untitled no.1

I am driving with my mother somewhere in the south or the mid-atlantic.
Not really the south or the mid-atlantic, somewhere that bears an energetic resemblance to the aforementioned but is unique in its particularities.
Quite unique, I will find.
In the back seat is a blanket covering a BB gun and a giant cap rifle, food, and various other nonessentials.
We go down the somewhat traffic ridden road and I know there are police almost everywhere, but still my mother fails to correct some sort of vague illegality that is sufficient to get us pulled over. I am disappointed.

Blue and red lights.

Crap.

We roll the windows down. A cop dressed in olive drab walks up to the back window and instantly pulls the blanket off the guns and gives me a severe look.
He knew! I am amazed.
“Why do you need these?” he accuses, handling the BB gun roughly and with an almost utter lack of gun safety.
“That’s a BB gun and the other is a cap rifle, they’re not very dangerous,” I clarify.
He eventually seems to arrive at the conclusion of what they are. I have the feeling I did not even need to tell him.
“We could have taken real guns but I thought that would be a bad idea. I’m sorry. Please.”
I am nearly on the verge of crying. I do not desire to go to jail or pay a large fine for something as typically trivial as this. My pleading is followed by silence for a few seconds.
The cop rolls the situation over in his head and seems to deduce that we are not particularly dangerous people.
“It’s not a big deal; I’ll let you off this time.” he says casually. He replaces the guns over the blanket.
“But do you know what’s up there on that hill?”
An air of mystery descends. On our right side is a large, dark hill covered with thick forest and grassy cattail marshlands leading up to it, as may be seen in parts of Pennsylvania. There is no path leading up to it and it seems exceptionally isolated from the rest of the world.
“No, I have no idea,” say I.
“I can show you,” he says, mystery thick behind his voice.
My mother is not at all interested in coming. She stays behind.
I do not know what pulls me towards the wild but it is an irresistible force and whatever is out there seems much more fascinating than the highway, and more dangerous.
We start off. The policeman begins to descend the ten foot slope directly beside the road and I follow him. He makes his own trail amongst the knee-high grasses that undulate for two-hundred feet until the more severe section of the slope upwards. After traveling increasingly far from the safety of the highway, we approach the trees and walk through them, in the midst of the dark and subconsciously-attuned woods native to this part of the country. The noises of broken sticks and crushing leaves sound.
However, I feel some sort of break in the solidity of the forest. I see light through the other side of the vegetation. The policeman smiles.
We break through the forest to a concrete ramp guarded by a chainlink fence. There is a hole in the fence that we step through. To the direct right of the slope is a large brick apartment building with faded yellow window casings on its myriad windows.
The building is clearly not being used.
I feel very apprehensive at the bizarre and monolithic feeling caused by such an object in the middle of the woods, but curiosity propels my feet nevertheless.
After mounting the incline, we turn to the right side and see another building that was being hid behind the first as we were on the ramp, and to the right of that one is yet another smaller version of the same, so that the three combine to make a U shape which we would have been on the left side of a minute ago.
We make it to the middle of these structures. They look at least seventy years old. There are stairwells down to possible entrances underground but we worry not with them.
Suddenly the policeman takes a pistol out of his holster and starts shooting at the wall and windows. 
“What are you doing?” I ask, startled. The gun seems inexplicably quieter than a real one. His aim is very specific. I am not used to policemen breaking the law.
“Look in those windows.” he says. I feel a dirge bell ring.
I can see clearly inside each of these windows. As I walk, in awe, down the side of the apartment building, I see room after room of people, motionless, going about their lives or simply sitting and staring out at whatever is in front of their windows. Young people, old men, all sorts of different inhabitants.
They are all stuck there, silent, but look as if they could suddenly move if something in the atmosphere shifted. It is so nearly like they are still alive.
“There was an accident here,” saith the policeman gravely, “A bad accident. Something happened nearby and everyone in these apartment complexes was frozen in time where they stand. It happened decades ago.”
The gravity of this dawns on me and I feel a strong sense of melancholy. It reminds me of a similar event somewhere else in the world.
“Here, take this rock lobber,” he says, out of the blue, handing me an underpowered or modified pistol. “Shoot some of them.”
I don’t know what comes over me, or if I am simply afraid to not obey, but I fire at a few of these ephemeral personages and small holes seem to appear in them where the slow rocklike projectile hits them. It is like a bizarre target gallery.
I give the gun back, wondering if I should feel guilty or contented with ending their ceaseless vigil. I cannot tell if I killed them or not, but nothing about them essentially seemed to change after being shot. 
Either way, the policeman’s habit of coming out here and regularly using this hideous place as a target gallery makes me feel nervous.
“I am going to leave,” say I.
“You should go up that path to the new civilization,” he advises. I nod. East of the apartments, further into the wilderness, lay a concrete path with a gate partially blocking it. I pass through the old gate and continue along. Rocks litter the way.
The policeman leaves and goes back to his car.
After putting some much-needed distance between me and those awful apartment buildings, I find myself curious as to what is ahead. I walk another five hundred feet.
My curiosity is satisfied as I see, far away, a small village built on top of a huge slab of concrete. A minute later I am there.
The terrain is generally somewhat flat, and the town is hemmed in by forested wilderness. The town is on the top of a hill, though, so the highest parts of the trees barely manage to rise above the settlement.
There are people here!
I find some young teen boy, somewhat overweight, and we walk along the main corridor of the town, talking about it. He seems so bored that we become friends quickly, as I am the only new thing to happen at the town in quite a while.
I ask him how the town was founded. He explains that some of the original residents from the apartment buildings managed to make it over here to start a new civilization. Now there are at least forty people in the area. I wonder how anyone could have escaped the accident.
The buildings around here are but small, blackened plank structures, but they give off a comforting if archaic energy compared to the brutalist Eastern European ambience of the last ones. I see some work being done in the area, dirt and gravel being moved, and there are several bobcats and excavators going about, doing their jobs.
Due to its remoteness, this settlement does not feel boring in the manner of some locations, but it does feel difficult to actually do much nonetheless.
We get off the beaten path and explore a fairly large cabin surrounded by woods. It has brown shingles and a single medium-sized window.
I walk up to it and peer in the window. There are many pots and pans, primitive darkwood furnishings, a few old books, and an icebox in it. But something is sitting in the chair close to the window I am looking into, on the right. A man-sized insect, a cricket or spider, or some unholy combination of man with the aforementioned. Its giant brown hairy legs splay out of myriad directions.
The thing is sitting there motionless.
“Let’s get out of here,” I say, very nervous.
“Oh yeah,” replies the boy. “Those are dangerous, we should go.”
We head, surprisingly slowly, back up the path separating us from the mainland of the town. My new friend and I mess around with gravel piles, look at construction equipment, perhaps go in a small cabin or two, and try generally to pass the time in any way we can. Sometimes we can see many people in the town and other times it looks nearly abandoned, but no reason is ever made clear as to the volatility of its rugged inhabitants.
After a while it becomes difficult to play around any more, and I do not want to retrace my steps and go back to the highway either. I feel that chapter of the adventure is over with and I am spooked still by those frozen structures.
Night is beginning to fall. It is not blurring the colors of the landscape or turning everything to black, but the carefreeness of the start of my voyage, if there ever was any, has faded away.
We are bored and feel the irresistible urge to explore more, dangerous as it may be.
Past the section with the bugman house is another turnoff into the woods, which has evidently been traveled before. We walk down the path, which heads downwards off the plateau of the town.
We come to a section where the grassy path ends and is replaced by a large square mass of concrete, fifty by fifty feet, with different rectangular shapes layered on top of it. It nearly seems like a children’s playground except for the vague eeriness and mystery surrounding its purpose.
We use it, however, for its supposed purpose and climb about on it, finding it a respite from the last events.
Then I hear something a ways behind us. Fear is in my friend’s eyes. I turn around and see, on the path coming from the town, another one of those horrid creatures. It lurches towards of with many light-brown hairy hairy arms and I don’t know how many legs.
We try to hide behind a concrete rectangle, but I hear it coming around the side and run to another shape before it sees me.
It is even more terrifying up close. I lose my friend at some point, and although I can deduce that he was not killed, I am never quite sure where he goes. My best guess is into the dark surrounding woods.
I play cat and mouse with the thing through different shapes until I eventually end up and the far end of the slab form the town. The pathway continues on further past that.
It sees me and has me cornered so that my best choice is to continue down the path.
I run.
Quickly the woods and trees go by me, for I am at top speed and jumping over logs and turning corners with an emergencial exhilaration I have rarely felt hitherto.
But it is yet behind me, and I find with horror that it is a tiny bit faster than me and is gaining ground at a tortuously slow rate. I need something to save me and at the next turn something does. An oak tree stands in the middle of the path so I barely brush by it and then put it between me and the thing as I continue running.
It smashes into the tree and falls. I look at it for a moment.
It is not dead but needs to make it off the ground before it can continue its pursuit.
I wonder what terrible accident could have caused such an abomination. The one at the apartment buildings or some sinister de-evolution from the surviving town? Or were they always in the surrounding woods?
At any rate, I continue as fast as I can and note the path’s curvature to the right. Perhaps it will eventually make a semicircle and join up with the rest of the town.
But yet again the thing is gaining on me and I run, filled with terror that I will trip up at some point and make a mistake. I am lucky, but it is only ten feet behind me.
I dodge under a branch and go around an S-bend, and see the path raise up. Five seconds later I am nearly on the level of the town again.
The creature is overrun and I make it, panting and happy to be safe again, onto the foundation of the town. The thing, evidently, is fearful of the area, for I never see it again.
And there is my friend, far away, on the top of a mound of dirt.
Finally, we are reunited, and I hope that my trials are over.

 

 

 

 

The Battle between Flea People and Mosquito People

The Flea People had always lived in relative peace, jumping about from their job to their house and back again, and then jumping wherever else they desired to go. Valuing space and privacy, they lived far from each other but in a jump or two could go visiting with their neighbors. They always had many friends. But north of their kingdom lay the desolate swamps of the Mosquito Men, vicious flying pests who spent much of their time managing blood banks, running emergency blood drives, and invading other nations in order to steal their alizarin, ferrine nectar.
Of course, the Flea People had always known they would be targeted at some point.
It was only a matter of when.

