Tuesday, April 2, 2013

New Short Story

I've been working on this one for a while, and just finished it. Some sci-fi, some sentimental type stuff, and a plot that focuses around a hot-button political issue, even though I'm one of the most apolitical people I know. Check it out if you wish.


The creek was more dead than alive. Weeds and brambles choked the water flow, which had dwindled slowly over the years from a steady rush to a slow burble to a bare trickle. Jim thought it seemed odd that all those years ago, when he played here as a boy, the crushed beer cans and old Dunkin’ Donuts wrappers had no effect on the creek. They’d get hung up on the bank, or bounce down a miniature waterfall and rebound out of the water like a bull rider who had met his match. Left untended, unguarded by the trample of feet on the banks and the splash of ankles in summer, however, the waterway was filled with deadfalls and pricker bushes and marsh grass.
Jim had played here as a boy because Jim had lived here as a boy, and he only had to look up and across the clotted streambed to see the back of the old barn that had housed everything from Jim’s surfboard to Dad’s lawnmower, Mom’s classic record collection (“Keep those under the tarp or they’ll get wet!”) to Dad’s work bench (“It may look a mess, but I know where everything is. So don’t touch anything.”).
Through the cold sunshine and bare tree limbs, Jim could even make out his now-abandoned childhood home – an old Cape with white walls and a black door. Plenty of windows to let the world in when you felt ready to take it on, and plenty of curtains to shut the world out when you felt you’d never be ready for anything. Many of the street-facing windows were probably smashed in by now, but Jim had come through the woods, and the back of the house looked almost the same as the day he left. He remembered family Christmases hosted here, and Thanksgivings, and Easter egg hunts which Jim and his cousins had loved best of all. The short rock wall that lined the small property had egg-hiding places too numerous to count, not to mention the bushes lining the front walk and the old stone well in between the street and the sun porch. Jim had read many a book out on that sun porch – Dennis Lehane crime novels in the fall, Stephen King thrillers on summer nights –
Jim was shaken from his reverie by the sharp blast of a crow.
Even in this remote town on the very edge of the Northeast Quadrant, Jim had to be ever vigilant. The Chinese stayed primarily to the main roads and population centers, but they weren’t averse to sending out a patrol every so often. And if Jim were picked up as he waited in the woods by his abandoned childhood home, they would take him in for “questioning”. And they’d soon find the torn scrap of fabric hidden in an inside pocket of his overcoat. The scrap of fabric with a hero’s blood on it. And that would surely ruin everything.
So Jim waited, a forty-year-old Caucasian American, sandy-haired and with blue eyes that had an odd ability to mirror the color of the sky. A member of the second to last generation born before the Takeover. He had no children, thankfully, and no wife or girlfriend, which was probably for the best. Jim had been a relationship person in his youth, and had been engaged to his longtime girlfriend Caroline when the Chinese took power in 2015. She had been a human ray of sunshine, able to lift his spirits with a touch and goad him into laughter with a glance. On June 15th, 2015, she was in Boston at a doctor’s appointment when the half city was leveled by a series of carefully coordinated explosions. Her hospital hadn’t been attacked, as the enemy didn’t want to inherit a country full of injured and dying people with no medical care available. Unfortunately, she was on the sidewalk directly in front of a major bank when it was targeted, and didn’t survive the blowout. She was 24.
That was 15 years ago, and Jim still ached inside when he thought of her. He had had other women since that time, and even seen one of them for a few months once life resumed a regular, if militantly regulated, routine. But he knew, in this society, emotional ties weren’t worth the trouble. Plus, he didn’t get much time away from his desk at the Northeast Quadrant Office of Public Relations. Always busy. When you take over a country, you need to relate to your new public.
 A lot.
So Jim waited. And then, from the direction he’d come, he heard crunches. Dead leaves and twigs make for the world’s noisiest red carpet, Jim thought, and he raised his head so his eye level cleared the boulder behind which he had been crouched for twenty minutes. If it was the Chinese, he’d at least have a concealed spot to shoot from.
