This week we have stories by:
Marla J. Mercer <--------- This week's Winner
Marla J. Mercer
Brady awakened precisely one minute before the alarm on his digital watch was set to ring. Quickly, he sat up and looked around his small studio apartment. Sparsely furnished and nearly devoid of personal possessions, the room had the feel of a monk’s quarters. Though Brady had lived in the apartment for almost four years, no one had ever visited, nor did anyone in the building know him by name. Brady didn’t mind. Soon, he would be back on his home planet. On his home planet, he had many friends.
Brady reached for his wristwatch on the night stand and turned off the alarm just as it started to sound. Slipping the watch onto his wrist, he checked the time. It was 6:45 A.M. In exactly ninety minutes, the spaceship would land in the park, and he would leave earth forever. Humming softly, he stood and made the bed.
Sticking to his usual morning routine, Brady shaved, showered, and brushed his teeth. He took a little extra time with his hair today, carefully combing a number of thin strands over his bald spot. With studied deliberateness he went to the closet and removed the items he had been instructed to wear on his journey—a plaid shirt, khaki pants, and his best pair of loafers.
When he had finished dressing, Brady walked to his desk and picked up a pair of sunglasses. With gray-tinted lenses and thick black frames, the glasses looked perfectly ordinary. They were, however, anything but ordinary. They were star shades. Only Brady knew their secret. He had no idea how they actually worked; the technology was beyond his comprehension. All he knew was that each morning when he put on the sunglasses, they allowed him to receive telepathic instructions from his home planet.
Anxious to hear what the final communication would be on this—his last day on earth—
Brady put on the glasses. He fiddled with them until they rested comfortably on his nose and ears. Then, he waited.
“Agent Brady.” The voice rang out crystal clear in Brady’s brain. “Your transport has entered earth’s solar system and will be arriving at the park at the prearranged time. Please be ready and waiting at the designated coordinates near the koi pond. Once the ship is fully uncloaked, you will have approximately sixty seconds to board.
“As this will be our last transmission, you are instructed to destroy the star shades upon sign off. And may I say, Agent Brady, we all eagerly await your return. End transmission.”
Barely able to control his joy, Brady took off the sunglasses. Without a moment’s hesitation, he tossed them on the ground and tromped on them until the lenses were shattered, and the frames lay twisted and broken. Whatever the daily orders from home, Brady always followed them to the letter. It was his duty, his mission.
For the past seven years, ever since he had first found the sunglasses on the park bench by the koi pond, Brady had received thousands of instructions. Sometimes he was told to walk backwards down staircases, or to avoid eye contact with a specific person at his place of work, or to only eat foods whose names contained three vowels. Brady always obeyed without question.
Now, as he walked to the kitchenette and fixed himself a piece of toast, Brady wondered if it might be all right if he brought one his carvings with him on the trip. It would be nice to have a small memento, a keepsake to commemorate his time on earth. Since he had received no instructions about it one way or the other, Brady supposed it would probably be okay. After all, the carvings only weighed a few ounces each.
Quickly finishing his toast, Brady opened the cupboard beneath the sink. Smiling, he removed a cafeteria tray bearing an odd assortment of miniature spaceships that he had whittled from bars of Ivory soap. He cocked his head to one side, proudly admiring his handiwork. Carving the tiny white ships had been his only diversion. He didn’t own a computer, or a television, or even a radio, lest their vibrations somehow interfere with the power of the star shades.
Brady gently fingered the delicate white spaceships. After several moments of deliberation, he picked one of his favorites and wrapped it in a paper towel. Carefully, he placed his treasure in a brown lunch bag and folded it shut. He checked his watch. It was 7:15—time to leave.
Brown bag in hand, Brady left his apartment and walked two blocks to the bus stop. It was a clear day, and the air was already growing warm. At 7:32, two minutes late, the Number Three bus arrived. Brady climbed aboard and made his way down the aisle to an empty seat near the back. The bus smelled vaguely of sweat. With a hiss of the compressed-air brakes, the lumbering vehicle pulled from the curb and began its slow but steady progress through the morning commuter traffic. At each stop, Brady checked his watch.