Corporal James Fixen gave his commanding officer a tour of the facility which was producing their most secret weapon.
“It’s completely classified– we’ve had psychologists, engineers, electricians, and inventors working on this thing for months. It will be the most powerful mosquito-destroying device in history. And it’s finally near completion.”
“It is impressive, all right,” replied the commander, in awe of the machine, a hundred-foot-tall glasslike rod surrounded by a sturdy metal grate with holes large enough for mosquito people to fit through. It had a few large sacks of aromatic materiel hanging at various points from the grate. He had the feeling it would be awesome when turned on.
“But do you know that it will be ready in time? I have heard bad news from the North,” said the officer somberly.
“I am not sure,” the other man was forced to admit.

A hundred miles northwards, in the diminutive town of Fleafersson, the villagers slept in damp, musty beds, windows open to the humid sanguine air. One of them, Carl, stirred in the midst of a bad dream.
“Something feels wrong,” he thought to himself, hearing a very low-pitched droning off in the distance. “But it doesn’t really sound like mosquitoes…”
The town was only twenty miles from the beginning of mosquito territory, and in it, small outgrowths of swamp fought aggressively to usurp the drier land.
Carl noticed the sound getting louder and nearly overhead.
He was afraid. Carl blinked in nervous anticipation.
A noise like a glugging of a fifty five gallon bucket sounded and the flea man watched as a veritable sea of water fell from a titanic mosquitoan airship above. The water danced slowly, beautifully, swirling into every curve and crevice possible on its way down, then it crashed with reckless force onto the flea houses and destroyed the pristine dryness of the landscape, flooding it almost instantaneously.
Carl saw the aqueous substance invade his house quickly, climbing up foot by foot until it was at his neck. He escaped out of his bedroom window and swum vigorously until he had conquered the depth of the water, his head emerging soaking from it as an idol of his bravery.
“But what about my wife…” he thought, as she had been sound asleep the whole time. A few tense moments later, she emerged from the house as well, waterlogged but alive.
Luckily for that little family, it is nearly impossible to drown a flea.

The flea army deployed a large guard to the northern border after the unsuccessful mosquito water attack.
But the enemy was not finished yet. They had a secret weapon of their own, and it was already primed for use.

A small division of guards waited in the grimy northern trenches. Their job was to observe the no-man’s-land between the two territories.
Mike shot the breeze with his friend most of the time but now he suddenly was silent. There was a noise, more vibratory and sharp then the sound of the previous attack. Mike froze, and forced himself to use all of his will to muster a cry for help.
“Anti-air! I hear planes!” he shouted. One by one, his comrades noticed and the gunners jumped into their two powerful flea cannons. They at last found the opposing assault force, no less than five large bombers.
“This is serious business!” someone yelled. Mike grabbed his gun and fired several times but the mosquito planes had so much agility they were nearly impossible to hit. They came closer and closer, but did not fire upon the fleas or drop any ordinance.
“Wait!” yelled Mike. “They’re not trying to attack us at all!” He ran towards the commander. “They’re coming for another city! If they were going to bomb us, they would have dropped them already!”
Nobody listened to the lone guard, however, as they were all too busy panicking and firing.
Before long, an anti-air gunner dialed in the sights properly and sunk one of the mosquito bombers. Greasy black smoke poured out of it as it sank slowly towards the ground, crippled. The gunner had not intended for it to be landing right on top of them.
The disabled ship fell closer and closer to the ground with screaming velocity.
“Run!” yelled Mike. He leaped two hundred yards out of the way, to safety, but some of the other soldiers were too barricaded-in or too afraid to move. The once monolithic plane shattered into bits upon contact with the ground and its payload exploded outwards in a gargantuan chemical bubble.
All the flea men hit by the chemical “medicine” were killed instantly. Mike and a handful of others looked on in horror and realized that they were the only survivors.

Far from the dangerous backwater hinterland of the northern territories was the capital of the kingdom. Leer, Most Honorable King of Fleas, sat on his brown throne and discussed public transportation with several members of his advisory board.
Suddenly, news came in of a skirmish on the northern border.
“Send reinforcements to the area,” replied the King.
“But they are coming further south. It’s not us that need reinforcing– it’s you.”
“Pah! We’re sufficiently reinforced. I told you once and I shall not tell you again, I am sending you help. Now be satisfied with it.”
The officer on the other side of the radio grunted from dissatisfaction but stayed silent to preserve his job. The King resumed his colorless conversation about various transport-related practicalities, number of collisions per year, (1375) amount of jumps required to travel five miles (the average distance to get to work, 126) and the state of air transportation. (very poor)
King Leer looked out the Royal Window and saw four giant mosquito bombers headed towards the city.
“Tell the army to man the cannons!” he commanded. King Leer knew it was already too late, though. At most they would only down half the planes before they emptied their payloads on the city. He was correct, and even worse, the planes that did get shot down did their share of damage as well.
Gigantic gravity-powered projectiles fell smoothly towards the ground in an increasingly-steeper logarithm curve. Upon contact with the ground, they deployed huge clouds of toxic smoke which overtook the streets instantly and suffocated thousands upon thousands of flea people.
“Lock down the palace!” cried the King. An assistant pressed all the emergency buttons and the windows and grates closed just as the shockwave of chems reached the grounds.
“Just in time,” whispered the King, relieved but still terrified.
A minute later, the final bomber was shot down, but the fleas had payed a terrible price; a tenth of their national population had been decimated in three short minutes.

Riding off their previous momentum, the mosquitoes buzzed towards the town of Fleafersson in myriad numbers.
The local guards and police had set up a few mechanical defense mechanisms in order to try to stem the tide, but they were obliterated by the mosquitoes’ giant superiority complex, a huge rolling machine which fired cannons and lasers and several other indescribable weapons in unfailing succession. The fleas were slowly overwhelmed, and Mike and his wife looked in at the carnage from the edge of the woods. Their enemies were breaking into houses and finding people on the street in order to stick them through with their terrible bloodsucking probisci.
The screaming was awful, and pale bloodless flea bodies littered the street.
“We have to go,” intoned Carl, and the two fleas fleed as quickly as possible, just in time to avoid becoming two more victims of the slaughter.

Wave after wave of flying terrors invaded the land, crushing the border outposts and pouring down further into the riper, less guarded cities of the central province of the kingdom.
King Leer sat pensively on his throne, and there was a knock at the palace door. They let in a very strange-looking flea, who demanded to speak directly with the king. He was escorted over forthwith.
“Who are you?” demanded King Leer.
“I am a messenger of the Most Gallant and Brave Mosquitoes, and I have come to negotiate terms of surrender, for we have already taken over nearly half of your kingdom.”
The creature handed King Leer a piece of two hundred pound weight cream paper engraved with elaborate script. The King read it over, to the dismay of his advisors.
“I do not agree with these terms, and I must speak to my advisors.”
“I am not allowed to give you much time to make you mind up. I need a decision in two hours,” replied the pesky messenger.
“I will tell you by the close of the deadline,” replied King Leer. “Now go.” He shooed him off. The King and his panel argued over what to do, whether to surrender with high benefits or fight to the bitter end or compromise. They received news shortly of yet another city being overrun and sacked by the bloodsuckers. King Leer rubbed his aching head and sighed.

At the appointed time, the flea/mosquito messenger arrived for his second visit.
“Have you made up your mind?” he inquired.
“Yes,” replied the King. “We will accept surrender with heavy beneficial provisions. If you do not agree with these terms, we will keep fighting until we cannot fight any more.”
“And what are these terms?” asked the messenger, irritated. The King and his panel explained them all, and was countered by opposing propositions. Slowly, they worked through the details and ended up with a tolerable document.
The messenger slid the paper to the King and handed him a pen.
One last time, he read over the words, and the started pangs in his heart. But reluctantly, he began to bring pen to paper.
Then a man recognizable as the research-and-development corporal appeared at the front door and ran in an urgent rush towards the King. He stopped signing.
“King Leer, sir! We have completed the project!” he said, smiling.
“I do not believe it!” The King stopped the pen instantly.
“Yes, it is ready for deployment right now. Who is this fellow here?” he asked, meaning the strangely-dressed messenger.
“He need not be here. He is a vassal of the Mosquitoes.”
The corporal’s jaw dropped. Knowing he had no other choice, not about to wait around for the others, he pulled out his pistol and fired three times at the messenger, who tried to jump away but was executed promptly upon landing by the palace guards. The King tore up the surrender document.
“Give ’em hell,” he ordered, grimacing.

The gigantic secret weapon was rolled out by a thousand fleas onto the largest public park in the capital. It was difficult finding a 480-volt plug to conduct the power, but with the help of creative thinking and a dozen extension cords, the corporal was able to pull the power lever. The machine turned on in a beautiful hazy purple light. A frenetic electrical pulsation began. Already, nearby mosquitoes found themselves attracted to the machine.
“So what exactly does it DO?” asked the King, who could see the faraway device from his throne room.
“I’m not sure,” replied an advisor.
Then the King observed a wispy little mosquito moving closer and closer to the device as though it was on autopilot. when he finally hit it
CRACK!
he was electrocuted and fell hopelessly to the ground, dead and shriveled up by the grievous shock. The bait pouches were working perfectly; before long every enemy in a ten mile radius was on their way to certain destruction. The King smiled widely and joy welled up inside him every time he heard the telltale clamorous sizzling.

An infantry counter offensive was created and the rest of the enemies were pushed back and eliminated a day later.
The fleas had won, and the Kingdom was free, due to the all-powerful bug zapper.

And far to the north, Carl and his partner observed, from the wilderness, every occupying mosquito be pulled by some invisible stimuli or order towards the south.
Knowing it was now safe, they entered their town, which was a ruin from all the fighting and maiming that had occurred so recently. Bob, Jane, Tristan, Larry, Peter, Paul, Rob, and Wendy were all dead, laying there in lifeless piles. And those were just the ones Carl could quickly identify.
There were just as many crushed, limb-filled mosquito corpses.
Carl shuddered.
“All this so they could feed their kids,” he said wistfully.
There was a moment of silence.
“That is the cost of war,” replied his wife.

 

The Gamer

Azure James

 
In the depths of a dark video game cafe, sharp sapphire light illuminated the recesses of towered hard disks and shelves of computer accessories, and the gamers Kim and Joel sat two chairs away from each other. But they were better known by their game names, pocketmaster1345 and xxxxxKIMPTxxxxx. They were in the midst of practicing for another competitive tournament at some point in the future. There were many other players in the room who did not have the sophisticated and cool atmosphere of true gaming veterans, and Kim and Joel looked down on them as casuals.
It was eight at night.
“Headshot!” Kim said into his microphone, and Joel heard him through his headset. Joel jumped around a building corner, dove to the ground, and noscoped three enemies in a row. Dead bodies piled on the ground. Joel got up and ran into cover, throwing two grenades incredibly far into some random location in enemy territory. He saw Kim out of the corner of his eye enter the building to the right of him, about to go in deep and cut around the enemy’s flank.
Kim and Joel communicated much better than most Insane Warbattles VI players, and used myriad strategies to help them in their pursuit of gaming infamy.
They had been in countless tournaments together, and though Joel entertained some thoughts of getting married and having a life outside of gaming, Kim lived for it and almost never did anything else.
But they were indisputably both extremely skilled.
Joel’s armament was usually a SCAR with extended barrel and green 2x magnification sight and a USP extended mag for backup. His comrade used a bolt-action sniper rifle and dual M9 pistols. But on occasion, as a joke, Joel would pull out his difficult-to-use middle finger cannon that he had got as a prize for prestiging eleven times. That was a long time ago.

