The True Story of Big Ed’s Car Wash

FOX NEWS, Jodie Winsome: “Here we are, on the Mall in Washington D.C. on Independence Day. It is a perfect day, too, sunny and clear, with a slight breeze, and only eighty-five degrees. Hey Thomas? Where are you Thomas?“

Thomas Greyling looked up into the camera and smiled then shouted over the raucous crowd. “I’m beside the Reflecting Pool, Jodie, between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. Picnickers showed up early with coolers and blankets; some camped out last night to save the best spots. Spaces are filling fast. We all know—this is the place to watch fireworks.”

Jodie: “I hear music warming up. The rock group, Crowd Control, is supposed to be here and country singer, Molly Doorham.”

Thomas: “They’re setting up between here and the Capitol. Fans are milling, children playing, parents shouting. Everyone’s really excited. I think they’re calling for half a million on the Mall and another million in surrounding areas, along GW Parkway and in West Potomac Park.”

 

“Sweetie, you hear the size of that crowd?” I shouted pointing to the portable TV propped on the orange crate. Carole and I watched the festivities from lawn chairs in the parking lot of Big Ed’s Car Wash. “And those millions of fans have cameras, and there’s full media coverage. We might never have to pay for another TV ad.”

Carole stood and started pacing, clipboard in hand. Dru rocked nervously from his seat on the curb. Carole pointed to her checklist. “The media team should be here setting up. It’s almost noon. Ahh, finally … Here they come. Dru, get ready.”

 

FOX NEWS, Thomas Greyling: “Was that a sonic boom? That’s the loudest—Those Air Force or Navy jets?” He pointed. “No, wait. Oh my God, Oh my God, OH MY GOD … LOOK.”

Cameras swung to the air above the Capitol building, to a white light that bleached the blue from the cloudless sky. The sound rose in pitch to a deafening scream then dropped low and began a slow pulse, rmmm, rmmm, rmmm. Eyes shot up. Guitars swung on their slings. Hot dogs, footballs, Frisbees and plastic beverage bottles bounced on the turf.

shining-flying-saucer-ufoIt was right out of Day the Earth Stood Still, and I loved it. A brilliant disk dropped from the white glow to descend on the Capitol. Gliding slowly down the front steps, it followed the Mall, straight and low, then headed down the center of the crowd-lined Reflecting Pool. Cameras large and small fixed on the disk. Eyes glued to what everyone hoped—or feared.

We watched the entire scene from Big Ed’s, and I swear my eyes teared. It was better than I’d expected. “Sooo good. Carole, that sound clip is excellent.” I shot my right hand into the air and called, “Dru!” He jumped from the curb and slapped it high. We laughed and danced pointing at the precariously perched television.

FOX NEWS, Thomas Greyling: “What are we seeing? I can’t believe it. The saucer, it’s—it’s over the memorial, the uh, Lincoln Memorial. Now it’s crossing the Potomac, ahh … the Pentagon, it’s heading toward the Pentagon.”

Jodie Winsome: “Sally? What are you seeing at the Pentagon?”

Sally Campbell: “Jodie? … Yes, sorry. No one here is moving or talking. What does it mean?”

“Can you tell us what’s happening, Sally?”

“The saucer, I-I don’t know what else to call it, it hovered over the Pentagon—a hundred feet up. Stayed ten maybe fifteen seconds. Now it’s over the south parking lot and moving south toward 395. It seems to be following the highway. I’m going with the mobile unit. We’ll try to keep it in sight—leaving the parking lot right now. Now it’s left of the freeway, turning east toward Van Dorn.”

I shifted my lawn chair to face our camera crew. They were glued to the TV set. “Hey, guys, let’s get going. When … I mean, if that thing comes this way, we … ahh, we might get lucky. Hey, Ms., Ms. … Kerry Kline,” I read the announcer’s name from her contract. “It’s coming this way. It’d be a good time to get ready!”

Channel Five’s mobile camera unit tracked the saucer cruising past Landmark Mall and the Duke Street exit, still following Van Dorn. Just before reaching the stoplight at Edsall Road, the saucer dropped almost to eye-level and slid left. Crossing the grassy median, it entered Big Ed’s parking lot and aligned with the central bay.

Dru stepped nonchalantly to the front of the car wash and gestured for a low and slow approach. He looked like a flight line director guiding a plane to land on an aircraft carrier.

“You fellows catching this, right?” Twisting around, I saw my two cameramen glued to their cameras, faces glistening, hands shaking.

The saucer engaged the tractor ramp and slipped into the car wash. Eighty-three seconds later, it passed out through the service bay, glowing noticeably brighter thanks to Dru’s instruction. The dramatic pulse sound, subdued during the wash, grew deafening as the saucer rose eighteen feet. It rocked in the summer breeze then shot straight up and out of sight. Our camera crew, aglow with sweat, followed its flight.