By the time passengers began boarding on Madison Street it was 7:43. The bus was now running a full three minutes behind schedule. Though annoyed by the driver’s apparent disregard for promptness, Brady wasn’t worried. He had, after all, allowed for a full twenty-minute margin of error in his timetable.
At last, the bus got under way again and began to pick up speed. Halfway down the block, there was a loud screech of brakes. The bus jolted to an abrupt stop. Brady was hurled forward. His forehead smacked against the metal handrail mounted on the seat in front him. A split second later, the momentum shifted, and his head snapped backwards in a whiplash motion. Stunned, he touched his forehead. He could already feel a lump beginning to form. A thin but steady trickle of blood dripped from his nostrils and formed an ever-widening stain on his plaid shirt. Through his dizziness, Brady tried to focus his eyes but saw only a blur of colors and shapes spinning around him.
“What happened?” cried a man across the aisle.
“We’ve hit someone!” a woman shrieked. “An old man. I saw him. He jumped right in front the bus!”
As the words sank in, Brady felt a wave a horror sweep through him. If what the woman said was true, the police would arrive soon. They would want statements from everyone. There would be ambulances and medical personnel. It might be hours before he was allowed to leave the scene. Grasping the handrail in front him, Brady struggled unsteadily to his feet. He had to get off of the bus—get off now while he still had a chance to escape.
Clutching the brown lunch bag, Brady stepped into the aisle. He glanced around and saw other injured passengers. A number of people had moved toward the front of the bus and were looking out the large windshield. Weaving slowly from one seat to another, Brady headed for the side exit. Four teenage boys stood in the aisle blocking his path.
“Out of the way!” shouted Brady. He waved his arms wildly.
Startled by Brady’s bloodied face and threatening expression, the boys backed away and let him pass. Brady reached the side-exit stairwell and fumbled down the metal steps. The pneumatic, split-entrance doors at the bottom were closed. He pressed the oval panel marked OPEN. Nothing happened. He pushed on it again and again. The doors remained closed.
“Let me out!” screamed Brady. He clawed frantically at the rubber gaskets where the two doors met, trying to pry them open. They wouldn’t budge.
A crowd had begun to gather on the sidewalk. Curious onlookers peered at Brady through the tinted glass panels on the exit doors. He heard sirens in the distance.
“Let me out! I have to get out! Help me!” he screamed, beating on the doors.
A large man in a black t-shirt and dirty jeans pushed his way to the front of the throng. He wedged his thick fingers between the slit in the doors and pulled. Slowly, the doors parted. Bloody and dazed, Brady lost his balance and stumbled from the bus. The big man grabbed hold of Brady and kept him from falling.
“You don’t look so good, buddy,” said the man. “You’d better sit down on the curb and wait ‘til an ambulance gets here.”
“No!” protested Brady. He pushed the man aside. “I have to get to the park.” He lunged into the throng of spectators.
The crowd parted, recoiling at the sight of him. Then, in a flurry of sirens and flashing lights, a fire truck and two police cars entered the Madison Street intersection and headed for the bus. In response, the horde of people on the sidewalk closed ranks and pressed forward to get a better look at the action. Brady slipped away unnoticed.
With a tight hold on the brown bag, he tottered unsteadily down the sidewalk, hoping to put as much distance between himself and the bus as possible. The street was now clogged with cars. Traffic was at a standstill. Brady kept close to the storefronts, using his free hand to shield his face from the curious glances of the pedestrians streaming past him. His head had begun to throb, and there was a high-pitched whistling sound in his ears.
When Brady reached the next intersection he glanced at the street sign. “Lawson Street,” he said aloud. “I’m at Lawson Street.” Though it was difficult to concentrate, he forced himself to calculate the distance between Lawson Street and the park.
“Six blocks,” he murmured. He looked at his watch. The small green digits on the L.E.D. display appeared fuzzy and blurred. Squinting, he finally brought the numbers into focus. It was 7: 56. He still had time. He could make it if he hurried.