Time had passed, but the players scarcely noticed. They were now the only people there except the absentminded store clerk, as it was three in the morning. Joel tried to recollect when they had first entered the cafe– it was perhaps a day or a day and a half ago? They played on.
“Stay behind that door, and I’ll cover the other exit,” said Kim, his voice sounding weaker than usual. They hadn’t been communicating as much lately.
An enemy went through the door and was in the process of spinning around and shooting at Joel when he took two slugs to the chest and collapsed.
They had won. Patriotic music played and the soldier with the most kills was displayed.
Now there was a loading time between battles, and they were going to be on the Soviet side. Joel took a swig of Mtn Dew, which used to be Mountain Dew, when they had first picked up their controllers.
Memories of some of their earlier tournaments suddenly flooded Joel’s mind, all the fun they’d had and how difficult it all was. How exciting it had been to prepare, and the thought that all of their enemies had spent just as much time getting ready as them!
Joel worried a little that Kim wasn’t eating much. He never ate a lot and often lost a lot of weight before a competition.
Joel’s character’s head exploded and he fell to the ground. He was getting way too distracted. The young man promised to himself to focus more from then on. Suddenly, Kim’s voice came on again.
“I’m getting tired, maybe we should close this up at the end of this battle.”
Kim was always subtle and a little bit submissive. He sounded exhausted.
“I don’t think so,” replied Joel, “I’m three quarters to level 176 and I should get there before the weekend. What do you think?”
“I’m not sure…”
“Come on,” replied Joel, brushing it off.
“Ok,” said his friend.
They continued on, playing on top of ships, on the roofs of tall buildings, and even in the inside of submarines where stray bullets caused flooding. Their battle orders and general chatter had slowed down and completely stopped a while ago. Joel was skilled enough that he could still play very well, however.
It was eight in the morning and a small but increasing amount of light poured in from the alien outside world. It took Joel’s attention away from what he was doing for a few moments. He actually enjoyed looking from a hole in the curtains at the orange sunlight. He detected a bad odor, surprisingly it was even worse than the typical stink of the place, and wondered where it had come from. After looking around the source was still not evident. But Kim seemed pretty still.
Joel was getting very close to level 176. His heart rate increased and every headshot and triple grenade kill moved the experience bar ever closer to that lofty goal.
Across the room, the store worker played around on his phone and ignored everyone as usual.
The gamer noticed that while he was starting to get tired, and no matter how much Mtn Dew he drank, there was not much he could do about it. His reactions were slowing down and his killstreak had went from 2.64 to the despicable ratio of 1.32! It was terrible.
But Kim, somehow, had not just stayed at the same level of mastery, but actually gotten slightly better and moved around with even more grace as he hopped fences and ran through dusty Middle Eastern towns. Joel was sure, one time, that one of the animations he went through did not even exist at all.
And all this without them even talking.
He didn’t mind, as his throat was sore anyways. At the end of the battle the experience bar was so close to its goal that Joel could not even believe he had not leveled-up yet.
The next round took place on a huge jumbo jet, and if enough windows were broken it would suck players out of the plane, so sometimes players used that effect as a strategy to win. Kim did three times better than Joel, but finally, after shooting some dude’s feet six times in a row, twenty five more experience points were added to the bar and the golden letters
CONGRATULATIONS: LEVEL 127 REACHED!
appeared. Joel gave out an audible shout. The store worker actually noticed him and stared condescendingly for a moment. It was ten in the morning now. The smell was getting horrible, and Joel thought it was about time to go home and take a shower, so he turned the game off and slowly re-acclimated to the real world. After pressing the computer power button and brushing the chip dust off his chair, the young man took a step towards his friend to remind him that they were finished. Not noticing it, he still had his wireless headset on.
Joel touched his friend on the shoulder. It was cold. He shook Kim, but the latter did not resist the movement at all. His face was much paler than usual and he smelled much worse than usual.
He was dead. And he had been dead for a long time.
And then Joel had the horrible thought– how was he still playing?
A low, creaky voice suddenly appeared on Joel’s headset. His heart nearly stopped.
“Hello,” it growled, “Shall we play another round?”

When The Earth Shakes II

When the Earth Shakes

part II
(link to part I)

“I don’t know where,” shot back Crimp, exasperated.
“You can’t just order a strike for nowhere,” replied Henry, starting to become annoyed.
“I know, smartass. How about a pickup at the corner of Oak Street and Lexington Ave, then?”
“Okay,” he replied. “I’ll be maybe three minutes.”
“Come on. You can do two; it’s urgent.” said Crimp. He hopped a fence to the right and ran to the front of the house, which was three buildings to the left of his own abode. The fence he had hopped was riddled with holes a moment later.
Crimp chuckled, knowing that the soldier was wasting his time trying to shoot the fence instead of pursuing him. He was already twenty yards away.
Not far up ahead, the houses turned into stores, and there was an opening to the building’s alleyway directly before the first storefront. Crimp saw the Snipa soldier coming around the front of the house just as he made it to the storefront. They both fired at each other and missed.
An instant later Crimp was behind the buildings, sprinting on. As he nearly came out the other end, the leader heard the running of the soldier not far behind him. As the other man aimed his rifle, Crimp shot at him and struck him in the arm. It knocked the man’s aim off for long enough for the Shank’s leader to turn left onto the busy sidewalk.
Only fifty yards away was the intersection were he was supposed to get picked up. Crimp booked it, using surprised strangers as cover so that he would be more difficult to spot. He saw Henry’s car off in the distance, driving as quickly as it could towards the intersection.
Behind him, a rifle roared, gunning down some of the people in between the Snipa ganger and Crimp. Crimp looked backwards and tried to get a shot off but couldn’t see what he was shooting at. The car screeched to a stop in front of the leader, but instead of getting in, he ran past and ducked behind it. Rifle bullets tore up the top left side of the car but did not hit anything important. They stopped coming suddenly.
“He needs to reload,” thought Crimp optimistically. He moved from behind his cover, aimed carefully and delivered two shots, dropping the other man. Crimp opened the door and ducked into the back seat of the car. They sped off quickly, burning rubber.
Crimp breathed heavily, and Henry chuckled, knowing why.
“That’s somethin’ ain’t it?” he said. Crimp was about to reply but only chuckled himself, letting off some steam. Henry had curly hair and was quite young, but smart. He had become disillusioned with the world and felt he didn’t have anything better to do than to join the Shanks.
As they kept driving down the road, Crimp had a bad feeling.
“And here’s the police,” observed Henry, all of a sudden. The cherries and berries flashed in their rear view mirror. Henry hammered the gas, went right between two cars, overtook them, and got onto the highway which was just ahead.
The police car was five seconds behind them. As soon as they were on an open stretch of highway, they saw the police car entering onto it as well. It was slightly faster than their own vehicle.
“Too bad they appropriated the military budget to the police,” complained Crimp.
“I guess,” said Henry.
Henry pressed a jury-rigged button which let out a pound of large jacks onto the road. Crimp looked back and saw the police car spinning out, with two flat tires.
“Didn’t take long, did it?” asked the leader. His associate nodded knowingly. They took the next exit and headed back towards Henry’s house, which wasn’t far from Crimp’s devastated building.
“I think we need to double down on the search for their boss. They probably have a big bunker somewhere or something similar.”
“S does?” asked Henry.
“Yep. We have to try harder. Tell your comrades to forget about the laws, use satellite imagery, increase radio and internet monitoring, outsource the labor if they have to, and tell them to comb over all the media reports, even from the little newspapers. Especially from them.”
“Good,” replied Henry. “I can’t remember more than three things at once, though.”
“We’ll be dealing with it soon anyways, so don’t worry about remembering every little thing. We can stay at your place for a moment, but I should get to my second house eventually.”
“The one that’s almost out in the country?” asked Henry, who had only vaguely heard about it.
“Yep,” said Crimp. “That one.”
The car stopped and the two men went inside. The leader loaded his revolver and Henry gave some orders over his radio.
It distressed Crimp slightly that the house had no bunker and didn’t even have reinforcing armor. But it was still better than the alternative; being out in the open.
“I can’t believe the repair company was in on it too,” said Crimp, frustrated. “Do the Snipas own everything?”
“Practically. Everything except what we own.” They looked out the window and saw a police car at a faraway intersection, racing towards where the first one had been, on the highway.
“Do you think anyone’s unaffiliated?”
“Not really, except the newest businesses we don’t have time to deal with.”
“I wonder if we can get the cops on our side,” remarked Crimp.
“Nah, some of ’em are already with the enemy and the others won’t budge. They love their job.”
“Yeah, it was a stupid idea,” agreed the boss. “Well, now that I have no assistant anymore, would you like to be one? Two hundred dollars a day, free food and lodging…”
“Hmm. Sure,” replied Henry, “let me just get some things together. Do you have a radio there?”
“Nope,” said Crimp. Silently, Henry seemed disapproving.
A few minutes later the two were on the road again. When they reached the property, Henry could hardly believe it. The house was just a tiny square. It faced the road directly, at the end of a dead end. Behind it was only wilderness.
“We’re really out there now. Why is this place so small?” laughed the assistant, unable to take it seriously.
“Because it’s just the tip of the iceberg.”
They walked inside and ignored the top two rooms. To the left were two stairs and a heavy metal door. Crimp unlocked a lock on the wall and the door slowly slid to the right. There was gigantic bunker underneath, two or three times larger than the rest of the house, but it was just a single long room.
At the back of the bunker, lights illuminating it dramatically, was a huge milsurp machine gun with armor plating all around, particularly for the firer. It was a modified Navy cannon.
“Is that a 50-cal?” asked Henry. “It’s nice.”
“Nope,” replied Crimp.
“40mm?” pressed Henry.
“Nope. 76mm.”
Henry’s jaw dropped.
“And the whole section of the floor it’s on can raise to the ground level if you hit that switch. Don’t forget the earmuffs.” They were hanging on the top of the armor plating.
On the wall a few feet away was a pair of portable revolving grenade launchers.
“The one on the top is loaded with anti-tank rounds,” said Crimp. Henry raised his eyebrows.
“I suppose this place isn’t so horrible.”
After the tour, the pair set up Henry’s relocated radio. It took awhile, and they ran into some unforeseen technical difficulties, but were eventually successful.
As soon as the radio was running, Crimp messaged some of his contacts and got the word that good progress was being made in the search. They had the base locations narrowed down to just five.
“At the risk of being overly optimistic, I think this might work,” said Crimp.
“Maybe.”
They watched a sniper on the rooftops over one of the screens, but he merely waited there, seeming to have nothing to shoot.
“All units, avoid 118th ave and Chestnut Street,” he radioed. Someone replied that they were on their way there.
“That was a close one,” sighed Crimp. “They move somewhere different every day.”
“So how’s Susie?” asked Henry.
“Good. I last talked to her yesterday. It seems such a long time ago now, but I suppose it isn’t actually.”
“You like the blondes, don’t you?” asked Henry. Crimp nodded slightly.
“So why do you not have a radio but you still have all your screens here?”
“Money,” replied Crimp.
“I thought money’s no object for you!”
“That’s only what they say on TV.” Crimp winked. For the rest of the day, the Shanks associates worked like horses to find the base.
Early the next morning, Crimp woke Henry up and they started the day’s work. It did not take long before Crimp received a radio report stating that they had probably located the enemy base. It was a primarily-underground building that would take a lot of armament to damage, but it seemed to be the most likely candidate for the enemy HQ.
Just before the boss was about to authorize a strike, though, he received a text message from an unknown number. Warily, Crimp picked up his phone and read it.
Don’t even try to blow up the base; you’ll regret it.
Yours truly,
S