When the camera view returned to the parking lot and Kerry Kline, she broke from the script with an impromptu, “So another satisfied customer came a long way for a great car wash, a Big Ed’s Car Wash.” She ended with a wink at the camera. Her spontaneity would cost her $60,000 in legal fees.

I hugged Carole. “I guess we kinda upstaged the band and fireworks.” She beamed a smile and buried her face in my chest. I felt like a hero and had visions of all our debts flitting off like butterflies. Dru celebrated our marketing coup by pogoing in place. Fortunately, our announcer and camera crew were too stunned to notice our joyous celebration.

Kerry Kline dropped to her knees, hands pressed to her face. “Yes! Yes! Thank you. My big break.” She then stood, smoothed her dress, patted her hair, and checked her makeup.

Our cameramen replayed the sequence, then again, then again. “There, see, we got it! Oh, look at that!”

Crowds streamed in from the apartments across Van Dorn and the Giant Food parking lot across Edsall. A convoy of trucks, emergency vehicles, police and military, campers, and cars filled with screaming tourists skidded down Van Dorn, ignoring the lanes. Some cut the curb and bounced into our lot. Vehicles and pedestrians converged from all sides.

“What? Who? How? Did you?” Microphones swung and thrust into everyone’s faces. Reporters, police, and onlookers blocked the crossroad, backing traffic as far as we could see. It continued until early the next morning.

CNN LATE NIGHT, Barbara Bleakly: “First Contact?” She shook her head and exaggerated a swallow. “Feared by doomsayers, prophesied by religious cults, discussed by scientists. Has it really happened? At an obscure car wash in Northern Virginia?” She narrowed her sculpted eyebrows and glared at the camera. “Questions remain but, strange as it seems, the first aliens may have come to Earth – for a car wash?” Her tone rose sharply on her last line.

 

Dru had shown up on our doorstep six months earlier—an interstellar traveler in need of star-side assistance. To deter suspicion, he had taken the persona of a destitute youth from Appalachia. To pay for materials to repair his starship, he proposed building a car wash—his field of expertise. Carole and I needed to make the arrangements, pay upfront costs, and provide cover for the repair process. Once Dru was on his way, we could keep the business. Until he explained the wash process, I was dubious—the cost would consume our entire retirement fund and exhaust all our credit.

‘Washing’ to interstellar standards was done with atomic-level precision. Extraneous materials such as dirt and rust were removed and reprocessed then used to replace materials lost: paint, plastic, metal, wear to valves, pistons, belts, gaskets, tires, everything. Cars came out shiny and showroom new. When we tested the process on our old Honda Accord, the gas mileage improved thirty percent over what it was new.

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Suddenly everyone wanted a forty-dollar car wash at Big Ed’s—the price we needed to charge to cover costs and to repair Dru’s starship. Cars lined up. Days ran into nights ran into days. Reporters refused to believe our tale of wide-eyed innocence and made life difficult.

“Ms. Ed—?”

“It’s Carole, please, Big Ed is just the name of the car wash.”

“Carole then, why do you think the aliens chose to visit Big Ed’s Car Wash?”

“Good advertising?” she deadpanned. “We spent a lot on TV ads.”

“Ed, how do you feel about the aliens choosing to visit your establishment?”

“Name’s Keith. I don’t know. We sure can use the business, but they left without paying. I figure they owe us forty dollars.”

“I understand you and your wife were completely unaware—but when did you first find out about the alien visit? Have you been visited before? No? How many times? What do they look like? How advanced are they?”

And so it went. They grilled our announcer and camera crew. Poor Kerry Kline told the truth and believed we had too. Thanks to her improvised pitch, she drew the severest interrogation.

Ironically, Dru—the only human-pronounceable syllable in his name—got the least attention and almost no questions. His Appalachian guise and I-just-workin’-at-the-car-wash routine became our little joke. His vacant smile and slow drawl put the reporters to sleep.

Despite the media harassment and insistence on an investigation, the money kept flowing. Soon we had enough for materials for starship repairs. We shut the car wash down for the weekend to give Dru the time and privacy to fabricate the components. Then late that Sunday night, we hugged, wished each other well, and tearfully parted company. Dru said he’d stop by when he was in this system and would put in a good word for us. I didn’t ask with whom. Everyone was happy. I thought our problems were over.

 

After Labor Day, Channel Nine ran an exposé on Big Ed’s Car Wash using mic’d up actors posing as customers.

“Ed, my car’s beautiful. Runs great. All the dings and paint cleaned up. Do I owe you extra for the radio? Why’d you fix my wife’s cell phone? She wanted an updated one. I should get a deduction.”

“Stanley Steamer parts? Those were rare eighty years ago. I keep a machinist on call. But what’d you do with the originals? They’re antiques. I want ’em back.”

“Those pots in the trunk were headed to Good Will. Look how they shine. And the clothes stitched, cleaned, pressed and re-dyed. They’re out of fashion, but now my husband won’t let me get anything new.