Brady tried to run, but his knees buckled, and he nearly fell. Righting himself, he began a slow half-jogging/half-walking gait. His headache seemed to be growing worse with each footfall upon the hard pavement. Block by-laborious-block the pain intensified. He was vaguely aware of people on the sidewalk staring at him in alarm. A few of them even tried to speak to him, but he couldn’t hear what they were saying. Their voices were muted by the high-pitched whine that filled his ears.
When Brady reached Tyler Street, two blocks from the park, he stopped and glanced at his watch. The numbers danced and swam. He could make no sense of them at all. Brady pressed on, willing his legs to move.
“I can make it,” he murmured. “I can make it.”
Then he saw it: the park. Just one more block. With a final burst of adrenaline, he compelled his exploding lungs to breathe deeper, his body to move faster. Reeling, he lurched past the entry gate and staggered down the cement pathway until he reached the koi pond. As he sank into the bench near the water’s edge, he was overcome by vertigo. He leaned forward and vomited blood.
When he was through retching, Brady wiped his lips. Frothy red spittle foamed at the corners of his mouth. He tried to look at his watch, but both of his arms had gone suddenly numb. He couldn’t feel them at all. Nor could he move them. He watched helplessly as his grip gave way, and the lunch bag he had been carrying slipped from his grasp. The bag fell open, its precious cargo spilling onto the grass below the bench.
“No!” whimpered Brady.
His body began to convulse. He slumped forward. Paralyzed and dying, Brady crumbled to the ground. He landed with his neck oddly contorted and his face just inches from the miniature soap carving that had fallen free from its wrapping.
Brady gasped and stared in awe at the huge spaceship that dominated his entire field of vision. Never had he seen anything so magnificent, so beautiful. Smooth and white, the giant craft looked as if it has been carved from pure alabaster stone. Tears of joy trailed down Brady’s cheeks. He had done it. He had arrived on time. It was 8:15, and Agent Brady was going home.
Star Shades by Marla J. Mercer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
by Mick Bordet
He stumbled around the bins lining the backstreet that had served as his home for the last three days, looking for the scraps of food that would form his breakfast and thanking his fellow man for being a creature of excess and wastefulness. Living the green lifestyle and recycling everything was all very well, but right now he was glad that the idea had yet to catch on in New York or at least this part of the city. Digging through other people's rubbish was not his idea of fun, but it certainly beat starving to death as a pastime. So far his morning's work had provided five cartons of various fruit juice dregs that combined to make a pleasant drink, half a loaf of bread that was turning stale, but was still perfectly edible when topped with the scrapings from a selection of jam jars, half a doughnut, a woolly hat and a pair of sunglasses. There was plenty more food available, but half-eaten Chinese takeaways and congealed spaghetti were more than even he could stomach at 6am.
The hat was a great find, much more in keeping with the New York look than his own flat cap. Following fashion was never something he could have been accused of, but there was a time and a place for standing out and making a statement. This wasn't it. Now all he sought was to be average, to fit the profile of everybody else living on the streets, doing away with distinguishing features and embracing the mundane.
He sat down in a doorway to eat the food he had collected, then slid the hat on and donned the dark glasses. Together with the threadbare suit he had found discarded in a skip the day before, they served to completely change his appearance. That was his plan, for the short term at least: fade into the background of the city, another nameless, homeless statistic that nobody would come looking for.
By: Norval Joe
The sun rose on the silent city streets. A man walked through patches of new grass encouraged by recent rains. In places the dense growth of weeds completely obscured the transition from gutter to sidewalk. Apartments and office complexes, their empty windows like the multi faceted eyes of dead dragonflies, towered above the man casting the deep, narrow, canyons into shadowed darkness.
He walked past shop windows, their displays fallen to dust. The doors were unlocked and the windows unbroken. The death came so quickly. No one bothered to lock doors as the employees and customers died suddenly where they worked and shopped. The few that lived were too disoriented, too distraught, or too afraid to loot or vandalize.