“What the hell is this?” raged the leader, showing the message to his comrade.
Henry shrugged his shoulders.
“Perhaps they’re afraid of you, finally, after they failed with those last soldiers.”
“S actually knows my phone number?” said Crimp, exasperated. “I bought this phone explicitly because it would be hard to track.” He worked himself up to a bit of a rage.
“Did you not call the repair shop with it? Of course they know. Why doesn’t your assistant do these calls? I’m sure they have your voice profile.”
“But the only time I was on TV, they lowered my voice fifty percent,” argued Crimp.
Henry laughed, as he was more of a technophile than the boss.
“All you do is raise it back up fifty percent, and bingo.”
“Uggh. I’m sick of this.”
A message came in from the radio, changing Crimp’s attention.
“This is Blaise. Eighty percent chance that the location is correct. Also, we may have found a weak spot in the fortification. What are your orders, C?”
Crimp thought about it for a moment. Perhaps S was right that he would regret blowing the building up, or maybe he was just fooling the Shanks yet again. Either way, although Crimp couldn’t easily think of what could go wrong if they shot the base up, he knew something unforeseen might happen, and that could have bad consequences.
In a rare moment of indecisiveness, he asked for advice.
“What should I do?”
“Shoot ’em,” replied Henry, simply.
A moment later, Crimp slowly nodded his head and spoke into the microphone. He called his two friends with large cannons.
“We’ll need to use everything we have. Fire,” he said to the first.
“Wilco.”
On the other side of the radio sounded explosion after explosion. It went on for ten seconds straight. After that, he called the second one and the same events proceeded.
“Whoo!” yelled Henry. Crimp looked happy as well.
“I just wish we could see how well it worked,” the boss said, a tiny bit reserved. “I don’t even have cameras that show that area from far away. It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere.”
Crimp made a weird expression and cocked his head. A very far-away rumbling noise sounded outside. Crimp immediately ran to the ground level and looked out the window. Almost a mile away, driving on the road as if it were a normal vehicle, a tank was coming towards them. There were five armored personnel carriers driving behind it, slowly overtaking the lumbering machine.
“Oh no,” said Crimp, desperation in his voice. He ran back to the radio and hurriedly put in calls for a strike at the intersection closest to his house.
“We’re out of ammo, we need to reload,” were the replies.
“Damn it all!” yelled the boss. “How did they find us?”
“They must have triangulated your position from the radio calls,” said Henry. “They were pretty obvious. Or maybe they found out what my car looks like from the police who chased us and found it with a satellite overnight. Or maybe-”
“Stop it,” said Crimp, ashamed. After a moment, he gave a command. “Be useful; go shoot them,”
They couldn’t use the machine gun as the rest of the house was currently blocking their line-of-sight, but it was possible to at least use the grenade launcher.
“I have to stay here and radio,” said Crimp, running over to the shelf and throwing the top weapon to his assistant. Crimp returned to the radio while Henry went upstairs and opened up a little gap in the front wall that was specially-made for such circumstances. It was just big enough to poke the barrel of the grenade launcher through.
Pink! Pink! Pink! went the firearm. The projectiles sailed through the air at a high angle and one missed, one glanced the tank, and another damaged a personnel carrier.
Henry shot three more times. He focused all his efforts on the APC’s this time, destroying a pair of them. There were only two APCs left.
“I need more ammo!” yelled Henry. A gigantic thundering sound was made and the corner of the top section of the house was decimated. Henry ran back to the basement, terrified.
“It was the tank, wasn’t it?” said Crimp.
“Yeah,” replied Henry.
“Are you alright?” asked Crimp, eyes focused on the radio.
“I guess,” he said feverishly, picking up the second grenade launcher. The tank fired at the house again, shaking its foundations and destroying the roof.
“I can’t go up there!” said Henry, breaking down.
“Shh,” said Crimp, busy with communications.
“Did you say you’ve reloaded?” he asked over the radio.
“Affirmative.”
“Great. Fire at the Columbia intersection. Now!” said Crimp.
Another tank shell tore up the house, collapsing it on top of the bunker entrance way. There was only one way out now.
Crimp heard the firing of his artillery far away and hoped it had been on target.
“Get up there!” said Crimp, pointing towards the 76mm cannon. Henry ran up and manned the gun. Crimp pressed the elevator button and then joined Henry. Slowly, the floor began to move upwards and the two roof sections split apart, opening the gun platform to ground level. The daylight poured in more and more every inch they went up.
“Let’s hope the strike got them all,” said Crimp, pressing a button which readied the cannon for firing. Since the house was so decimated, they could see some of the enemies up ahead. A piece of the house was still in the way, though.
Henry and Crimp put the earmuffs on. Crimp controlled the cannon and swiveled it to the left.
“Fire in the hole!” said Crimp. The cannon exploded, sending a huge shell through the house, collapsing it further.
“Well, now we can see,” commented the boss. Five hundred yards ahead, troops poured out of an APC. They could see that the artillery strike had demolished the other APC. The tank was still there.
“Damn!” said Crimp, adjusting the controls to point the cannon at the tank. He was angry at the aim of his associates.
He fired, and a huge cloud of smoke poured out of the barrel of the cannon as it shook from the explosion. The shot struck the tank on one of its tracks.
It seemed that the tank was immobilized but still functional.
A few soldiers started to fire their small arms at them.
They heard a thundering sound as a shell from the tank struck the ground right in front of the cannon, shaking everything and kicking up a giant cloud of dirt. The two men coughed and were unable to see anything. Crimp blindly adjusted the aim slightly.
“It’s now or never,” he said.
The boss pressed the fire button and the cannon went off again. They could not tell if it was a hit or not.
In the interim, a tank shell tore into the side of their cannon, sending a giant piece of metal flying off in the distance. Shrapnel from the impact flew off in different directions.
“Oww!” screamed Henry, grabbing his leg.
The haze started to clear up and Crimp noticed their aim had been slightly wide. He adjusted and shot again.
It was a direct hit. The enemy tank exploded in a crimson and ash blast.
“Finally!” said the leader. A few rifle rounds bounced off the armor and Crimp kept his head down more.
“My leg…” said Henry. It was bleeding from shrapnel.
Crimp took Henry’s grenade launcher and shot in an arc from behind the armor, taking out a few soldiers. Henry manned the artillery controls and nearly missed but took out one more Snipa. By the time Crimp was out of ammo, there was only one man left.
“Should we?” he asked. They watched the man run backwards, away from the fight.
“With the 76mm?” asked Henry. “No.”
“You’re right,” conceded Crimp.
Crimp took his shirt off and hastily bandaged up Henry’s leg with it.
“You’ll be alright, but you need to go to the hospital.”
“I can’t really walk,” replied the assistant.
“Lean on me,” said Crimp. Henry got off the platform and Crimp pressed the button sending the artillery back into the ground. Slowly, they made their way back to the car and Crimp took the wheel. They sped off to the hospital, making sure to avoid the road where the lone soldier was definitely still running away.
As they drove, Henry called for the hospital to ready a stretcher in front of the building.
Five minutes later, Crimp and Henry arrived and the nurses put the wounded assistant on a stretcher and wheeled him to the lobby and then the emergency room.
Crimp found an actual place to park, rested for a few minutes, then decided he should see how his friend was doing. The walk to the front of the building felt so normal that it almost made him nervous. For once, he found himself unworried about his rivals. The shock from the recent past had not totally cleared up, but he felt better overall. When he went inside, Crimp noticed a policeman eyeing him from behind the counter. He waited until the cop left and then asked a receptionist, under a false name, where Henry was. The leader walked there and stayed outside the surgery area while the doctors finished extracting a few bits of steel from Henry’s leg.
Crimp used the downtime to calm down, rest, read, and eat five crullers from Tim Horton’s.
He kept in contact with his associates through his phone. It sounded like the enemy was greatly weakened. They found little activity during the next two hours.
Before long, Henry was in a recovery room upstairs. Crimp sat next to him.
“So how did it go?” asked Crimp, wanting his opinion on the recent events.
“As good as it could have, except for your lousy timing with the artillery strike.”
“It’s not my fault,” said Crimp, offended. “I always time them perfectly. I know how long everything takes to make it work. The problem was that they didn’t have precise enough coordinates. I told Jimmy last month to map the streets everywhere out to seven decimal points, but he probably only did five. Lazy shmuck.” Crimp shook his head.
Henry laughed.
“Well, there’s not much going on anymore. They only found one sniper lately.”
“Yeah,” said Henry. “What are you gonna do now, see someone you know?” He winked.
“Susie?” asked Crimp, surprised.
There was a knock on the door. Forgetting The Rules for a moment, Crimp walked over and opened it.
“Speak of the devil,” he said. An attractive blonde woman with a handbag and a red dress stood there, looking at him. Henry laughed to himself, loud enough for Crimp to hear him.
“How are you, girl? Nice to see you,” said Crimp politely. She undercut the formality quickly.
“S told you that you would regret that decision,” she said, in a biting tone.
“What do you mean? It worked out in the end.” Crimp began to be slightly nervous, and his positive expression faded. Henry stared from ten feet away.
“It worked out for you,” she shot back.
“Do you want me to see you more, or have they bought you off, just like everyone else?”
“Not necessarily,” she replied. “I’m just done with the explosions and the war, and I want to live normally. This is the easiest way of making peace,” she said, quietly. Crimp shook his head hopelessly.
“So what are you here for, then?”
She looked right into his eyes. It was hard to tell what either of them were thinking.
Silently, Susie extracted a pistol from her purse and brought it to Crimp’s head.