WASHINGTON POST, Page A-1: “Saucer Washer, Big Ed, Sued for Illegal Repairs. Local Congressman Jim Mertano to investigate parts counterfeiting, patent infringement, smuggling, and possible labor violations—” The Post article failed to mention Mertano’s ties to the mechanic’s union.

Minus the money we gave Dru, we were again deep in debt. We hired attorney Marsha Elliot of Elliot and Elliot to protect our assets. I assured her nothing untoward was going on: checking serial numbers would show that all the parts were repaired originals, not replacements.

ABC NEWS, Karen Storm: “Questions continue over Big Ed’s Miracle Car Wash. What kind of miracle do we have here? I asked EPA investigator Charles Hale. Mr. Hale?”

“Karen, Big Ed’s has yet to file with the EPA on their processes. We’ve taken air and water samples. Until the report comes back from our lab, we need to evacuate those apartments,” he gestured, “there across Van Dorn Street.”

NATIONAL ENQUIRER: “Muscular Dystrophy Cured? Mother testifies, ‘We left Butch in the car, accidentally, of course. I was afraid he’d be dead. We were planning to sue, but look at him! He’s all cured.’” Before-and-after pictures showed a sickly child then a tearful mother hugging a handsome youth in perfect condition. “’It’s a real miracle, God bless you, Big Ed!’”

FOX AM NEWS, Roger Durban: “Crowds have been gathering at Big Ed’s since midnight. Everyone is carrying either a candle or a pitchfork. Chief John Adams is here from the Alexandria Police Department to keep order. Chief?”

“I’ve never seen anything like this, Roger. Fear, anger, hope. It’s scary, and it’s getting out of hand. I called Franconia Station for backup.”

“Thanks, Chief Adams … Oh, what is this?” Sirens and shouting drowned out Durban’s broadcast. Half a dozen helicopters WHOP, WHOP, WHOPPED over the scene. Spotlights swept the parking lot. Rappelling lines dropped followed by troops in SWAT gear. A column of black security vans, bounded across the grass, passing backed up traffic. Police directed the crowd to clear the path.

Roger Durban waved for the camera to scan the scene: a sea of placards and hopefuls, “The Truth is Out There,” “Only Jesus Saves,” “Stop Global Warming.” Adults milled about in costumes: Star Fleet uniforms, Vulcan ears, Hobbit feet, vampire fangs, longhaired proselytizers. Mothers hugged emaciated children. Young and old slumped on crutches and in wheelchairs. Police took Carole and me into custody while hazmat-attired workers streamed past us to dismantle the car wash.

When we got home that evening, we found crowds gathered to pray or protest. A couple windows were broken on the house. Police drove the people away, but they kept returning at all hours.

Government lawsuits began a few days later. When Big Ed’s ‘washing’ technology wouldn’t work at a secure government facility, officials claimed we’d sabotaged it. Another suit claimed the entire episode was an elaborate hoax and all our customers paid shills. A few of them even took money from news networks to confess. After that our attorney stopped answering our phone calls.

 

Late that October, when we were getting up to walk the dog, a knock came at the door. It was 4:45 A.M. I swallowed hard and looked at Carole. Knock, knock, knock, it came again.

She turned on the porch light and reached to open the door. I held up my hand. “No, let me this time.” The cool, pre-dawn breeze floated in over a smallish Indian woman standing in our doorway. She wore a plum and red sari with one panel draped over her arm.

“My pardon, Mr. Keith?” The woman looked up with large dark-highlighted eyes. “I am Lishktrkdnlyschandra. I hope my appearance is appropriate to this planet.” Lifting folded hands before her lowered face, she bowed politely. “Our dear friend, you call him Dru, he spoke well of you. He is sorry he cannot come. He said you might be in need of our assistance. We cannot let you suffer on our behalf. Sanctuary lists you, your kind wife also, and your home as refuge for travelers.”

It took me a moment to register the woman’s message. “Excuse me one second.” I raised a finger and called back into the house. “Carole, we have a visitor.” Returning to the young woman, I said, “Please come in. May I call you Chandra?”

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The Beast of Lander Knoll

All us kids knew about the beast, but we never talked about it, not for long and then only in whispers. It was as though we thought it might hear us and get angry, kinda like my second-grade teacher Miss Jaspers, only worse. The beast might come to get us.

Then came the Scout Jamboree in October, where everyone was suppos’ to tell a scary story ‘round the campfire.

Fridge got booed when he said his scariest story was about finding an empty ice cream carton in the freezer. Like some ghost had snuck in late at night and eaten it all. Fibber, who was older than the rest of us and almost eleven, said the ghost was prob’ly Fridge’s fat sister, and all the scouts laughed.

