“For the last time, we don’t need artists. We need laborers. If everyone did what they wanted, what would we eat? Where would we live?”
“There are millions of us! Why can’t I be different?”
“But why you?”
“Because I’m asking.”
She let him try. In a month the hill was covered in a rainbow of swirls and circles. The word spread. In a jungle of 400 trillion ants, he was the only one with a name.
. . .When you don’t, you’re all they see.
* * *
In 1835, French naturalist George Valentin came across a nest of Argentine ants in the Corrientes province of Argentina. It was three feet high and covered in symmetrical patterns of berries and twigs, including one design that many claim to be the figure of an ant. It was destroyed in a flood the next year. To date, it remains the only example of ant artwork ever found. Source*.
*Okay, so this didn’t actually happen. But it makes a good story.
I don’t know if I have a typical story, but this probably isn’t it. It started when my wife asked me to tell her a story before bed one night. I asked her what kind and she said a romance. I’m not so good with extemporaneous storytelling so I eventually wrote it down. I tried the straddle the line between a Stephen Leacock-esque satire and a straight love story. You can tell me which side I came closer to.
The road up the mountain was hard and the stones cut into Catalina’s feet. Legend said that the monks of long ago had imported especially sharp stones from the Rocafilada region in the north, just to make the path especially pious.
Looking back on the valley she had left, Catalina brushed her lustrous dark hair away from her face, her olive skin gleaming with the sweat of the journey. Far below, she could see the village just starting its morning. Her family would have found her note by now. But there was no turning back now. Catalina was on a mission.
Her storm-swept gray eyes could just pick out the walls of the Casa del Jamón far above on the mountain peak. It looked the same as it had in her dreams. Picking up the edges of her brightly-colored skirt, she struggled on.
It was noon by the time Catalina reached the walls of the Casa del Jamón. They were covered with dead ivy that was grey and weathered but here and there, shoots of green showed through. It was like her heart, she thought.
“Hola,” a voice said from above her. Catalina looked up into the face of a man standing on the wall just above her. It was the hermit. His hair was long but his beard was trimmed and there was wisdom in his dark eyes. “Can I help you, señorita?” he asked.
Catalina could barely breathe. The words refused to come. How could she explain the quest that burned in her breast? “May I come in?” she asked at last.
“There is no door in the Casa del Jamón,” the hermit said. “I bricked it up once I first came here. I never go out and no one ever comes in. That is my vow.”
“How do you find food or water?” Catalina asked. “Or clothing?” She looked at the man’s bare chest and bit her lip at the thought of what might be hidden by the parapet.
“I have a well,” the hermit said. “We are on top of the mountain, so it took the monks three hundred years to dig it. But piety is stronger than gneiss.”
“Nice,” Catalina murmured. “And food?”
“I have a flock of 24 miniature sheep,” the hermit said. “Their milk is so concentrated that three drops are enough to sustain me each day. Their wool is so dense that a handful is enough to weave a coat. They are my fluffy manna in the wilderness.”
Catalina and the hermit talked for hours while she sat and ate the lunch she had brought, and he milked a tiny sheep into an acorn cup and drained it in a single gulp. He told her how the hermitage had been a hammery centuries ago but how the owner had donated it to the Church after having a vision. Catalina’s own vision rose to her mind, but she did not speak of it.
By afternoon, dark clouds were massing in the west. “Are you sure I cannot come in?” Catalina asked. “It will be dark before I can reach the village.”
“It is not possible,” the hermit said. “Because of my vow.”
“I understand,” Catalina said. For a moment, their eyes locked and each tried to look into the soul of the other. Then Catalina turned away and started down the mountain.
Before long the wind picked up. The rain fell in sheets. Lightning split the sky and the thunder crashed and echoed off the surrounding peaks. Catalina picked her way carefully down the slope. Suddenly, her foot slipped on a wet stop and she was sliding off the path. With a scream, she fell over the edge and plunged into the dark ravine.