 

 

When the Earth Shakes

When the Earth Shakes

part I

Jacob Prisgrim pressed of a hundred buttons on his remote and the television set flicked on. A blonde newscaster reported the story, not in a typical canned reporter’s tone, but with a hint of haste and genuine apprehension.
“In national news, the Supreme Court of the United States of America has ruled that the Second Amendment of the constitution is an ‘Unlimited and Inviolable Right’, and cannot be subject to change, the end result of the ongoing Davison vs. Picketts case,” she said.
That same piece of news had been repeated with the same urgency throughout the entire day.

— — — — —

A year later, things had changed.
Off in the distance, an earth-shaking, full sound boomed. The china in the cabinet rattled and the floor vibrated beneath people’s feet. Mr. Prisgrim sat on an old chair in his living room.
“There it is again, that infernal blasting,” he muttered under his breath. When the noise was over, he threw his coat on and walked out to the car. The engine puttered as he pulled out onto the main road. A few minutes down his side street lay the battered foundations of a house. His neighbor knew who used to live there. They had talked about the event several times since then.
“There it is, where the Forrests used to live. Why do the gangs around here have such bad aim?” complained the man. He kept on driving, with a bit of an empty feeling inside.
At the grocery store, a television by the counter showed another similarly decimated house which belonged to a low-ranking gangster in the Snipas gang. A voice droned on and on about how he had upset the adjacent criminal group The Shanks in some way, and how he had been killed by an artillery blast just one day later. A helicopter fluttered over the scene, recording the blackened remnants of wood, plastic, and the huge crater swallowing up most of the property and even some of the next house’s yard.
Evidently the neighbor of the gangster was going to try to sue someone to recover the money from her destroyed orchids.
Mr. Prisgrim humphed and frowned.
On another channel, the territory wars were being made into a reality show called Shanks vs. Snipas. It already was the second most-watched show on the air.

— — — — —

On the other side of the city, in one of several normal-looking but extremely fortified houses that he owned, sat the man known only as Crimp. He wore a tuxedo, taking his job as leader seriously. His hair was black, and gelled backwards, except on days where he didn’t do much. Those days were getting fewer and fewer.
Times had changed.
This wasn’t like a gang from five years ago; Crimp and his enemies were professionals.
More than a dozen monitors lined the wall, each showing the view from a different hidden camera around the city. On the table in front of him sat a HAM radio, which would give off security updates around three times a minute. He sat in a cheap chair; the only object in the room without the high-quality aesthetic of it.
From time to time, Crimp took a sip of extra old cognac. At times he simply drank Serbian mineral water.
Chore though it was, he enjoyed his time in his basement bunker. Aside from having persistent worrying thoughts of snipers, he felt nearly at peace.
“Damn, I’m late,” he whispered, turning on his swivel microphone and talking into it.
“This is alpha beta kilo x-ray kilo,” he repeated twice.
“10-4,” replied another voice, muffled slightly by static.
“What’s the word?” asked Crimp.
“Noodles,” replied the voice.
“10-4. Have you checked Highway 28, and made sure Maggonicelli’s has paid their tax?” inquired Crimp.
“Affirmative,” was the reply. “Twenty-four hundred for the month.”
“Perfect. Keep it up and you might get promoted. Alpha beta kilo x-ray kilo over and out.”
He turned the microphone off, but only a second later another voice was already coming in.
“Is this alpha beta kilo x-ray kilo?” it asked.
“What’s the word?” asked Crimp, in a serious tone.
“Noodles.”
“Affirmative,” said Crimp. After a polite pause the informant continued, copying the tones used by police on their radios.
“I have a tangent on Highway 87 heading northwards towards the Highway 28 intersection on the south side.”
“A Snipa?” asked Crimp, forgetting his clandestine protocol for a moment.
“Affirmative. Sausage. In about two minutes the tangent will be at the H-28 intersection.” The voice couldn’t help but sound slightly awkward for the first half of the sentence.
“Perfect. Lat and long?” asked the leader.
“41.8369° North, 87.6847° West. I repeat. Red hatchback, right lane.”
“Is there other traffic on the road?” asked Crimp.
“Not much,” replied the voice.
“Good.” He smirked. “We should avoid extra damages since what happened in September,” said Crimp.
“10-4. Good idea, C. Over and out.”
The boss repeated the coordinates to an associate a mile out of town who had a heavy artillery piece surrounded by a huge foam box to muffle the noise. Crimp observed the screen showing the relevant intersection and waited. The moments passed uncomfortably by before, at last, the car appeared, slowing to a stop at the intersection. It looked expensive.
The boss knew that this was the moment for action.
“Fire,” ordered Crimp. He heard the explosion a moment later through the other side of the radio. Three seconds later, the blast rocked the surveillance camera, suddenly sending the vehicle to a many-pieced end. There was little peripheral damage. The execution was perfect.
Crimp smiled, although he wished someone was there to see him. The adrenaline coursed through his veins as he watched police arrive at the scene in their huge armored vehicles. Three-quarters of the police force was now armored, the rest being reserved for pursuit.
A tank armed with a four-inch cannon even showed up for backup. Nobody found the Shank’s security camera. Their cover was intact.
Crimp grinned to himself, pleased at the result.
A few minutes later, he saw one of his highest-ranking group members on the screen. He was the second-in-command, and the most probable to take over if Crimp’s home defenses were breached.
“Joe,” Crimp said to himself. The man walked on the sidewalk towards the camera, which was mounted around the second story of a nearby building. He smiled at the camera and waved. Crimp nodded his head, appreciating the attention. He felt nearly warm for a second.
Joe’s head exploded and he fell to the ground, bleeding all over the sidewalk.
The boss took the sight in, unbelieving.
“Damn!” yelled Crimp, throwing his cup and a clipboard from his desk. The cup damaged a portion of his radio, making him even angrier.
“Goddamned snipas!” he screamed, throwing his chair in the opposite direction.
Bought from Ikea and made in China, it shattered when it hit the ground.
Crimp collapsed, hopeless.
“Why can’t I be as precise as them? It seems like as soon as I make one good move, they outclass me.” He knew they were called Snipas for a reason.
The life drained out of him as the gang leader lay on the ground. He felt slightly like his late friend Joe.
“My only benefit is all this huge artillery, but sometimes it feels useless compared to the tools they use… It’s like they’re ghosts; they know where all my cameras are, they use decoy houses and use decoy vehicles, hidden snipers…” Despite the ideas Crimp had stolen from them, they were always coming up with new, increasingly diabolical schemes.
“I bet that car wasn’t even the real one.” Negativity overwhelmed him. He had no good reason to think the car was fake, though, beyond gut suspicion.
“First it was Karl, then Morris, then Joe. I can’t take another one.”
He thought about calling on the radio to broaden and intensify the search for the enemy headquarters, but he would need to fix the radio equipment first. He brought his fist down on the floor, enjoying the satisfying feeling when it connected.
It wouldn’t take long for him to recover from the shock, though, for he had been in similar situations many times before.
Crimp took out his phone, an old but durable model. At least it didn’t spy on him like the new ones. He dialed and it ringed for a while.
“Is this E-Z Repairs?” he asked, in his regular tone of voice.
“Yes,” replied the man on the other end.
“I’m looking to repair a HAM radio, quite urgently,” he replied.
“What’s your name?”
“Umm… Frank.”
“Just give me a minute,” said the repairman. There was silence for an unusually long amount of time.
“Okay, what do you need?” he said, with extra vigor.
“Just a replacement for a transmitter part.”
At the end of the call, Crimp got up and opened the solid metal door to the ground level of the house. He made sure he had some extra bribe money for the repairman in his wallet so he wouldn’t tell anyone the unusual nature of the house. Still, something in him felt uneasy. His personal assistant was waiting upstairs.
“Louie, would you mind answering the door when the repairman shows up?” asked Crimp.
“No problem,” he replied. Louie was not an old-fashioned butler, but a typical semi-casual man who had knowledge of a vast variety of modern things. Crimp handed him three hundred dollars and left the room.
The leader waited in his bedroom in the top floor. There was a desk next to the bedroom door with one large drawer.
He looked out the window facing the backyard. It was made of three panes of bulletproof glass. He opened up the steel locking mechanism and felt the wind through his hair.
Someone knocked at the front door, so Crimp laid down by the top of the staircase so he could catch a small glimpse of what was going on. Louie answered the door and spoke with the repairman for a moment. They walked towards the bunker entryway and left Crimp’s sight.
The leader heard the repairman call up someone on his phone and say something like “Yeah, you can come.”
That’s when the mayhem started.
A few moments later, Crimp saw several armed and armored men rush through the front door and into the bunker.
“Shit,” he said, running to his desk, opening the drawer, and frantically pulling out a smoke grenade and an MP5.
There was a gunshot, evidently from the armed men and not from Louie as he had not been armed. Crimp sighed. This had been the third downed personal assistant in the last three months.
That’s why their salary was so high.
Crimp pulled the pin on the grenade and threw it down the stairs. It sent out clouds of whitish smoke. He threw his desk down there as well to trip them up.
Knowing their methods, Crimp supposed the Snipas would have scoured the whole house for him in a few moments even if he had not shown any evidence of his presence. They knew, at least vaguely, what he looked like, and it wasn’t at all like Louie.
The leader dropped his submachine gun out the window and it fell two feet onto the roof. An instant later, he went out with it, grabbing it again as it slowly slid downwards.
The neighbor’s roof was ten feet away from the edge of his own but much lower. He ran as quickly as he could and made the jump, but crashed with so much force into the second roof that he had to let go of his weapon. He just managed to be securely on the roof and avoid the threat of falling off himself.
“No!” he said as the gun fell twenty feet to the ground. He started to scramble to the peak of the neighbor’s roof.
To make matters worse, the Snipas in his own house had made it through the defences and were looking through the window. They saw Crimp and started shooting just as he disappeared beyond the apex of the second rooftop.
As most of the fire was directed towards the northern end of the roof, Crimp ran, low to the ground, to the southern end, and pulled his magnum snubnose revolver out from its concealment holster. Crimp popped out from behind the cover and saw one man firing his assault rifle from the open window. The shots ripped apart the other side of the roof.
The boss aimed the revolver sights carefully and took out the Snipa with a loud bang.
“Good thing I chose such a huge gun,” said Crimp to himself as he jumped to the roof of the next house over. From there, he decided to drop down to the backyard. After making it to the fence, he entered the alleyway and started running from the remaining soldier.
The second man could not be far behind in his pursuit.
Crimp took his phone out and called up his second-in-command, although he had been the third until a few minutes before, when Joe was shot.
“Hey Henry, it’s C. What’s the word?”
“Noodles,” replied Henry.
“Great,” said Crimp, still running, revolver in one hand. “Listen, Henry, it’s an emergency. Louie is dead and my location is compromised.” Just as he said so, a gigantic shell slammed into Crimp’s house, destroying a piece of it.
“Crap!”
The leader looked back and saw the second Snipa running out into the alleyway. He turned right and entered someone’s backyard as he opened fire.
“Okay… here’s your orders. Henry, I need a strike, now.”
“Where?” asked his friend, nervous.
Part II

this is it; the Apocalypse

Everything was silent. I stood by the front window, staring outside at the neighborhood.