He asked himself, as he did each time he came to the city, "how many died?" He couldn't answer himself. There was only a handful that found their way from the city to the outskirts, where there was open air, away from the stench of rotting bodies. There had been hundreds of thousands who lived and worked in the city. In a day a few dozen were left alive.
The dogs thrived for a time. Eating their masters and the corpses of the other animals susceptible to the plague. Horses, cattle, sheep and pigs, were all gone. Only dogs and cats were unaffected. Mixed breed packs of dogs roamed the city streets consuming whatever they found, and eventually, when all the rotting meat was gone, they consumed one another.
"Robin, I'm going into the city. I need to get a few things," the man said to his wife. "I should be to the outskirts by daybreak. In and out before mid-day."
"I know I shouldn't worry. But, I do every time you leave. It's only midnight, can't you wait a few hours before you go," she asked?
"No." He looked at the door, anxious to be on his way, yet hesitant to leave her alone. "The light will only be good for a few hours at the store, and I want to take full advantage of every minute."
"I know, Sean," she said and smiled. "Just be careful. Keep an eye behind you. On my one trip to the city, I felt like someone was watching me. Like ghosts of all those dead people, standing around the corners or looking out of the windows."
"You know I'm not superstitious. But I will be cautious. And I'll be back by tomorrow at sunset." He kissed her, and she kissed him back passionately.
When they separated, she said, "now, there is something for you to remember me by. There will be another waiting for you when you get back." She watched him shoulder his backpack.
As he reached the door he took the Ray Ban Wayfarers from his pocket and put them on. "You're not going to wear those now are you? It's pitch black out there. How will you see where you're going?"
"You know I have to, once I leave the house. Besides, I know the way. It's a straight shot on level road for most of the way. I can see what I need." He hugged her, kissed her again, and left.
Sean entered the 'House of Music' and went straight to the Steinway Grand. It was close enough to the front of the store to take advantage of the light from outdoors, but not so close that extreme temperature changes, outside, would cause irreparable damage to the instrument. He removed the quilted cover that protected the piano from dust and moisture. He played scales and finger exercises listening to each note. He wouldn't need to tune it as he did at his last visit in the early spring.
When his fingers were warmed up, he played many of his favorite songs from memory. He spent a precious half hour improvising on some blues and jazz numbers he had put together. The notes were rich and resonant, unlike the pianos out in the villages.
Sean was a master pianist. He traveled from village to village each day. He taught lessons to young, aspiring, pianists during the day and performed in the assembly halls at night.
He thought a about recent lesson he had taught in one on the villages. A girl, Sarah, about ten years old struggled to play a sonata by Bach. She slammed her fists down on the keys and exclaimed, "Why can't I play something more fun. It's easier to play the modern stuff, and I don't like this old garbage." Sean took the music book from in front of her, closed it and put it in his back pack.
"Your lesson is over for today." Sean said, closing his pack and replacing the Ray Bans in front his eyes. "Perhaps next week when I return, you will have earned more respect for this instrument. When the death came, not many remained that played the piano. The people sought their entertainment, and their music, through electronic media. Fortunately, one man still had the skill to play the piano. He trained my master, as I am teaching you. If you master the skills, you will receive the glasses as I have."
He walked to the door of the assembly hall and stopped, his hand on the door knob, and continued, "However, if you don't learn more respect for the instrument, your opportunity to earn the glasses will have ended. There are few pianos left in this region, and I am the only one who can fix them. Treat it kindly," he said and left.
When the death had come, those that survived used the cars and the fuel to leave the cities. They moved to the farms and built villages where they could support one another. In a short time all the accessible fuel was gone, and after a generation, even the solar components were failing and irreplaceable. Generations later their only available fuel was corn alcohol, which they used sparingly to cook their food, and light their lamps.
Their history and learning had been recorded on digital media. No one thought to begin transcribing the information to written form until the last of the generators failed and the electricity turned off permanently. The music store was the only place within walking distance of Sean's territory that had a supply of written music.