It was not the Chinese. It was one of Jim’s oldest friends. Kyle Walters was three months younger than Jim, and the pair had met when Kyle moved to Jim’s neighborhood in third grade. Kyle was assimilated immediately into the neighborhood crowd, and could be seen stalking the sidewalk summer nights during games of manhunt, or hitting walk-off wiffle ball home runs in his backyard. Jim and Kyle had lived together after college for a year or so, in one of those great post-adolescent experiments in laziness and late nights and video games.
Jim put away his pistol and stepped out from behind the boulder. The two embraced briefly.
“Got it?” asked Jim quickly.
“Oh yeah,” replied Kyle, unzipping his coat and removing a small plastic bag filled with a half-ounce of marijuana. “You got my end?”
“Yup,” Jim said, as he pulled from his coat the 2 inch square scrap of torn cotton smeared with a crimson bloodstain.
They exchanged items.
“You’re sure this is the real deal?” asked Kyle intensely. They’d been best friends for thirty years, but this was the most important moment of Kyle’s life.
“I saw him rip it and mark it himself,” replied Jim solemnly. He’d always been the solemn one. Kyle had always been the goofy one, the one to rile Jim up before anything got too serious. He didn’t disappoint.
“Wow, if your dad could see you now, buying weed back by the old creek, huh?” Kyle laughed to himself. Jim smiled weakly, and Kyle kept on: “Man, we had some good times here, though. Sucks to see it gone to seed like this.”
“I know,” said Jim. “I remember my mom complaining about how you’d come over our house and crack open the fridge like you owned the place.”
“I definitely did that,” chuckled Kyle. “Just wanted to check if she had any of her famous brownies in there. God, those were good.”
A fleeting thundershower of emotions passed over Jim’s face: nostalgia twinged with anger, followed by a faint glimmer of hope. Kyle saw none of this, as he gazed through the trees and up the small hill to the back of the centuries-old house.
“I kept the recipe, you know,” said Jim. “But they’re different now. Can’t get good eggs or butter. Nothing’s as good as it was before the Takeover.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say ‘Nothing,’” said Kyle, pointing at the side of Jim’s coat where the bag was now stored.  “That’s my own private stash right there. Only the best for you, bud. And for this,” holding up the precious scrap. “I’m just confused why you’re basically giving it away. This is priceless, right here.”
“I got some stuff I have to do. I’ll make the next one,” said Jim. “Promise. Now, let me tell you where to be and when. Just buy me a couple of beers when you find out where the next one gets in. I’ll be there”
And Jim told his best friend how to escape from the Northeast Quadrant of what used to be the United States, and was now the United Quadrants of New China, or NC for short.
He told him about the 60-foot long cloaked hoverboat that would bob in the rocky shallows off the coast of what used to be the town of Hull, Massachusetts, not 500 yards from the house they had shared after college.
He told him to present the scrap of cloth to the captain, who will look unmistakably like a refugee hoverboat captain, for DNA confirmation. The blood on the scrap was the captain’s own, Jim told Kyle. He gave 300 of these out each time he returned to NC, and they were the most valuable items in the Quadrants. Possession of one guaranteed passage to a French, British, or Dutch island in the Caribbean, where NC refugees were given asylum.
He told him that the h-boat would leave at 1 AM sharp, on tomorrow’s high tide, and would arrive in Simpson Bay on the southern coast of Saint Maarten by dawn.
Then the two embraced again, and Jim repeated himself: “I’ll make the next one. Promise.”
Jim let Kyle leave first, back the way they had both come, while he remained behind for a few minutes of reflection with his old life. His housing unit now was not far from here, about a twenty minute hoverbike ride, but he rarely came down anymore. The memories lay around this town like cobwebs in the corners of a bare attic. He took an empty oregano bottle from his coat and very carefully transferred the contents of the plastic bag into the bottle. Then he wadded the bag up, stuffed it deep underneath the boulder, and set off up the path away from his old house. He found his hoverbike where he had stored it in a stand of trees near the road, and drove himself back to his housing unit.