Something happened to the southwest, instantly appearing, as if a nightmare. A horrifying ashy explosion followed by a resounding crack. It reached up, gargantuan, through the sky, a slim brown spire of ash surrounded by a grey dusty pillar. The top of the cloud spread out suddenly and boldly into a shape resembling a mushroom.

The type of fear it created was not just physical, it was existential and undeniable.

My best friends, Ryan and Rinzal were in their house just across the street. I rushed to the front door, flung it open and yelled to my friends to come quickly. I could see through the window that Ryan heard me, and made a hand signal saying “one minute”, disappearing into the back of his house.

Thirty seconds later, my friends ran frantically across the street, briefly looking back at the explosion several miles away, which was now spreading up and outwards even more. With a momentary relief, they were safely inside my house. Ryan had brought a slingshot and Rinzal carried a set of poker chips under his arm.

“It’s not safe here. The radiation is going to go right through these windows,” I stammered.

“We should take a roll of that black plastic and tape it over them,” suggested Rinzal. He was thirteen years old, shorter and slightly younger than his brother and more cerebral.

I rushed to reply. “No, we can’t do that right now. Lock the front door.”

Rinzal ran to the front door and speedily spun the lock, making our house a step more secure.

“Come on. We need to get the supplies,” nagged Ryan worriedly.

“I have a bucket in my room,” I shouted, running towards it. “Go, get everything out of the cupboards.”

We worked very quickly to scavenge together food and other useful items. I brought an orange supply pail prepared for emergencies, and my friends took almost everything out of the kitchen.  Nonetheless, we forgot a number of things in our haste.

“The only safe place to go is in the basement. It will protect us from the radiation. Even if someone gets inside our house they probably still won’t find us there.”

My friends were worried.

“Are you sure?” asked Ryan. “Isn’t it just dirt down there?” He might as well have said it was too creepy for his taste.

“It’s the best spot,” I replied. The trapdoor to the basement was in the kitchen, covered up by a rug. I removed the cover and got a screwdriver out to pry open the trapdoor. Rinzal filled glass jars up with water and laid them next to me as I worked. Finally, the trapdoor popped open and I removed it, setting it to the side.

In front of us was the old wooden staircase leading into the basement. There were cracks in some of the steps, and they did not look absolutely reliable. At the bottom was a plain white wall. It looked as if there were no rooms in the basement, but once we descended to the bottom, we saw identical rooms on either side of the staircase, both rectangular and the size of the inside of a bus, between the two of them. We unloaded the supplies on the right side of the landing. There was a huge, black millipedal bug with ten body sections on the wall across from me. I gasped, horrified.

“Ryan, will you please get rid of that bug?” I asked nervously. He looked at me dumbly.

“No! Rinzal, won’t you kill it?” he asked. Rinzal shook his head. I cautiously approached the monstrous insect, thought about cutting it in half, but couldn’t stomach the thought of actually doing it.

“Please, Rinzal! I can’t…” I whined. He looked at the ground and thought for a moment.

“Ok,” he conceded. I backed off and sat on a creaky step as Rinzal got rid of the creature with his slingshot. Afterwards, we went back upstairs to dispose of its body and get the rest of the supplies. I rummaged around the kitchen for a moment for a deck of cards and jug of water, took one more quick glance out the front window at the grey wintry street, then descended down into the depths, putting the trapdoor on top, slightly ajar. The stairs groaned as I descended them and felt the heaviness that often comes along with going further underground. A miniature version of the bug I had just seen, about an inch long, crawled on the floor, but I ignored it this time and it moved away and disappeared into a small nook.

I turned right at the bottom of the stairs into the room where Rinzal and Ryan sat. Its central feature was a red plaid couch, next to which were two square coffee tables. At the furthest part of the room, where the trapdoor would be if the wasn’t a dividing wall between the room and the staircase, was a flatscreen television on the wall. I pressed the button on it, but it would not turn on. It was impossible to tell if it was because of the bomb or the faulty electronics, but the situation would not be changing any time soon.

It was encouraging to be with company in this room, and it made me feel less lonely. Rinzal mumbled something to his brother. He nodded.

“You should have brought your supplies over. Did you lock your door?” I asked Ryan.

His face showed guilt. “Yeah I locked it. We can get the stuff sometime later.”

“Hopefully,” I replied, not wanting to think much about it. “Good thing you brought those chips and slingshot, though. We’ll be using them a lot.”

“I got that little Nerf gun too,” said Rinzal.

“Cool,” I replied. “Good to have stuff to do. What about the rubbing alcohol and soap? Those were in the bathroom.”

“We’ll get it later after things calm down,” said Ryan, face serious. I nodded. Risking any more exposure at the moment would be extremely foolish. Silence reigned while we stared at the walls and breathed nervously. I felt a vague weight pressing down on me from up above.

Having never seen the other room before, I stepped over the bottom landing of the staircase to it. It was identical to the first, except it had a dirtier carpet and no furniture except a counter and small freezer at the far end. Something about this room on the left felt isolated and quiet, and it was filled with a cold grey, spacious energy. I stood in the center of the room for a few moments, not thinking at all, just doing nothing. More time passed, during which I heard Rinzal and his brother quietly conversing. For the first time since the bomb fell, I felt a sense of space, similar to the feeling of being alone in the countryside on a winter’s night.

For a bit, I just wanted time to think. I sat down, back against the wall. There was a newfound sense of freedom, of imprisonment. Thoughts, worries, and quiet passed through my head. In the air I could barely hear a sound. Slowly getting back up, I inspected the two pieces of furniture in the room, seeing if anything inside them was useful. We had brought a few things, but the more I thought of it the more it seemed there was almost nothing in the basement. After eight hours, we could perhaps take a speedy run back up to get clothes and books, the previously-forgotten supplies. 

I went back to the first room, where Ryan and Rinzal sat uncomfortably. They were obviously not used to doing nothing or being so confined. We surely had things to do, many of them, but it somehow felt sacrilegious to entertain ourselves at such a dismal time. I sat on the couch as well, pleased to find there was room for three people on it.

“I’m going to take a nap,” declared Rinzal.

“Where?” I asked, realizing that there was nowhere to sleep except on the couch only after I said it. “C’mon, Ryan, let’s go in the other room.” 

We grabbed up the poker chips and cards, turned the light off in the right-side room and settled down for some poker on the floor in the other room. Now, it felt possible to do something aside from sit quietly. The chips went back and forth until I eventually lost, and by then we had slowed down a lot and become quite distracted. In the bucket was a bag of crackers which we munched on, happy to finally hear some other sounds from breathing and silence. 

Rinzal manifested from the shadows of the right room, rubbing his eyes.

“I can’t sleep,” he complained. 

“I know,” I said. He never usually slept during the daytime anyways. 

“Why don’t you play a hand or two?” I asked. Time flew by as we played round after round of many variants of the game. Later, after an improvised dinner and some conversation, it started to get dark out. I decided enough time had went by for us to take turns quickly blacking the windows out, barricade some weak points, and get clothing and reading material. 

A mid-air encounter

Bored, I skimmed through the Delta safety pamphlet and went over the overpriced food menu yet again.

“The captain has turned the seatbelt sign on. We will be arriving in twenty minutes,” boomed the flight attendant’s vaguely-accented voice. It sounded attractive, smooth, and slightly Slavic.

Every time I attempted to find something to do, I found it hard to stay focused, for my mind would drift back to that pretty flight attendant with her brown ponytail.

She must be Russian. It just sounds that way, not quite what you would hear from the movies, but definitely still Russian. Well, maybe it’s more of a Czech accent or something else like that. I suppose I don’t know all the little differences between those languages.

I  adjusted my position, moved the arm rest up and down and stared at the seat in front of me. Minutes went by.

But I just have to say something in Russian so I can infer if she’s from there or not. It would be cowardly not to. It’s obvious, though, that I will have the full intent to but not actually get a chance to say anything, or, even worse, chicken out at the last possible second. Oh, I would hate that! I can’t do that.

Not much later, doubt started to recapture the territory of my soul.

She can’t be Russian. And I’ll look like a fool, with everyone staring at me, if I say goodbye to her in Russian. Then I’ll be mad with myself for the rest of the day when I should really be enjoying it.

I decided not to say anything, but still felt disappointed somehow.

The plane touched down bumpily, brakes revving forcefully, filling up the whole cabin with soundwaves. The noise slowly diminished, and with relief, the aircraft taxied to the gate at a relaxed pace. Workers labored hurriedly to attach the boarding systems.

I was just as busy internally, though it appeared from the outside that I was doing nothing. After the ecstatic bing of the seatbelt sign turning off, I heard a familiar voice over the loudspeaker.

“Thank you for choosing Dyelta. Have a great day.”

Aha! Only a Russian would say Dyelta! I know it.

Beaming from the inside, I grabbed my suitcase and hustled up to the front of the aircraft where all the employees stood. I fatefully locked eyes with the young woman, the cause of all my torment and excitement.

“Thank you,” she said, by rote. It was now or never.

“Dasvidaniya!” I stammered.

“Dasvidaniya,” she replied, smiling.