When Catalina awoke, she was warm and covered with a woolen blanket. It was dark in the room and the air smelled like sheep.
“You’re awake,” a voice in the darkness said. It was the hermit.
“Where am I?” Catalina asked. She knew the answer but could not believe it.
“You are in the Casa del Jamón,” the hermit said. “I watched you as you went down the path. I saw you slip and fall into the crevasse. Then I was faced with a choice. Those few seconds seemed to take a lifetime, but I hurried to the storage shed where I kept the ladder for repairing the roof. I climbed over the wall and down to the ravine where I found you. I carried you back here.”
“You broke your vow for me,” Catalina said.
“It was God’s will,” the hermit said. “I vowed that I would stay here until God sent an angel to rescue me. That was you, I realized. This place has been shut up for years, like my heart, but now I will open it again.”
“I had a vision that I needed to come up here and set you free,” Catalina said. She felt the hermit draw near and then his lips were on hers.
“No longer will they call this place the Casa del Jamón,” the hermit whispered. “From now on, it will be known as the Casa del Amor.”
Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends and happy end of November to everyone else. This is definitely not a Thanksgiving story: I just wrote the story I saw in the picture. However, I’m very thankful for everyone who reads my stories. Thank you.
As Monty Python said, “And now for something completely different.”
My Steel Mask
The crutches are my mask. One glance and people have this poor crippled girl all figured out.
“The hell are you?” I come closer and the man’s demeanor flips.
“Hey, you lost?” He’s all Mr. Rogers suddenly. “This is a bad neighborhood.”
I wait until he’s close enough that when I swing the crutch up, the spring-loaded spike destroys his throat. He falls in a bubbling heap. Nighty-night, mugger.
He’s got $300 and a pack of cigarettes on him. I smoke two as I sit on his corpse to rest my aching leg.
Who says cripples can’t be superheroes?
A rare explanation: I realize that the term “cripple” is viewed as offensive by some. That is not at all my intention, so my apologies if you felt uncomfortable. I chose it only to fit with the tone of the story.After all, the point of the story is not to judge someone by their outward appearance.
I am not particularly happy with the way trends are heading when it comes to possessions these days, especially anything digital. To be specific, we really don’t own anything any longer. We either license products or rent them or subscribe to them and those same products often take our information and sell it to advertisers. That got me thinking what these sort of ideas might look like in another context.
Wave of the Future
Pansy was excited. She still felt the glow of the wedding last week, and now she and Walter were moving into their very own home in town and even getting a new stove. She wasn’t going to cook over a fireplace like her mother had for her whole life. This was 1875. These were modern times.
“These here are the finest examples of the latest in stove technology,” the salesman said, sweeping an arm to encompass the room full of shiny ironware. “Now, at this end are all the standard ranges. They’ve been around for a while. They’re good, but nothing special. But I’ve got a feeling that you want something special.”
Pansy nodded and beamed up at Walter, who was looking less certain. “How much does special cost?” Walter asked.
“Worth every penny,” the salesman said, winking at Pansy. “Take this Ramscackle #6 Food Instantiator, made by the Ramscackle Brothers right here in town. Wave of the future, this one is. We took design ideas straight out of the twenty-first century to make this. Just think: you’d be 200 years ahead of your neighbors, ma’am.”
“How do you know what they’ll be doing in 200 years?” Walter asked. Pansy frowned at him. He was entirely missing the spirit of the occasion.
“It’s all very scientific, I assure you,” the salesman said. “Nothing good Christians like you would object to, I’m sure.” He hurriedly threw a newspaper over a crystal ball that was sitting on the desk.
Walter seemed resistant, but Pansy wore him down over the next few hours and by the time they left, they were in possession of a brand new Ramscackle #6 Food Instantiator. The company promised it would be delivered the next day.
The stove arrived the next morning. Pansy fairly bounced up and down with excitement as the delivery men carried it into the kitchen and set it up. A small boy came in with them, and Pansy assumed he was the son of one of the men until they thanked her and left. The boy stayed behind, crouching by the side of the stove.