Aside from working, and the odd solo round of golf or drive to the beach, Jim had lived, as much as possible, in the past. Books were his sanctuary. Books from before the Takeover.
The walls of his 24’ by 24’ unit were covered floor to ceiling with books of every kind: novels, biographies, short stories, histories. Jim began to collect them well in advance of the takeover, just for pleasure, and his collecting reached a fever pitch in the weeks when the Chinese were threatening to take power. He had a feeling that he’d want as many books as he could get his hands on, just in case.
The only space that was free of books was the NC-mandated telescreen in one corner. With a full view of all three other corners of his apartment, the two-way telescreen watched Jim’s every move, as it did in everyone’s homes across NC.
In the beginning, when insurrections were common, telescreens were the new regime’s first warning beacons. Revolutionaries would gather in an apartment, armed to the teeth, smash the telescreen, then wait for the troops to descend.
The beginning was bloody.
Now, most viewed these as nothing more than an annoyance.
Jim was glad the Chinese weren’t interested in books, because they had taken everything else.
Cities were re-planned and rebuilt in regimented sameness. Television, radio, film, and the internet (as much as possible) were in control of the EC. Government was unaffected in all but two ways. First, the Chinese put one person, called a Controller, in charge of every state. Every elected state official had to clear with their Controller before taking any action, and their plans were almost always denied. Secondly, the office of the Presidency was eliminated. The son of the Leader of China was installed as the New Leader of New China. It was joked that he was promoted from the Department of Redundancy Department.
But not very loudly.
With not much time left, however, Jim didn’t have the luxury of reading any of his books. It was a good thing he had done this hundreds of times before. He carefully set the oregano bottle on the hard plastic counter next to the sink.
Then he set to work.
Two hours later, Jim Vorney walked into what used to be South Shore Hospital in what used to be Weymouth, and was now called NEQ Hospital 115. He had a parcel under his arm.
As he crossed the threshold and triggered the combined x-ray/infrared sensors, his skin seemed to crawl across his bones. I could walk through that door naked, Jim thought, and still feel guilty of something.
Jim had left nothing to chance with this visit. Ping was sitting behind the squat, brushed aluminum front desk, just as he knew she would be. Some of the front desk workers thought they wielded all the power of the Leader himself, but Ping was an exception. Jim could tell she was uninterested in enforcing every soul-crushing regulation and restriction on hospital visitors. He thought she had a good heart, and in a different world might have become a schoolteacher. He liked to think that she and he could have been friends. He thought that maybe, fifteen years after the Takeover, Ping was growing tired of watching downtrodden citizens shuffle in to visit their dying loved ones in this dirty, understaffed medical facility in a town they used to know.
Either that, or she was just lazy.
Whatever the case was, Ping didn’t question the parcel under Jim’s arm. He had been coming in once or twice every week for about three months now, and he made sure to chat up the workers as much as possible. It pays to be friendly.
Especially when committing a felony.
The guards behind the desk were a study in that old Cold War tenet, mutually assured destruction. Ostensibly, they were there to protect the building from rebels. In reality, no one had attempted any sort of mass uprising or violent rebellion since the McCray Rebellion in 2021.
That one didn’t go well for McCray.
The guard behind the right side of Ping’s desk, on Jim’s left, was at least 6 foot 5 and looked like a tombstone with a head. And several automatic weapons. He had close-shaven black hair and ruddy, waxy skin. He was Chinese, sent from his home country as one of the million or so peace-keeping forces who prevented anyone from “getting any ideas,” as they would have said in the old gangster flicks. Jim missed those.
The guard behind the left side of Ping’s desk, or Jim’s right, was probably closer to 6 foot 6 and looked like a refrigerator with a head. He also was in possession of said automatic weapons. This man’s name was Derek, and he looked to be in his mid-fifties, with an old-school US Military flattop made of silver bristles.
In the roughly 25 visits Jim had made to this hospital in the last three months, he had never seen one of the guards talk to a person of a different ethnicity than them. Derek barely spoke at all, but when an American visitor had a question, he would grunt a few syllables in their direction. He left the Chinese visitors and staffers to talk to, what Jim was sure Derek called, “their own kind.”
Jim signed the guest check-in book and got his hand stamped with infrared ink, then casually (he hoped) went down the right-hand hallway behind the desk and into the belly of the hospital.
He nodded to Derek on the way by, and thought he saw a wink in return.
The Chinese took power because they wanted to start over. It was as simple and as ruthless as that. A leader named Xuanlong Shi bullied and battered his way to the head of the country while 99% of America lived on obliviously. The thought of another nation attempting to attack and colonize the United States was laughable. We had oceans, thought the Americans, they would protect us.  
Xuanlong led a nation of almost1.4 billion people, and he was disgusted with it. The cities were stagnant, the towns were worse, and the people were oppressed, downtrodden, and hopeless. He didn’t want his people to live like this. He wanted them to live like Americans. So, rather than try to create a more positive and forward-thinking society in China, he just took over the United States.
The US never saw it coming, even though they were basically dependent upon China for several decades before the actual Takeover. They were like Blanche DuBois in that respect. Too reliant upon the kindness of strangers.
Jim reached the elevator, waved his hand across the scanner, stepped into the metal car, and was buoyed on an expanding column of gas up to the third floor. He stepped out, turned left, and counted four doors down until he reached 314. He knocked once lightly, and entered.
His mother looked terrible, but at least she was sleeping. Her small brunette head tilted to the right, she lay on her back, an IV drip attached to the inside of her left elbow. Jim shuddered. No matter how often he saw them, he always hated IVs. It was strange, but Jim felt more comfortable allowing a doctor to examine his private parts than letting a needle puncture the skin below his biceps. There was something so vulnerable about allowing access to that part of your body.
There was no better word to describe how Melissa Vorney had been until six months ago than the word vibrant. Before the Takeover, when Jim still counted on his mother for all the things kids count on their mothers for without really knowing it (food, shelter, love, food, encouragement, advice, food, clean clothes, and food), she had been the best mom he could have asked for. She was smart, experienced, and thoughtful, but also funny and completely devoid of pretense. She could laugh until tears fell from her brown eyes at a moment’s notice. She was outgoing almost to the point of being intrusive, but everything she did was so well-intentioned that no one could accuse her of being overbearing. She was only 5-foot-2, but she entered every room with a flourish and left with new friends.
Since her husband’s death during the Takeover, it had been a little harder. Jim, at 25, had to abandon that young adult mindset of invincibility and comfort. He became a self-sufficient member of society overnight, because he had to. You can change like that at 25.
His mother had been 64, and things weren’t as easy. Her job was deemed “non-essential,” and she was fired.
More accurately, the company she worked for was abolished. The new regime had no use for personalized greeting cards. They were not in the business of sympathy, congratulations, or birthday salutations.
Regardless, Melissa had soldiered on. She was given a small monthly stipend on which to live, due to her husband’s death. She augmented this with odd jobs that suited her: doing the shopping for high-ranking Chinese officials, assisting in hospitals and food shelters, and even returning to her beat-up Gibson guitar for a few gigs in coffee shops and schools. She did not lose her sparkle, as so many of Jim’s friends and loved ones had after the Takeover.
But now she was losing her life.
She stirred in her bed, as Jim sat down in the hard plastic chair beside her. She had been feeling sick for several weeks before finally relenting and going to the hospital, and it was no great surprise to find out that she had cancer. It had most likely started in her breast, but had spread to several other places as well. The Chinese had no desire to save non-essential members of society, and it was only thanks to Jim’s relative stature within the government that Melissa even had a hospital bed. It was estimated that she had less than a month left.
“Mom,” said Jim quietly.
Jim’s mother opened her eyes, and for a brief instant Jim saw the old Melissa: the passionate, engaging woman who had guided him through his childhood. But then the pupil contracted from the harsh light of the room, and she came fully awake and was hit, as she was every time she awoke now, with the truth of her mortality.
Jim showed her the sealed plastic container, which was brim full of his mother’s famous brownies. A weak grin opened his mother’s sunken face like a flower at dawn.