A Cowlick

Ryder sat on the porch, on a whitewashed, reclining Adirondack chair. Ryder wore a black felt cowboy hat and beat-up brown leather vest. His hair was in a disarray and a tuft of it stood up constantly no matter how much he tried to press it down.
One hand rested gently upon the right arm of the chair, and the other held an antique pipe filled with burning tobacco. He let out a large cloud of smoke, briefly pretending to be a dragon. There was a moment of stillness. The bugs and birds in the surrounding fields sung the never-ending song of summer.
He moved one foot on top of the other and crossed his legs. His face contained so many valleys and depressions that a miniature Civil War battle could easily be fought on it.
The man took another puff, slowly sucking the warm air out of the pipe and keeping it inside for a few seconds until it started to burn. Off in the distance, there was a hollow tapping sound. Ryder had heard it before.
Must be a woodpecker,” he mumbled quietly. Talking to himself provided the rare opportunity to converse with someone who never lied or argued. It was relaxing.
He listened, and heard a different sound. Then it stopped. It was so quiet, it almost didn’t exist.
Must be makin’ it up,” he thought. “My ears ring sometimes anyways.”
He uncrossed his legs and shook one foot from side to side slowly. There was the sound of a car off in the distance.
Bet the preacher is comin’ home from his church meeting,” Ryder thought. “Sounds like his car.”
Ryder took a pinch of the material in his jeans and rubbed it back and forth, listening to the rough scratching fabric sound. He always made sure all his clothes were tough and durable.
Wonder how the meeting went. Wonder if he’ll ever get that roof fixed proper.” Ryder remembered when a torrent of water started to pour directly on Old Lady Marie’s head halfway through the Sunday service.
Then, there was the sound again. Quiet, but existent. Ryder put out his pipe and stood himself up, holding onto the chair arms. He walked around the perimeter of his house to the opposite side, through the shuffling grass.
Darn you, Pete Miller,” he said, becoming increasingly angry. As he turned the last corner, he saw just what he had expected.
Eight of Pete Miller’s cows stuck their heads as far as they could go through the fence, just barely able to reach Ryder’s freshly-painted wall. They stuck their tongues out and took huge, wet licks on the side of the house. From their expression, you could tell they were enjoying the experience.
Get off my wall, cows!” yelled Ryder. Suddenly, the screen over the lowest window was bent and then taken off by the combined force of three cow tongues.
Ryder clapped loudly, and yelled again. The cows backed out of the fence hole and managed not to get injured by the barb wire. They ran away awkwardly, since cattle lack the natural grace of horses.
Them cows will lick my house till the Second Coming and afterwards,” thought Ryder, angrily. He jogged around to the front door, entered the house, and grabbed the truck keys.
Pete Miller’s got somethin’ coming for him,” thought Ryder. “If he don’t move that fence, I’m gonna kick his ass to where the sun don’t shine.“
After a five minute drive around the bend, Ryder arrived at his neighbor’s house. He turned the truck off and stepped out. There was nobody on the porch. Ryder kicked the dirt and walked up to the front door, knocking loudly.
Who is it?” asked Pete’s wife, Martha. Pete was nowhere to be seen. The door opened and Martha stood behind it. She was overweight, with brown curly hair and an apron. There was a smell of freshly-baked bread lingering in the air.
Go get Pete, tell him his cows are licking my house again.”
What?” asked Martha, clueless.
Where is he?”
Martha walked a short ways over to the basement door and yelled for Pete. After a good while, he heard footsteps. Ryder was quite impatient.
Pete, your cows have been up to no good,” declared Ryder solemnly.
What?”
They’ve been licking my house again. Every time I lay down for a minute of rest from all the work I do, there they go again, lickin’ and lickin’. They’ll lick right through to the inside of the house if we let this go on any longer.”
I’ve told ya before, neighbor. I don’t know why you would make this stuff up. Cows only lick each other. I’ve never seen anything like that in my whole life.”
Ryder had a disgusted expression on his face. His skin turned a shade redder.
I’m sick of all this, Pete. Hell would freeze over before I would lie about something this obscene! If you’re so sure of this, why don’t you come over and see with your own eyes?”
Sure. Might as well,” replied Pete sarcastically.
They left and got in the truck.
Yep. Don’t know what’s so wrong with them,” said Ryder, cooling down somewhat. Pete was quiet.
I just don’t want to pay any repairs. This is a new house.”
I still don’t believe you,” repeated Pete.
A few minutes later, they were back at Ryder’s. Walking through the weeds and tall grass, they got to the back of the house.
Huge sections of the new brown paint was abraded off as if it had been sandpapered. There were a few small clumps of hair hanging on the fence, too, which was bent slightly from the heavy weight of the bovines sticking their necks through it. The new window screen was laying on the ground, bent and broken. Fifty yards away, the cattle grazed innocently.
How the heck do you know that was from the cows and not the last storm?” argued Pete.
It just happened ten minutes ago; that’s why.”
Pete called his cow Bossie and she came walking slowly towards him.
Look here– I will ask her myself.” As she walked up to him, Pete asked Bossie in a mocking voice:
Did you do this?”
She snorted and sniffed his hand, her mouth tinged heavily with brown paint.

The Construct

Prairies:

The Construct

South Dakota. A land unknown to ninety-percent of the world. Perhaps they know Mount Rushmore is somewhere in it, but the state is much bigger than the thirteen hundred acres encompassing the park.

I drove through it, admired the undulating desiccated grass and Wild West towns. Something about this state was different; it did not have the plain air of Minnesota nor the uneasy intensity of Montana.

I traveled over lengthy stretches of flatness, large hills with a climactic feeling as one crested them, and the occasional respitic river.

The first house I came upon was empty, a drywall shell devoid of any life. The next one after that was the same, made of wood instead. Its aged, weathered appearance shook something deep in my soul. That habitation had seen its share of use, people living inside it, using it as a bus stop shelter, a hunting shack, who knows what uses. At some point, everyone had abandoned it and considered it a lost cause.

These buildings, all similar in their air but different in their construction, had lost all their friendliness and instead sucked up the desolate air of the surrounding emptiness. I did not feel that they would give in easily to human habitation anymore. The structures had turned savage and hermetic with time.

At the third sighting of an abandoned building, I stopped with a mind to investigate. They were too fascinating to let drift past. Upon reaching a distance of twenty feet away, I hit a solid wall and stopped in my tracks. It was so clear that I could hear the voice in my head, telling me to leave the structure alone.

I tried to shake off the feeling, telling myself that it could not be anything tangible, just my imagination. Summoning up my reserves of courage, I took another step forward, nearly onto an animal skull.

That was the final sign; I turned back and headed in the other direction, constantly checking over my shoulder for the danger that felt so apparent.

After that, I avoided the constructs and tried to minimize their effect on me, diverting my eye as they approached. A tingle of regret haunted me, a curious pull leading me back into the dangerous vicinity of them. I could feel it pulling me ever so softly.

My mind was made up– no more house hunting. Once was enough. So I went on, past the middle of the state and into the western fringe, approaching the badlands. The scenery became even more explicitly Western, the type of subject a painter would be enamored with capturing. Sun was setting on the horizon, so I stopped to enjoy the tangerine shading over the oceans of native grasses and the vivid, watercolor sky.

Continuing on, it the world became bluer as twilight fell. The hopeful setting of the sunrise was replaced by a more lonesome, tense feeling.

Nearly at the top of a hill, I decided to stop soon thereafter, but just as I was about to set up camp, another one of those terrible buildings appeared close by.

This time it was impossible to ignore it, for reasons of safety, curiosity, and that subconscious pulling of my attention. I followed it, on foot. My boots swished over the grasses, sounding as noisy in the fading light as a marching band. There was a sound just ahead, in the building. I hesitated for a second but went on, trusting my strong faith in the Lord.

The mouth of the structure loomed over me, having no door and only two rooms, the second room not visible until one was past the first. Taking a long breath, I crossed the threshold into the front room. A destroyed floor and peeling wallpaper greeted me. The wainscoting was chipped and warped, and the only other objects in the room were small pieces of broken glass. There was another sound further in the house, a rustling.

My faith wavered severely. This situation was not the safest one to be in, and with nobody at all nearby I was entirely on my own. I sighed and took a step backwards, looking at the ground. Oppressive vibes overtook the area even more heavily.

It is now or never,” I thought, turning the corner so I could see into the second room.

It was entirely empty. A large tumbleweed blew across the floor, scratching noisily as it hovered by.

The Banjo King

A folk song was playing on the radio as my friend Joe babbled on about whatever was on his mind. We sat on the chairs in the living room, killing time and having a drink.

“The piano sounds nice on this song.”

“Yeah. I tried to play the piano once, but it never worked out too well. I guess I’m just not cut out for playing music,” I replied.

“Hmm. My cousin plays the banjo. He lived in West Virginia for a while, and was always saying some legend that people used to talk about down there. Not sure exactly what it amounts to, though.”

“Interesting,” I said. “What is it?”

“Apparently, there’s some musical legend down there. No-one knows exactly who he is. He plays the banjo and he has a nickname, though.”

“What?” I asked.

“The Banjo King of Madison.”

I laughed to myself.
“Madison, West Virginia. When you hear him, you’ll know. There is nobody alive that’s as good as him.” Joe was quite serious.

“Where does he play?”

“No-one knows. It’s a secret.”

“I bet someone just made that story up. It can’t possibly be true.”

“I think it is true, myself. Can’t be super sure, but it seems possible that some random guy out in the country could get amazing good at the banjo and no-one would even know. Definitely possible.”

“Maybe,” I said. No matter how I tried to resist it, the seed was planted in my mind, and it would only grow bigger from there.

At first I shrugged it off, thinking it was some myth to entertain children. There are no kings anymore, anyways, and if there were, wouldn’t they be famous already? There’s no such thing as a “secret” master musician. That would be ridiculous.

I went through my life normally, but had a sort of hollow feeling inside. The feeling began to slowly eat away at me. Some small part of my soul was urging me on, like an enthusiastic childhood friend.

Finally, I gave in and talked to Joe about it again.
“I want to know. Are you really sure about this Banjo King? You aren’t just making it all up?”
“Nope.”
“Well I bet I can find out if that is a true story.”

“You’ve definitely read a lot of Sherlock Holmes. That would help.” We laughed.
“I’m serioud, though.”

“Really?”

“Yep.”
A few weeks after that, I departed. It was a long, tiresome drive into the town of Madison. There was a motel I could sleep at to rest from the drive. The next morning, I had a nice breakfast at the Waffle House. I spent a few more hours exploring the local rivers and parks. After that, I scoped out all the buildings in the town and decided to start with the library. I got out of my car, and to my surprise, a man exiting the library opened the door for me and stood behind it as I entered the library.