Sean searched the shelves of the store until he found sheet music to a piano concerto he had not yet learned. He practiced it until the sun crossed over the street outside and passed behind the buildings opposite the music store. The room darkened with the shadows outside. Eventually the light became too dim inside the store for him to read the music.
He placed the sheet music in his backpack, and replace the quilted cover on the Steinway.
He found an upright piano of a size similar to those used in the villages and removed several of the wires. Nearly five generations had passed since the death came, and the old pianos were always in need of repair. He placed the wires in his backpack and left the store.
He retraced his route back out of town. He stopped suddenly when he heard a sound from behind him. The empty city was a continuous chorus of whispers and sighing whistles as the wind wound through the empty streets. The scuffling sound of feet in the dirt of the sidewalk was so foreign to the desolate city as to be a shout in a silent room.
Sean spun about, expecting to find a pack of dogs in pursuit. Instead he found himself face to face with a boy, perhaps in his early teens. The boy stepped forward a long belt knife in his hand. "Gimme your glasses," he said to the pianist.
Sean snorted a short laugh, "You know I can't do that. You have to prove yourself first. What village do you live in. I don't think I have ever seen you at any of the lessons."
"We don't live in a village," he said.
"We," Sean thought? He looked around himself and was astounded to find that a group of not less than ten boys had formed a half circle behind him, each with a knife equally as large as the boy to his front.
"Come with me. I will prove myself, and you will have to give me the Ray Bans," the boy said, turned and headed toward an alley.
Sean followed him along a maze of turns through the city blocks until they came upon an ancient hotel. Its front double doors stood open. They climbed dark stairwells the full height of the building's twenty stories. The boys climbed effortlessly, but stopped periodically for Sean to catch his breath. They waited patiently after one of the older boys commented, "You can't expect a flat-lander to be able to climb stairs like us who've lived here all our lives."
They arrived at the top level and passed through the door on the landing. The man stepped through first, followed by the boys and entered a large, open, receiving area of the penthouse apartment. The room was lit by multiple skylights that gave the room a brightness unequaled to any room Sean had been in. The skylights stood open, allowing a breeze to cool the apartment. There were people of all ages involved in various activities, from merely talking with one another, to making clothing, and preparing food.
The boy lead him across the communal area to a passageway and eventually to a large bedroom. A large skylight covered most of the ceiling to light this room as well. The only furniture in the room was a bed and an upright grand piano. A withered old man lay in the bed and shook uncontrollably as if from a palsy. The boy walked to the bedside and kiss the man on the head. To Sean's astonishment, the old man wore Wayfarers, identical to his own. The boy who had lead Sean to the bedroom spoke to the man in the bed. "Grand father, this is the man I told you about. He came to the music store, again. I told him to give me his glasses and he told me no." The boy seethed with barely controlled anger.
The grand father patted the boy's back with his shaking hand. He leaned forward and spoke to the boy in a rough whisper. "Play for him, my son." He collapsed back onto his large pillow as if exhausted from the effort of speaking.
The boy sneered at the Sean and walked to the piano. He cracked his knuckles and began to play. He recognized most of what the boy played as late twentieth century jazz. He had a flare for improvisation and transposed the pieces he played through a variety of keys, altering chord progressions and building on others. Sean smiled. The boy was truly gifted.
After a quarter hour performance, the boy stopped and looked to his grandfather. The old man was smiling and nodding his head weakly. Sean said nothing but took the sheet music from his backpack. He opened it and placed it in front of the boy on the piano. "Ok," Sean said, "play that."
"What is this," the boy asked? "It looks like ants smashed on a paper. What am I supposed to do with it," he asked, the redness of embarrassment spread across his cheeks.
"I will show you," Sean said and motioned the boy off the piano bench. He played the piano concerto with the dynamics and emotion of a master; of one who had earned the glasses.
When Sean completed the concerto, he stood and looked at the old man. Tears trickled from beneath his sunglasses. He motioned Sean to come to him. He reached his wavering hands up to the younger man and pulled him forward by the shoulders.