“Grandma’s recipe?” she said, for like all great family recipes, this was concocted by Jim’s grandmother.
“Yeah,” Jim said, “but I added a little something. Let’s both have one, mom. I haven’t had one of your brownies in years.”
Jim pried the top off the container, removed two small brownies, and quickly replaced the lid. Then he gave one to his mother and held one himself, and they ticked their brownies together as if they were clinking glasses at a family Christmas party.
Through the thin hospital sheet it was easy to watch Melissa’s body relax as the marijuana melted its way into her system.
The ingestion of any nonprescription drug was grounds for severe punishment, and so the marijuana culture in America had dwindled to practically nothing. When Oxy was kosher and weed meant a lengthy imprisonment, society adjusted accordingly. Jim hadn’t had a hit of pot in nearly 13 years. And Kyle hadn’t been kidding. This was good stuff.
“Jim,” his mother said to him after a few minutes, as she sat up in her bed for the first time in weeks, “I feel quite a bit better. Different, and tingly, but better. Why?”
And so Jim explained his meeting with Kyle, his passing on of the scrap of cloth, and his reason for making the brownies. He knew they had not bothered to give her pain medication, so these were the best he could do.
In typical Melissa Vorney fashion, her eyes welled up with heavy tears.
“Kyle made it out, Jimmy?” she asked, hoping to populate a last, romantic adventure within her own mind with Jim’s childhood friend and confidant.
“Yeah, mom. Kyle made it,” he said. “He’s going to be OK. Now, tell me again how Grandma Claire came up with this recipe.”
And so Jim and his mother began to talk. Melissa had always been one of the great talkers, it was obvious that she had lived her life in a constant state of conversation with everyone around her. The words flowed smoothly from her, and though she had withered away to no more than skin and bones, her mind and voice were as sharp and boisterous as ever.
Jim and his mother had talked about her passing in his previous visits. It was inevitable, she explained to her distraught son on the day he found out, everyone leaves at some point. She had made it longer than most. They had made their arrangements, those tedious and awkward details that need to be taken care of before one can pass on in peace. And so in this visit, they talked about better times.
Summer days spent diving from the stern of Jim’s father’s little power boat, and puttering around the little islands and rocky shoreline of their hometown. Winters curled up by the fireplace, playing Scrabble (and losing to Jim’s erudite father) while the Patriots played in the background. Family road trips to Melissa’s great aunt’s pecan farm in Georgia – rows of pole pines and enough barbecue to feed a college football team. They talked while the red blood raced through their veins and the nerves sparkled and the fine hair on their arms lifted in salute to the marijuana within them. Melissa said she hadn’t gotten high since June of 1969, and Jim laughed because it was the first time she had ever admitted to smoking pot. Of course she had smoked, she said, it was the 60s, and she hadn’t been a loser. Jim nearly toppled his chair in laughter. The minutes dissolved into hours, as Jim and his mother shared the contents of two lives – one that had run nearly all its course, and one that still splashed and tumbled merrily in the valley of middle age. But at last, it was time to go.
Jim wouldn’t be returning for any more visits, he told her. The captain would probably already be back, and he was only making one more trip from the Northeast Quadrant before moving on to the Southeast. This was Jim’s chance. The chance that almost everyone in the Quadrants would die for. Jim and his mother both knew that.
They said their goodbyes. They weren’t long and emotional, because for all intents and purposes, the whole visit had been a goodbye. It was a goodbye to every part of the life they had shared, and indeed the entirety of Melissa Vorney’s existence. They embraced for a time, and each promised the other the same thing that had been repeated uncountable times before, and meant each time: “I love you.”
Melissa Vorney died in her sleep three days later.
The container of brownies was empty.
Jim paid nearly his entire life’s savings to secure a spot on the final h-boat from the NEQ. He arrived in the Inner Harbor of Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, on the afternoon of the third day since he had left his mother.
He found Kyle in a bar down the street, with two cold Carib beers for both of them.
“So what did you have to do that was so important?” Kyle asked.
“Well," said Jim, "remember my mom's brownies?"

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