“Thanks,” I said.

I walked in and took notice of the woman sitting behind the counter.
“Can I help you, sir?” she asked, rather quietly.

“Maybe. I’m from New York, and I just took the long drive down here. Nice town. My friend told me this legend about the Banjo King of Madison. Do you know anything about that?”

“Well, it’s been a legend for a good while,” she laughed. ” I used to hear such a thing when I was younger, but ain’t no-one’s been talking much about the Banjo King lately. I ain’t sure if there even IS a Banjo King, to be honest. And if there is, I ain’t sure he lives around here. I do know a banjo player that lives on State Street, not far at all from here. I suppose I could give you his address, and you could start there.”

“Thank you very much,” I said. After browsing around and looking at the rather unique books in the library, I returned to my car and drove to State Street, feeling somewhat like a fool. 

Shortly, I pulled up to the address and knocked on the door. The house was almost in the middle of town. Something about it did not look “country” at all. A middle-aged man named Nate answered.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Good. Lookin’ for something?”

“Well, it’s kinda funny, but I’m looking for this guy called the Banjo King. Do you know of him?”

“Nice. I might have heard of that a long time ago. I do actually play the banjo,” he replied, with a bit of pride. “Come in. Maybe I’ll play you a song.”

I wondered if this man was the Banjo King. There was a chance of it. We talked for a few more minutes, then he took his banjo out and played a tune.

He dug around for an ungodly long time for his music. Once he found it, though, Nate played a song that was highly technical, dark, and rather mystifying. I watched his left hand move up and down the banjo, playing many notes at a pretty quick pace. He followed the music precisely, with a stiff gaze. It sounded nice.

“Sounds good,” I said, as the song finished. There was something lacking, however. Maybe there just wasn’t enough soul in the music.

“Well I hate to take up all your time,” I said. “I’d better go. But do you know any other people that could possibly be…”

“Oh,” he replied, slightly disappointed. “I suppose you could go to my dad’s friend’s house. I haven’t heard him play, but my dad says he’s a great banjo player.”

“Thanks a lot!” I said. “Nice to hear that song.” But it didn’t quite feel right. Maybe I just don’t know good music when I hear it.

Next, I headed out into the sticks, somewhat excited at the prospect of meeting this banjo-playing hillbilly, but also nervous at the same time. The drive was actually quite far, and I got lost a number of times. Eventually, I found the old run-down house, which was beside a hill on the right and a valley on the left. 

I rang the doorbell, but it didn’t work, so I ended up knocking instead. An old bearded man who was somewhat slouched-over answered the door.

“Who the heck are you?” he asked rudely.

“Nate sent me here. I’m looking for someone called the Banjo King.”

“Ain’t never heard of no Banjo King,” replied the old bearded man. He spat some tobacco juice right on the rug. “Ain’t never heard of no Nate.”

“Don’t you play the banjo?” I asked. I felt increasingly desperate, and even scared.

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

“Hmmph.” The old man looked me over good. “S’pose I’ll play you jus’ one song. Shouldn’t just be prattin’ on about lookin’ fer some stinkin’ Banjo King that don’t even exist, though. Rude.”

I snickered at the hypocrisy. The man shut the door, hopefully searching for his banjo. I waited on the porch for at least ten minutes, enjoying the warm weather and vibrant natural wildlife in the area. The meadows and treetops were so lush and green, and I heard a chorus of bugs singing everywhere I looked.

After almost an eternity, the door opened, and my host appeared with a moderately-worn banjo in hand. He walked over to a chair on the porch and put the picks on. After some preparation, he began to strum an old-timey bluegrass song.

“Well I got all them chickens

got ’em in the coop

Well I got all my memories

sittin’ in the chair

But I ask you for some new ones

And you say love ain’t there

My wifey says I’m boring

her eyelids start to droop

And if you ask me

that’s some horse poop

Keep rollin’ on, creek

Keep rollin’ on

Keep rollin’ creek

from dusk till dawn”

There were a few more verses. The song was pretty engrossing, but just a little bit too hillbilly-like and trashy for me. I still liked listening to it, though. The music in the Appalachians was way different from what I was used to.

You’ll know it when you hear him. I thought.

“Maybe you wanna play another one?” I asked, instantly regretful of opening my mouth.

“No thanks. I said one song, and one song it is.” He spat again.

“Umm,” I replied, awkwardly. “I know you hate this whole idea, but are there any people you know that could possibly be considered the Banjo King?” I was at the end of my rope. I knew the man in front of me was not the Banjo King, even though he might be a good banjo player.

He looked at me with steely old eyes.

“Nope. You’ll have to go back to wherever yer’ from.”

“New York,” I replied.

“Yew Nork er’ whatever. See y’all later.” He shooed me off.

I drove away, honestly pretty happy to not be dealing with rude people anymore. A feeling of sadness sunk over me as I drive, however. I had not found the Banjo King. He was a myth, after all.

The sun was setting, and the temperature was dropping somewhat. I tried to find the main highway to take me back to New York but found myself lost.

Clouds moved in and it became stormy. The wind picked up significantly, and the visibility dropped until I could barely see past the windshield. I saw a figure avoid my car by a few inches. I started. It was a deer.

“This is way too dangerous. I’m gonna fall right off this mountain road and roll my car four times, if I keep this up.”

I pulled over and put the parking brake on one of the straighter stretches of road. Everything was pitch black and I was seriously out in the sticks. I didn’t even know if there were houses anywhere in the area.

“I’ll maybe just go to sleep in the car, if I can possibly manage,” I said, becoming increasingly nervous. Sitting there as the minutes dragged on and on, I never got any more tired. There was just too much sadness, anxiety, and fear in the air.

A horn honked loudly as a huge truck barely avoided my car. It jolted me. I reluctantly turned the car back on and kept driving. The road forked and I ended up taking the smaller fork in the turn. There was woods on both sides of the car.

Trees kept passing by the dozen. I hoped there weren’t deer, or worse, out. After a few tense minutes, a fallen log obscured the road in front of me.

“Darn it all to heck,” I said. I stopped the car and decided to roll the log out of the way. It was quite small.

Suddenly a flashlight shone on me.

“Who are you?” said a young voice.

“Don’t mind him” said an older voice.

I turned around, and made out two figures, a younger boy and his father.

“Sorry. I was trying to get down this road, and got stuck. I’m trying to find the interstate.”

“Good luck!” said the father. “Good thing we found him, right, Billy? Sorry. What’s your name?”

“Well, I don’t really need to talk right now. Sorry. I’m just trying to clear the road up.” I stumbled over the words.

“It’s fine. You won’t be gettin’ anywhere with this storm as it is. The Almanac predicted it would be bad.”

“Yep,” echoed Billy.

“Come inside for a spell.”

“Ain’t it a little late?” I asked, surprised by my sudden decrease in verbal literacy.

“No. Just barely eight. And it’s fine with us if you come.”

“All right,” I reluctantly agreed.

I walked through the mud to the porch, took my boots off, and walked into the large, square living room. There was an old TV and a few couches in it and a frail old man who might be the grandpa of the little kid.

“Getcha’ somethin’ to drink,” said the father. “Pepsi or sprite or beer?”

“Pepsi,” I replied. “If you don’t mind.”

I got my drink and sat down on the couch. The little kid, maybe ten or twelve years old, talked to me constantly about his friends, his school, hunting, the television, and whatever other things entered his mind.

“Who is this ‘ere person?” asked the old man.

“Some stranger,” said the kid. “Car got stuck.”

“Oh. What’s he look like?”

“Got black hair and ain’t that tall,” replied the kid.

What a strange conversation.

“Yeah, mister. So my friend said you shouldn’t do that to frogs. I don’t really care, though. Oh, and I play the banjo. Some people call me the Banjo King. Pretty cool, huh?”

Wow! Maybe it’s true! thought my inner believer. That would be great.

“I’ll take it out and play something.” I wondered if the kid was telling the truth. He seemed sincere. A few minutes later, the kid was holding an extremely antique, beautifully-made banjo and plucked a few notes on it. He started to sing an out-of-tune and very slow version of Blue Moon of Kentucky. I yawned.

Nope. He isn’t. Now, can I please get out of the darned house? I thought spitefully. I was getting very homesick, and completely regretted wasting all my money on such an ill-advised trip.

The kid finally finished his aggravatingly bad song.

“Do your relatives call you the Banjo King?” I joked.

“Yep,” said the kid, smiling. I laughed quietly. Suddenly, the mood shifted.

“Give me that darned banjo,” said the old grandpa, grabbing around blindly in front of him. “Where is it?”

He must be as old as Abraham, I thought. This’ll be funny.

“My grandpappy’s blind,” said the kid. “Needs a cane too, but I love him anyways.”

Here it goes. Another stupid-ass banjo song. If he can’t even see, how could he possibly play anything good? I thought.

The kid handed the banjo off to the old man.

“Didn’t know you could even play banjo!” the kid said. “Can you?”

“Shh,” whispered the old man, cradling the banjo like a precious baby. He patted it lightly. The mood shifted more.

I heard a beautiful, shimmery sound as he twisted the tuners and got the strings in perfect alignment.

Cool, I thought. It’s something.

The old man grunted, and there was a tense, waiting moment of silence.

Suddenly, a raucous cacophony of beautiful sounds started to burst out of the banjo like the choirs of Heaven itself. I felt tears well up in my eyes as the beautiful melody emanated from the banjo, starting fairly simple, but then becoming more and more complex. Waves upon waves of complicated maneuvers built on each other, gradually increasing the intensity of the song. After the music had almost reached a beautiful climax, there was a moment of silence. Then, the song began anew, with even more rapidity, as the man’s fingers moved with otherworldly speed and viciously attacked the strings. His left hand moved up and down the fretboard in a frantic blur. Each note blended into the others yet improved the whole of the song at the same time.

The kid, who had previously considered himself a good banjo player, stared blankly with his mouth wide open, unable to even comprehend the profoundness of the music.

The song became even swifter and more intricate. I was totally lost in the impenetrable complexity of it. I could barely even breathe. Then, there was a change. The old man played the Grand Finale of the song, a lighting-speed finish to put the icing on the cake of the most amazing banjo song ever. It ended with the highest note a banjo had ever played, which was so high that not your ears, nor your brain, but only the depths of your soul could hear it.

After the song was a long moment of silence.

“Wow.” I said, flabbergasted. I felt unworthy to even interrupt such a sacred silence.

You are the Banjo King.”