The boy could hear his Grand Fathers hoarse whisper, "Take the boy. Teach him. If he can learn, as you have played, give him these." With that, the old man removed the Wayfarers from his own face, folded them carefully, and slipped them into Sean's shirt pocket.
As night fell, Sean lead the young man out of the city toward the villages.
By: Zach Ricks
Hank's eyes flew open a moment before the alarm went off. A slim arm slapped the clock off and grabbed the glasses from the table in one smooth motion. As he brought them up to his face, still prone on the bare mattress, he paused. How long had it been since he'd cleaned them? He glanced toward the door – toward the hallway that led to the small shared bathroom in the tiny hotel. He shook his head, and placed the dark glasses on his nose. Then he sat up and reached for his pants – hung over the footboard. You couldn't be too careful. Hank knew his reputation for bad timing.
After all, it was richly deserved.
Pants cinched around his slim waist with the worn, cracking, brown leather belt, he silently pulled the door ajar and listened without removing the chain. Not that it would provide much protection if there was someone waiting for him, but it would give him enough time to draw the Glock 26 at the small of his back.
The hall was clear, and it was a step and a half to the bathroom. Hank pushed the door shut, and drew the chain. He stepped quickly into the dark hallway, feeling a surge of adrenalin as he spotted a huddled shape at the other end of the hall. But it was just Charlie. He shook his head, and stepped into the cold light of the bathroom. Oddly enough, it was clean – one of the reasons Hank stayed here.
Locking the door behind him, he went to the mirror, and pulled off the glasses to clean them with a square of tissue. He purposely avoided looking at himself as he did so. But as he put the glasses back on his twice-broken nose, he got a brief glimpse of silver and a glowing electric blue in the mirror, and shuddered a little.
He had, as always, been in the right place at the wrong time. Kidnapping, eight years prior. Tech genius Boyd Samson's twelve-year-old son had been snatched from the steps of his little private school. Hank and John had tracked the kidnappers to a little house on the outskirts of town, close to the highway... close to the river. It didn't bode well. They'd waited for two of the men to leave – off to get groceries, booze, who knew what. That left one of the men in the house. They'd called in the license plate, and left it to the regulars to pick up the two in the car, and gone for the house.
Hank didn't know how they'd known they were coming, nor did he know how the fourth man had entered the house without their seeing him, but John had taken a slug to the back of the head, and Hank had been knocked unconscious as he dove for his friend.
He'd woken with his hands tied behind his back, and the sight of the knife tip headed for his eyes. First one, then the other. He'd screamed and screamed. Screamed so loud and long he hadn't heard the regulars charging up the stairs and into the room – had only barely heard the shot that had ended the case.
Samson visited Hank in his hospital room, all gushing thanks, as any father would have been. But this wasn't just any father. And he had a particular offer of help that Hank just couldn't say no to.
They were the first of their kind, shining surgical steel and cobalt blue electrical glow. When Samson's firm demonstrated that not only could the electrical signals be interpreted by the brain, but stored for later playback... and used in evidence... the brass had kept him in major crimes for three months, then moved him to internal affairs when he'd witnessed a Senator's son strung out on who knew what, drawing a weapon on the police and firing wildly.
He'd been a hero before the transfer. But people started clamming up around him. Conversations died as he entered a room. And to add insult to injury, Samson had released his production model – electronic eyes virtually identical to the human eyes they replaced. Something well beyond the means of a mere cop, and Samson's people weren't taking his calls any more. Not after that Senator had made it clear that Hank Torrance was persona non grata.
When detectives started getting the eyes as a matter of course – subsidized by the taxpayer, but his own requests had been denied repeatedly as an “uncovered cosmetic procedure”, Hank had finally seen the writing on the wall and left the force to work as a private investigator.
He shook his head to clear the memories, and ran fingers through his thick hair. Who knew what the city would bring to his office this morning, but Hank had a feeling it was the right place to be, even it would be the wrong time to be there.
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World Builders Unlimited
Thursday, August 20, 2009
This week we have stories by: