says he knows it’ll be a snowman. he traces the outline still.
Three amazingly fat women sit at the next table, here in the McDonald’s with Playland without any children. So close I can hear them talk. at least snippets. Recipes – they are trading “I get these headaches,” one squawks “Then I go eat me some chocolate.” Hmmmmmmmm – the others intone worshipfully.
Nick and Lee want ice cream I give them all the cash I have and send them to the counter. They come back with cones and a single dollar bill and three pennies. One so sticky I leave it behind.
A young mother excites into her cell phone in Spanish.
A toddler drops her Orange Drink. The thin liquid puddle grows as she stares mute
An older man- a customer cleans it up. A teenager- a worker appears with a mop and bucket. “Don’t touch that!” The old man growls. He rants on about how dirty the mop water is- and cleans up the mess with his own cloth handkerchief.
He must be nuts. Nobody carries a cloth handkerchief. Anymore.
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
― Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of the Possible
From my blog (I called it an “Online Journal” then), The Daily Epiphany, Saturday, September 8, 2001 – Exactly twenty years ago. Wow… only twenty years ago… and coming up only three days from 9/11. It’s so strange reading my thoughts from the point of view of a semi-distant future. I talk about getting a new cell phone and a Pocket PC. An iPhone or a Smart Phone only a dream of the future..I (we) had no idea.
Saturday, September 8, 2001, Gadgets
The folks at work, in all their infinite wisdom, have bought me a couple of new cool toys lately.
I try to resist the temptation of becoming a gadget-freak. A fascination with technology is a powerful, seductive trap in this day and age, this best of all possible worlds. The underlying geek-gene is there, though, I can’t deny it. Plus, if somebody else wants to buy me cool stuff… so be it.
I was one of the last hold-outs against having a cell phone. When I finally picked one up with my new job, however, I was hooked. Especially with all the soccer stuff going on, with Candy and I hardly ever being home, driving all over the place, and with me stepping up my business travel, the cell phone became, finally for me, the irreplaceable part of life that it is for everybody else.
Now, they have replaced my run-of-the-mill phone with a new service, one designed for corporate, industrial use. It’s a Nextel phone, with the two-way radio and, especially seductive, internet access. I had to attend a training class, read a big thick manual, and spend hours punching little buttons and fooling around on web sites to set up and learn all the features of the silly thing.
I always thought web access on a cell phone was sort of useless, but it does have its geeky charm. I especially like the movie service. I can code in a film, punch in a zip code, and it will tell me the closest theater and show times, along with directions to get there. It has an amazing word-completion algorithm for entering emails from the otherwise-almost-useless numberpad.
The only problem is that it does not play cool songs when it rings (I had my old phone set to play the theme song from the old puppet TV show – Thunderbirds are Go). When I complained about this to our phone rep she replied, “This phone is intended for the corporate market, we don’t go for the cute sing-song stuff.”
The really cool gadget they bought me, though, wasn’t the cell phone, but a Pocket PC – a Compaq IPAQ. Compaq is apparently discontinuing the black and white units, offering them for an insanely low price, plus a fifty-dollar rebate, so I ordered one.
I think I like this one better than a color unit anyway. The screen is readable enough and the batteries last forever.
A Pocket PC definitely falls into the category of one of those things that you can’t imagine using until you get one, then you can’t imagine living without it. Especially Syncing it up with my PC – downloading maps, Avant Go,… geez, the free ebooks. It isn’t much for writing fiction or journal entries (my Alphasmart is perfect for that, anyway) but it is fine for writing short poems. The slow process of handwriting recognition actually helps the poetry process.
It’s a digital voice recorder and an alarm clock. It’s a crude sketchpad and a file transfer utility.
Of course, like all things addictive, there are add-ons and additions I want. At the top of the list is a big flashcard memory or two. That would let me use it as a killer MP3 player, perfect portable music. Next, a Targus folding keyboard – then I could use it for significant text entry. Then, especially in conjunction with that flashcard, there’s software. I’d love a powerful dictionary and thesaurus program. There’s even something out there that will turn the IPAQ into a programmable multi-function remote control.