“Excuse me, do you belong to one of the men?” Pansy asked him. The boy ignored her.
Pansy ran outside. “Did one of you leave your son behind?” she asked. “There is a young boy in my kitchen.”
“He comes with the stove,” one of the men said. “It was on the papers you signed yesterday.”
“Like a servant, you mean?” Pansy asked.
“No, of course not! He doesn’t do any work. He’ll just sit there. You don’t need to feed him or talk to him. It’s his job, but we’ll switch him out with another kid every so often.”
“Why is he there then?”
“He just comes with the stove,” the man said, looking more uncomfortable. “Well, we gotta go. Bye!”
Pansy went inside and began to investigate the stove. The boy watched her but did not say anything. It was a little creepy but she forced herself to ignore him. After all, this was the modern way.
The next week, Pansy and Walter were sitting on the porch after dinner when a man approached.
“Good evening,” he said. “I wanted to let you know that Thomas and Sons General Store just got in a shipment of molasses. They’re selling it at a discount for anyone who buys more than one gallon.”
“That’s very convenient,” Pansy said. “I just ran out of molasses this morning. Thank you for letting us know. We’ll go get some.”
“That’s strange,” Walter said a minute later. “He just skipped three houses but went to the fourth one. It’s like he knew we were out of molasses.”
“The boy must have told him,” Pansy said. “Still, that’s convenient.”
“Excuse me.” There was another man at the front gate. “If you’ve got a minute, I’d like to tell you about Slatterly’s Woolen Goods. Are you plagued by holes wearing too fast in your undergarments? Slatterly’s patented anti-hole technology means fewer holes in your undergarments, for both the men and the ladies.”
Walter jumped up and there was a screech from the kitchen a moment later. He came back carrying the boy and put him down outside the fence. The boy gave him a reproachful look and flounced away.
The next morning when Pansy went down to make breakfast, the boy was sitting by the stove again and a group of men were prying something off the front of the stove.
“Excuse me!” Pansy cried. “Who are you?”
“Oh, don’t worry, we work for the Ramscackle Brothers,” one of the men said. “You see, the company got a new logo, so we are just switching it out on your stove.”
“How did you get in though?”
“The boy let us in with his key,” the man said. He saw the outrage on Pansy’s face. “Well, of course he needs a key,” he said. “How else is he supposed to come and go when his shift ends.”
“Yes. Very reasonable,” Pansy said. “When will you be done? I need to make breakfast.”
“I’d say we’re about 22% done,” the man said. The others nodded. “Maybe another hour?”
Walter was not too happy to come down and find a bunch of strange men in his kitchen and no breakfast ready. “They’re updating the stove,” Pansy whispered.
“Could you possibly do this later?” Walter asked.
“Well, we could, of course, but we’re halfway through now. In the future, we can schedule updates to your stove at night, so you won’t be disturbed.”
“You think there will be more?”
The man shrugged. “Hard to say.”
Pansy gave a party for her neighbors the next day and the praise and admiration over the stove was enough to make it all worthwhile. She tried to ignore the boy, even when she found him reading through her diary. She laughed off the ads that were baked into the side of each loaf of bread made with the Ramscackle loaf pans they had bought. It felt good to be modern.
Two months after they had bought the stove, a woman came to the door. Pansy showed her into the parlor.
“Thank you for seeing me,” the woman said. “My name is Miss Cuthbert and I am a lawyer for Amalgamated Ranges and Cookery, Inc.”
“A female lawyer!” Pansy said. “How very modern.”
“We are a very modern company,” Miss Cuthbert said gravely. “We have just purchased the Ramscackle Brothers factory. As a customer of Ramscackle Brothers, I wanted to extend to you a special offer. It is known as the Eternal Cookery program. For one dollar a month, we will provide you with a new model of stove every time one comes out. The subscription also comes with ten cubic feet of offsite storage.”
Pansy confusion was evident. “That means you can store food at our warehouse downtown,” Miss Cuthbert said. “There are a million reasons why you should. What if you make too much food and your icebox fills up, as well as your pantry? Are you just going to throw it away? That’s such a waste. And what if your house burns down? You wake up the next day in a tent in the backyard and there’s nothing to eat! Just call us and we’ll deliver the food you stored there. You can do it anytime. Just say ‘I want my stored food’ and the boy will run and tell us.”
This was all too much. Pansy suddenly thought of cooking with her mother over the fireplace when she was growing up on the farm. That had seemed much simpler even if it was a lot harder in some ways. It would be nice to go back to that simpler time.
“Four of your neighbors have already signed up for the Eternal Cookery Program,” Miss Cuthbert said.
Alice was driving to McDonald’s when she saw a woman walking her leash. The first thing that flashed through her mind was that it was one of those invisible dog gag leashes that seem to be popular at carnivals. But this leash was trailing far behind the woman, and there was no one else around to appreciate the humor. Alice couldn’t imagine anyone being that committed to the joke, especially one that wasn’t very funny to begin with.
Do people actually walk their pet skinks? she wondered, then felt very proud of herself that she had thought skink and not just lizard. Her Reptile-a-Day calendar seemed to be working.
As she got closer, she saw that there was an animal at the end of the leash, a real dog, or at the very least an especially hairy skink. It seemed to be some sort of teacup poodle, although for this one, thimble poodle might be more apt.
The woman was wearing earphones and seemed to be striding along to the oldies. The little pup was giving it the old community college try* to keep up with her but when you have to take four hundred steps to your owner’s one, it’s pretty much a losing battle. It occurred to Alice that the dog might have been much larger at the beginning of the walk but had burned off most of its body weight already.
*like a college try, but mostly done in the evenings and on weekends.
Of course, all of this happened in the space of a few seconds and then Alice had driven past and the woman and her marathoning pet were receding into her rear view mirror.
Alice happened to tell her family about the episode at dinner that night. Her husband Mark laughed.
“You should have filmed it,” he said. “That would be great for the channel.” Mark had recently started a YouTube channel called Good for What Fails You, which was terribly named and consisted mostly of fail videos stolen from other sites.
“No, that’s terrible!” their 12-year-old son Corbin said. He was planning to be a companion-animal veterinarian when he grew up and hated to see any animal in distress. “We need to call the authorities.”
“And say what? There’s a dog out there whose legs are too short?”
“It’s cruelty,” Corbin said. “It’s like you being tied to the back of a car and then forced to run.”
“So what do you want to do?”
So Corbin came up with a plan. It was bold, it was daring, it was completely insane, but Alice did not want to discourage him from thinking creatively. She even helped him implement it.
Mark agreed to help only if he could film the encounter and put it on his channel. “Don’t try too hard,” he said. “If this ends in a disaster, so much the better.”
Through some stake-out work over the next week, they discovered that the woman walked her dog along the same route every afternoon. The next Monday they had everything ready and by 4:15, everyone was in their place. Alice was loitering on the corner of 45th and Penelope Street while Corbin hid in the bushes nearby. Mark was parked across the street with his camera ready.
The woman appeared around the corner and came towards Alice, trailing her leash. The dog seemed to have gotten smaller. Maybe it would eventually just shrink to the point where it would just slip the collar and run away.
“Excuse me!” Alice said as the woman approached. She waved a hand. The woman stopped and took off her headphones.
“Have you seen my gila monster?” Alice asked. “I was walking him and he seems to have disappeared.” Mark and Corbin both thought this was an idiotic cover story, but Alice was determined to get the most out of her Reptile-a-Day calendar.
The woman’s forehead wrinkled. Behind her, the dog had slumped to the ground, panting.
Corbin tried to creep out of the bushes, but tripped and sprawled on the sidewalk with a loud crack of breaking branches. The woman started to turn around.
“Wait, is that him?” Alice cried, pointing ahead of them. Corbin picked himself up, then carefully picked up the dog as well. He slid a small custom-made skateboard under it, then snugged the safety belt across the dog’s back. He pushed the straw that led to the on-board water bottle towards the dog’s mouth.
“I haven’t seen anything like that, sorry,” the woman said. Corbin was massaging the dog’s head with two fingers. Alice tried to signal him with her eyes to get out of there.
“Okay, thanks. I’m sure the little guy’s around here somewhere.” She walked past the woman and jabbed a finger at Corbin to get moving.
They stood on the sidewalk and watched the woman recede into the distance, the tiny skateboard bouncing along after her.
“She’ll notice it when she gets home,” Alice said. “It might not solve anything in the long run.”
“But at least it helped the little guy this time,” Corbin said.
“You’re a good kid,” Alice said, putting an arm around his shoulders. “Now let’s go cheer your father up. He’s going to be sad no one got hurt.”
My apologies to all my Friday Fictioneers friends that I could not read your stories a few weeks back. I usually try to read as many as I can but this has been a busy time. I’m looking forward to reading them this week, plus looking forward to Thanksgiving in a few weeks when I can get a few days off.
Dad thought Christmas made everything better, so when he started putting up decorations in August, we knew something terrible had happened.
Jasmine felt the dog’s pulse as Dad assembled the Christmas tree. When he put on carols, I called to check on Grandma.
By the afternoon, he was putting up the outside lights and my search history included words like “asteroid” and “zombies”. Mom had no idea, but she gave us a signed affidavit they weren’t getting divorced.
Dad came inside. “Merry Christmas.” He wiped away a tear. “I have tragic news. Tom Seaver died today.”
Silence. “Who?” Mom asked.
In case your reaction was the same as Mom’s: Tom Seaver
They come in a hundred different varieties now, but I remember when they first came out, bundles of little pink orbs with a stalk coming off them. They clearly weren’t cherries. Everyone knew it at the time, but they had that look of a classical cherry with a stem and so the name stuck. Plus, no one knew what else to call them. No one even knew where they came from.
They appeared online at first, of course. Ads began popping up for the super domain miracles891$$ and soon the sheer amount of ads drove the buzz. What people found was a simple storefront site selling one thing: boxes of ten of these pink balls simply labeled miracles. They were $150 per box.
I kind of wonder now who the first person was to buy them, that first brave or foolish early-adopter who went to a random website and paid $150 for a box of miracles. I can imagine them unboxing it in their living room, rolling the little balls between their fingers, holding one up to their nose to see if the smell betrayed what they really were. I can imagine the first person taking that first, tentative bite, wondering if this really was something miraculous or just a scam. Maybe they were hoping it was drugs. It was much better than drugs.
I cannot say if the first person realized what the miracle cherries were, but someone that first day must have. The word “miracle” leads the mind on a certain path. Peter Jirand was the first one that made the news though. He had Stage 4 esophageal cancer and was in hospice when the small box of miracle cherries arrived at his door. He was cancer-free within two days. He ran the New York marathon six months later. After that, sales of miracle cherries went atmospheric.
Still, it took another five months before people caught on to the fact that they were more than just health supplements, however amazingly effective they were at that. Within five months, the medical industry has cratered. For $15 a dose, miracle cherries could cure literally anything. Almost overnight, diseases were practically eradicated.
Of course, the medical industry fought back. They pointed to the fact that no government could certify that the miracle cherries were safe and did not have long-term side effects, mostly because no one could figure out how they were made. They tried to ban them, but no one knew where they were coming from or even who was benefiting. Billions of dollars poured into the miracles891$$ super domain, but no one credible ever came forward as owning it and the money never reappeared. The boxes were mailed from thousands of different places but when the police broke into one of them, they only found an empty room.
Five months after the first miracle cherries appeared, a video went viral of a man flying over Rio de Janiero. Then it was like a light bulb went on over the collective heads of the human race. Miracles cherries were genuinely miracles, it turned out. They would only affect the person who took them, but that still included a lot.
It was the age of superheroes, and supervillains as well. Now anyone who wanted to could fly, turn invisible, become immortal, even transport instantly to another place. The world economy reeled and staggered, as whole industries rose and feel over the span of days or weeks.
Then the day came when a young woman with short hair and glasses appeared on TV. Every TV. “Hello,” she said. “My name is Rachel and I am the owner of miracles891$$ and the maker of what are known as miracle cherries. There are three levels of miracle cherries. You have all been taking the first and lowest level. The second level will go on sale today for 150 million dollars per box of ten.”
She paused to adjust her glasses as the world let this sink in. “As of today, I have 1.563 trillion dollars,” she said, “although I don’t really need it. I have decided that I would like to rule the world. As I have been speaking, I created a headquarters for myself in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. I will meet world leaders there and we can discuss how things will move forward. Thank you.” The young woman identified only as Rachel snapped her fingers and disappeared.
This is an odd story, to be sure. I wrote it a little over a year ago and never posted it then. It’s also an open-ended story, meaning it doesn’t have a sequel. Instead, you can think about what happens next. What would level 2 and 3 miracle cherries look like? I like this kind of story, although I realize not everyone does. Maybe if anyone cares enough, I’ll write a second part to it.
Assistant Manager Mateo Couch bounced from foot to foot, looking at the bank of security camera feeds in the Cash and Carry’s main office. Corporate management had given him one chance to turn around the store’s profits and make it competitive with the Wull-Murt superstore that had just opened across the road. He had put everything he had into this.
The TV screens were set up all around the store, currently showing the specials for the day and the store hours. The shoppers drifted through the aisles to the soporific Muzak coming from the speakers.
“It’s all yours, Couch,” the Manager said. Her name was Jillian Feeney but everyone just called her the Manager, which she preferred.
Mateo hit the switch and the Muzak died away. The screens around the store went dark.
“Where it began, I can’t begin to knowing.” The sounds of Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline came over the speakers. A few shoppers looked up and smiled at the lyrics now scrolling across all the screens.
“Hands, touching hands.”
Then it happened, one lone tenor voice coming from the baked goods aisle, singing along. “Reaching out, touching me, touching you.”
“Sweet Caroline. BAM BAM BAM!” The store exploded into singing. Shoppers all over the store were singing now. In the dairy aisle, a small conga line of shopping carts had formed, heading towards the yogurt case.
It was working, it was actually working. Mateo looked back at the Manager. She permitted him a quarter smile, which was the equivalent of a bear hug from someone else.
Someone in the bakery section was filming the scene on their phone. Perfect. This might go viral. They’d be famous as the cool grocery store. He saw people dancing, throwing groceries into the cart with glee. Yes.
The song ended and there was a cheer from the shoppers. This had worked better than he had even dreamed.
The next song came on. Mateo looked at the name. He didn’t recognize it. It started with a whisper. It was too quiet. He turned it up a bit.
“Let the bodies hit the floor, let the bodies hit the floor, let the bodies hit the FLOOR!”
Shoppers screamed. A glass bottle of artisanal olive oil shattered in the International Foods aisle. An old man went down, clutching at his chest.
Mateo dove the power button, and the music died. A few seconds of ringing silence passed before the soothing strains of Muzak came over the speakers.
“Great concept,” the Manager said. “Truly original. But please let me approve the song list from now on.”
Since this story incorporates music into fiction, I thought I’d give a shout out to my friend Miles Rost over at Music and Fiction, a writing blog he has been running for about as long as this blog has been going. Go read some of his stories, if you get a chance.
“Check it out what this old man gave me,” Brad said, showing Mark his backpack. “Any books you put in here are weightless. The drawback is you forget how to read.”
“That sounds like that one Rick & Morty episode,” Mark said.
“So, do you want to get sued?”
“So are we!” Mark looked nervously at the edges of the blog post.
* * *
David sat back in frustration. This cursed story generator worked great, but the characters kept announcing the plot and breaking the fourth wall. Still, it was worth it to get Friday Fictioneers ideas every week.