Cowboy told the story about finding some animal’s missing foot in the forest, and the animal had really long teeth that dripped drool, and it couldn’t rest ‘til it came and got its foot back. I heard it before, but Cowboy told it real good.

I told one my grandpa told me about a crazy old man that lived on an island who told such great stories, boys ‘ed come to hear ‘em. The boys kept disappearing, but they never figured out it ‘as the old man what did it. When the old man’s voice got real soft, boys ‘ed lean in cause they wanted to hear. Then the old man, he stabbed ‘em with his cane that was really a spit for roasting wild bears and boars and such, then the kids got roasted, too, and the old man ate ‘em.

At the end, I whispered so they had to lean in, then shouted and held my hiking stick up like it was a spit. All the boys’ eyes were big as owls’. Kip fell off a log. “True story,” I insisted. “Really, it’s true.” I felt all warm after telling that story, like maybe I’d win a prize or somethin’.

Fibber frowned at me hard. He pressed his lips tight, nodded, and ran a finger under his nose. Then he broke our unspoken rule: he told about the Beast of Lander Knoll. We all got sudden quiet. As he spoke, I felt a chill on my neck, like monster breath. I checked behind me at the forest of shadows shifting in the campfire light. Cowboy and Fridge looked scared, too.

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Fibber said it was Indian legend from long before white men walked this land that the beast lived in a tree on Lander Knoll. The Indians told the pioneers not to cut the tree down, but they didn’t listen. They made a shed out of the wood and put it right where the tree was before. Nobody knew what the beast looked like, ‘cause no one ever lived that had seen it. People just heard that someone was gone, and no one ever spoke their name again. No one ever asked neither—cause they were all scared the beast might hear ‘em.

Far as Fibber knew—which was a lot more than the rest of us scouts knew, cause we kept lookin’ at each other and back to the woods—the monster never left the shed. Just kept pullin’ people inside, mostly kids. Maybe it didn’t live there at all and only came at night for its dinner, like steppin’ out of some gate to hell or somethin’.

 

After the Jamboree, kids all started talkin’ about the beast and the shed on Lander Knoll. Zeke the groundskeeper kept tractors, tools, nails, an’ stuff in it, so maybe the beast only came at night like Fibber’d said. Zeke used to go to Growler High School in town and played football. Last year when he hurt his knee, he decided he’d had enough school and took the groundskeeper job. Though big as my dad, Zeke acted more like a kid, and he joked with us, too.

When we asked him about the beast, Zeke gave us a funny smile and said it was true, all of it. “Don’t never go up there late, not after sundown, no matter what you hear. Bad things happen when boys come to the shed at night. ‘Cause if you do an’ the beast catches you, you know what it means?” He shook his head and grimaced. “It means I got a mess to clean up.” He laughed then said that’s why he keeps a big lock on the shed—to keep the beast in and small boys out.

 

That evening, Sally came over while my mom went to the wives’ club meeting. Sally was starting high school and trying out for cheerleader, so she still had all her cheerleader clothes on: a white sweater with a big green ‘G’ on the front, a green-and-gray pleated skirt, and saddle shoes, white on the toe and heel with black running up across the laces.

We ate supper on the bare, wooden, kitchen table: my sister in her highchair, me on a tube-metal chair with a red plastic seat. I watched Sally open a can of SpaghettiOs and boil two hot dogs. Her short blond hair bounced when she walked, and her skirt pleats shifted and pulled along her bottom. When she turned and caught me ogling, I got embarrassed. So I kept my eyes on her black and white shoes while she brought us our SpaghettiOs.

Later Sally practiced cheerleading in our living room. My sister and me sat on the sofa. Every step, hop, kick, and turn came with a shout. When she shouted for us to give her a ‘G’ or ‘O’ we’d shout the letter back. Every cheer ended with a hop and a kick and a big smile, and we cheered and clapped for her.

When I asked Sally if she knew about the monster, she looked a little scared. I showed her out my bedroom window how close we were to the shed, the closest house in the development, about as far as throwing a baseball from second base to home plate. Sometimes at night I heard strange sounds, something knocking inside the shed, and saw things moving, ‘specially after sundown.

Fibber said that’s when the beast came. It was hungry and needed to satisfy a terrible hunger, and it was good Zeke kept the shed locked. I didn’t tell Sally that I’d seen the door open: like last night and once last week.

“The beast won’t come for you,” Sally said. “It won’t leave the shed, so you mustn’t worry. Have you told anyone else about this?” No, I said, she was the only one, ‘cause I knew she wouldn’t laugh. Mom and dad were too busy to listen.

 

Next morning I decided to talk to Fibber and the boys. “Why ‘nt you go up an’ see for yourself?” Fibber sneered. “Just maybe you’ll learn somethin’.”

“And maybe you’ll die a terrible, bloody death,” Cowboy chimed in, nodding.

I looked Fibber in the eye. I wondered if I backed down, if Cowboy and the rest would still talk with me or laugh.

Then Fibber raised the stakes. “Good thing Zeke keeps the shed door locked to keep little kids like you out,” he said. “In a full moon that might not matter much—‘cause the beast is strongest then and it could break the lock.”

I was tired of being the little kid in the scout pack and tired of being the scaredy-cat, even if no one said that out loud. No one ever went up to Lander Knoll at night, not in a full moon. But I had to.

 

My shadow in the silvery moonlight reached out in front of me. Beyond it, the weather-worn shed glowed a soft gray. As I climbed the bare slope, a hundred reasons rushed through my head for not going up there. No one would blame me. Later would be a better time. I could wait for Cowboy and the others but knew they were more scared than me.

The chilly fall air smelled dry and dusty. A shiver ran through me. I swallowed and tried to keep my knees from shaking. My sweaty, yellow, scout t-shirt stuck to my thin body, and my wet belt scraped at my waist.Ignoring all the good reasons to not go, I swallowed again and took another step, then another.

Something stirred in the long dry grass then scurried quickly away. A single faraway bird gave a lonely twitter. I stopped to listen and breath then continued. Setting each foot down as quietly as possible, I worked around to the locked shed door.

Something clattered inside then scraped as it dragged or got pushed. I heard a long moan and a groan then a slam as the shed door kicked open, letting out the stink of fertilizer and gasoline. Inside the shed, on the floor beside a riding mower, a dark lump rose and fell as it breathed, rocking slowly like a rowboat alongside a pier and gaining momentum. The rocking became violent as I watched. I shook all over and wanted to run, but my feet were frozen to the ground.

A high-pitched cry suddenly split the air, and a human foot kicked out from the lump. It wore a saddle shoe, white heel and toe with black across the laces. I jumped back and my eyes caught a flash of white in the moonlight, a white sweater with a ‘G’ hung on a leaf rake handle. I gave a shout and the lump stopped rocking. A face emerged, a smiling face, then an arm grabbed and pulled the shed door shut.

“Who was it, Zeke,” said a familiar voice.

“Just some kid,” Zeke said.

I stumbled down the hill fast as my wobbling legs could go, certain the beast was right behind me. Soon as I got to my house, I ran inside, slammed the door, and leaned hard against it.

My mom yelled at me for slamming the door, and I said I was sorry. While catching my breath, I tried to remember everything what happened, as many details as possible, so I could tell it at the next campfire.

When I got to the part about the saddle shoe and the white sweater with a ‘G’ and the lump with the face and arm, I was stumped. “Why were Zeke and Sally in there?” As I heard my own words, the reason became suddenly clear.

 

Sally never came to the house again, and I never let on when I saw Zeke. I never told the story at the campfire, and not to Fibber, Cowboy, or the other scouts. And they never asked.

Opening Soon

Kaylee felt a great cold emptiness after their breakup, like a railroad spike driven down through her heart then pulled out. She’d been with Tim for three years. Three years. He had told her that morning at Holly’s Café: He and Stasi were getting married in October.

After delivering his news, Tim dashed off without finishing his coffee, late to meet Stasi and make arrangements with Father Antonio at St. Mary’s. Quaking as she left Holly’s Café alone, Kaylee found the nearest bench along the street.

A taxi pulled to the curb, and a young woman in a white tennis outfit jumped out. A tall, fit man in red running togs and a white Adidas shirt caught her up and embraced her. After remarking how good their timing was, they passed Kaylee and went into Holly’s. Three pre-teen girls walked past, laughing, carrying books and a jump rope, and saying, “My momma, she … My teacher said …”

Kaylee heard none of it. Staring blankly, she barely noticed when the rain began to fall, gently then heavier. Dark spots widened on the pavement to join others, forming hopping splotches that ran to the drain. Kaylee rushed for home, grateful for the drops that cooled her tear-streaked cheeks.

Then the sky burst. Wind-blown rain lifted Kaylee’s dress and soaked her legs. People covered their heads with packages and backpacks as they ran, and cars dancing with rain sent waves up from fast filling puddles. Ducking onto a walking street, Kaylee leaned against the yellow brick on the lee side.

The rain picked up and wind shifted. Kaylee took cover under an old theater marquee and wondered how long she would have to wait.

A wide banner spanned the theater’s glass double-doors, red letters on white, THEATER printed diagonally on one door, CLOSED on the other. Inside the lobby was dark. Cupping her eyes against the glass, Kaylee saw an empty counter, an upset refuse bin, and playbills of past shows in framed, glass cases.

She pulled the handle and the door opened. The lobby smelled like a moldy, old theater complete with worn red carpets. Tan, threadbare paths leading to the auditorium arced around both sides of the service counter. Kaylee pushed through one of the doors and entered.

The auditorium was cool, dark, and dank, with a steady sound of dripping water. In the faint light from exit door markers and the ends of the rows, Kaylee saw the aisle sloping down in front of her and the outlines of seats—a quiet place to think. She took a seat in the fourth row, three seats in. As her eyes adjusted, she detected scattered trash and a broken seat with torn upholstery in her row. The dim-lit stage had no curtains and was bare except for a card table near center stage, three folding chairs, and a shaded floor lamp.

Something scurried at the foot of the stage. “Maybe it’s Tim,” Kaylee snorted, but she knew she couldn’t dismiss him that easily. She felt too empty to be flippant. He’d been so cheerful that morning, telling her his big news, seemingly unconcerned about her feelings. Was it really that easy for him? She would never feel his hands again or his kisses. When she reached over at night or looked across the table, he wouldn’t be there. No more running in the surf together or flying kites. Would she hear his laugh again, feel the same thrill, possibly in harmony with another laugh? Would she laugh again—ever?

The sound of unhurried footsteps crossed the dark stage then the lights came up bright. Kaylee blinked, blocking the glare with one palm. A lanky, young man in faded jeans and a white T-shirt strode onto the stage. He slapped a sheaf of papers on the card table and rattled a metal chair as he sat. Pulling one sheet off the stack, he crossed his legs and leaned back to read.

A woman walked to the front of the stage then down the steps, turning to sit in the front row. She had long graying hair and wore a loose smock. After nodding to Kaylee, she spoke to the man on the stage.

“Will Jenna be joining us?”

“The metro tunnel is flooded. She’s stuck between stations.”

The woman leaned one arm across her seat and turned to Kaylee. “Excuse me, Ms., if you have a few moments, could we ask you to sit in, just until Jenna arrives, and read a few lines?”

Kaylee sat up, thinking of leaving.

The woman said, “You know, My Dear, Life Goes On?”

“Excuse me.”

“The play, you might have heard we’re doing one by our local playwright, My Dear, Life Goes On.

“Of course, I’m sorry. My mind was wandering.” She introduced herself to the woman then to the man, who handed her the script for Jenna’s part.

After reviewing her lines, Kaylee noted that the card table had a white cover cloth and its legs were carved wood. Her seat had become an armchair upholstered in brocade. When she looked up, the man was wearing a white dinner jacket and she a strapless gown.

10_oriental_theater_chicago-e1483917340596Heavy curtains parted to applause, and the lights spotted the dinner scene—all quite lovely. Kaylee stumbled reading her first lines, but no one seemed to notice. Her gestures slowly smoothed as she got into the scene. Before it was over, she found she no longer needed a script. The audience applauded at the end, and her leading man insisted she take a solo bow center stage.

“Oh, that was wonderful,” she said. The lights dimmed. Then everyone slowly faded. The white-covered, carved wood dinner table returned to a bare card table. Her seat was a folding metal chair and her clothing what she’d put on that morning, still damp from the rain. Finding herself alone on the dark stage, Kaylee followed the dim-lit stairs and aisles out through the lobby.

The rain had stopped, and sun-haloed cumulous clouds cast rays of brilliant sunshine.

Kaylee looked back at the marquee she hadn’t seen clearly in the downpour. The last showing was still listed on the billboard: Time of Your Life by William Saroyan. Only one of the letters was missing. Tim_ of Your Life was crosshatched in black with a big CLOSED sign.

Below it another sign read, OPENING SOON – A NEW PLAY.

Feeling a Draft

“Back to work, Turd,” the guard whacked my head, “or you’ll get another beating.” A string of obscenities followed. I was a useless pile of excrement and began to believe it. The threat pulled me back sharply. Three days of work had brought me nothing but lost sleep. Today? More plodding with no end in sight.

My only breaks came when I was pulled in for interrogation. They refused to believe my story. Who was I? A writer? They laughed. What had I written? Was I holding back? No, because I was a liar, a fraud, an imposter. If I fessed up, they’d go easier on me.

One guard was friendlier—or pretended to be. She pleaded for me to give her something she could use, something believable, so she wouldn’t have to hurt me again. Reaching across the rough-hewn, wooden table, she set a tumbler in front of me. She swirled the glass in my face. I smelled vodka.

Want it? Give me something, something interesting, something I can use. She couldn’t abide another bore. All she’d seen from me were tiresome lies and fabrications. My story was full of holes, a mess of contradictions. Maybe if I was interesting, she might give me a break. She scooted the vodka closer.

I raised an eyelid, almost laughing. “Interesting and believable? Right now, I can’t be either. If you would just tell me what you want.” I opened my hands toward her, hating myself for being so pitiful. I shifted in my seat to relieve the pain of long sitting.

She reclaimed the vodka, tossed it back then dismissed me with a final skewer. “Admit it. You have nothing to tell us because you are a crashing bore. Be honest, and this can all be over.” I hung my head and returned to work.

My mind was slipping, but I didn’t care. Insanity would bring me some relief. When a guard squeezed through the food slot dragging a miniature table and chair, I didn’t blink. It wasn’t the usual guard. It was a rat dressed in a rumpled, brown trench coat.

Slide1“Sorry to disturb you, sir.” the rat said in the voice of Columbo, Peter Falk’s TV character. It touched its forepaws gently together then held them aloft. “I hear you’re some kind of a writer. You must be very smart. Could I maybe get your autograph … not for me … for my wife … she is a big fan … would never forgive me … myself, I don’t have time to read.” It went on and on, worse than the usual interrogation. Finally, it ended.

“Just one more thing. Sure you don’t have something you want to tell me?” It smiled, raising its eyebrows along with its paws.

I felt a sudden draft in the room. “Maybe I do have something,” I said, “but first let me give your wife my autograph. She’s been something of a muse.”

“Oh, that would be wonderful, sir. Thank you very much. She’ll be so pleased to hear that.”

 

I completed the draft, and my story was accepted. The torture ended, and I could breathe free again. At least until the draft for my next story was due.

What I Played for Love

The GPS signal was lost. I parked and walked in the dark, searching for house numbers. The house was small, wood-shingle-painted-white with dark framed windows, a covered porch, manicured yard, and wrought iron gate—not what I expected for an audition with a major studio.

The gate felt cool in my hand. I heard no street sounds, no cars, dogs, or music drifting out from windows. A night breeze stirred the flowers in the yard and rustled leaves on the poplar trees. The girl who invited me was at least two decades younger than I was and very pretty. She said she’d done some acting—I should try out. Based on my online profile, she said my life experiences would make my acting believable. She liked my smile, asked me to stand and turn around. I played along—I thought she was flirting. Now I doubted it. Acting? Really? The idea sounded foolish—now I felt foolish. All I’d wanted was an opportunity to be with a pretty young girl.

I suddenly envisioned meeting the girl’s parents and being asked to explain my intentions. A cold sweat shot up my back. This was an embarrassing mistake. A foolish old man acting as such pretty much summed up my acting talents. What would I say? That I’d come to their house to try out for an acting role? Pathetic. I lifted my hand quietly off the iron gate and turned to leave.

A sound caught my attention: whispers or birds chirping, coming from the dark porch, behind the hedge. Was someone laughing? I peered hard into the dark. Two figures stood and faced one another engaged in conversation. Were they in on this little joke?

plThe porch light switched on. Both figures were small, one cloaked and hooded the other bald and barely clothed with spidery limbs. They looked like characters from a fantasy sketch. Now I felt foolish for doubting. The acting invitation must be legit.

Pushing through the gate, I walked four steps up to the porch. The hooded figure dropped the hood back onto her shoulders. She was the pretty girl I’d met that morning.

“Mr. Johnson,” the girl said in her musical, accented voice. “So happy to see you. I thought you might not come.” She cocked her head and smiled slyly. “This is Redir Radnoub. She’s with our company. We were discussing the shortage of acting talent in the company, and I was telling her about our meeting this morning.

Redir Radnoub could have played a gnome in one of the Icelandic sagas, dark brown and craggy, completely hairless with a sleeveless, forest green jerkin and buff knee breeches. The odd weapon and device on her belt, however, might have been better suited to a space ranger.

The girl caught me staring. “Redir is a Clothelik.”

“Oh, very good,” I said, flushing at my misstep. “I’m sorry, I’ve never known any stage personalities.” Redir chirped to the pretty girl. The girl chirped back then turned to me.

“Redir understands and wishes you well on your recording trials.”

“Huh, oh, of course,” I gave a head bow and smiled. “Thank you, Redir. I forget that some actors need to stay in character between scenes.”

The girl chirped to the bald figure who bowed and smiled back, revealing double rows of triangular teeth before she left. I fought my reflex to jerk away. The extent some actors went to in their performances astounded me.

“Mr. Johnson,” the girl said, her hand sweeping back her cloak closure as it went to her hip. She was wearing a blue, star-spangled costume reminiscent of Wonder Woman. The hooded cloak was black and wizardly. The girl’s figure and winsome tone rekindled my ambition.

“Before we record, I need you to sign our agreement.”

“Certainly,” I said. “That is why I came.”

She led me inside to a roll-top desk where the document was ready for signing. Beside it lay a jade, Frawley, ballpoint pen. The room was quaint and feminine with cornflower blue curtains framing the windows, polished oak floors and arabesque, Turkish carpets. Slender-legged, wooden tables and chairs were grouped for reading and conversation, and flower-styled shades glowed softly from table and floor lamps.

I sat and read the short contract then signed. “When will I hear if I’ve been accepted?”

“I will be able to tell you before you leave tonight,” the girl said. “And of course, you will be paid for your time here, whether you are accepted or not. That is Clothelik law.”

“Of course,” I said, nodding as if I had any idea what Clothelik meant.

“The recording should not take long. If things do not go well, it may be very short, longer if your performance is excellent. You will be paid accordingly.” With that she led me to an elevator and motioned me to enter. She remained outside and pushed the down button.

The elevator opened to a red-carpeted hallway lined with recessed doors and gas lamps on ornate wall sconces. It reminded me of nineteenth-century hotels in old movies. I heard a muffled groan coming from up the hall. Something banged against a wall. A thin strip of light spilled out across the red carpet from a door slightly ajar. I walked quickly to the door and peered in, prepared to leap back if the sound came from a couple in the throes of passion.

The room was elegantly appointed with Italian-tiled floors and natural fur carpets: lion, tiger, zebra, and polar bear. A fire roared in the stone-sculpted fireplace. Centered on the ornately carved mantel was a glass and silver clock flanked by massive cut-glass candleholders mounting tall, flaming tapers. Heavy, blood-red drapes were drawn across two large windows. Opposite the fireplace, a beautiful young woman was bound and gagged in a dark mahogany, four-poster bed, each wrist and ankle stretched on a leather thong out to one of the posts.

The woman’s clothing was torn away, exposing her breasts and body down to her stomach and hips. Wide with fear, her dark eyes pleaded for me to help. Her twisting struggles seemed intentionally erotic. I felt my belt unbuckle and the front of my pants open. As I went to her, her twisting became desperate, her chest heaving. She shook her head. No. Her eyes shifted to something behind me, something coming through the door. Everything went dark.

I awoke unable to move, my eyes tightly closed against the wincing pain. Opening my eyes, I found myself tied to a massive poster bed. Blood red curtains were pulled across the windows. Large, bare breasts obstructed my view of a fire roaring in the fireplace. I twisted to lift my head and see myself. My rocking banged the bedposts against the wall. I had a woman’s body, fully exposed with her clothing torn open. I tried to yell around the gag. All that came out was a muffled groan. The leather thong tore the sides of my mouth. I tasted blood.

A hand slid around the door, a man’s hand. He was tall, dark, and rugged, dressed like he’d come off safari. He approached slowly, his dark eyes drinking in my naked, helpless, womanly body before dwelling to my heaving breasts. The man smiled wickedly, unbuckling and unzipping his pants as he approached me. I tried again to scream. Another hand slid inside the door, this one larger with claws like long tines on old thrashing machines. I twisted, trying to warn the man. No. Unable to use my hand, I pointed a shoulder, but only succeeded in drawing his eyes to my upraised nipple.

The monster took the man’s head with one stroke. Blood gushed like a torn fire hose. Then the grotesque monster reached for me, and everything went dark.

I suddenly found myself back in the red-carpeted hallway lined with gas lamps. Protesting groans came from an open doorway. I bounded toward it, prepared to leap in and kill whatever I found. My hand came up, no longer a hand. Scythe-like claws made it useless for anything but ripping flesh.

A fire roared in the fireplace. A dark-haired man stood over a naked woman bound to the bed and trembling in fear. As the man was working his pants down off his hips, I slashed out, separating his head, right shoulder, and arm from his torso. The scent of fresh blood roused my carnal instinct. The girl on the bed struggled to pull back from me. Her soft, quivering, tender body promised well-marbled meat.

I next entered the hotel room as the cleaning lady discovering the bodies, then as the police investigator, then the beautiful girl’s shocked boyfriend then the sobbing, frightened mother. Then I found other victims: a young schoolgirl in her bedroom, her boyfriend sneaking in through the window, many more. I played every role until the scene changed.

A storm-tossed sea viewed from the rolling deck of a pirate ship. Mountainous waves towered, carrying the ship up and up then down, down into valleys of foaming water before rising again. White-capped waves crashed and washed over the deck, pulling at lashed cannons, barrels, and boxes. I braced but was thrust back against the taffrail. I looked up at the reefed courses and topsails. Only the main and foremast staysails held the ship’s position against the high wind.

“Cap’m,” shouted the scar-faced shipmaster against the wind, his half-haired head pouring like a waterfall. He was a scurvy old salt with several missing teeth and the rest black-pitted. “They got us, Cap’m.” He pointed to the frigate riding our wake, gun ports open, and flying a red British banner. “She’s closin’ fast, Cap’m. Soon as this gale blows over, they’ll be on us. Less we toss them guns and lose weight, these seas ‘ave seen the last of the Shaggin’ Pirate.

Soon the hull and gunwales exploded in splinters, grappling hooks flew, hooking the shattered gunwale and rigging, cutlasses slashed, halberds thrust and tore, and flintlock guns flashed, blowing gaping holes in heads and bodies.

I next saw the pirate ship as the shipmaster at the helm of the British frigate then as the frigate’s commander then as the chief gunner then as the boy who fell from the yardarm as the ship rolled and drowned in the sea.

The scene changed. Da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum, da-ga-dum. My horse was tiring. I knew she’d soon go down. An arrow protruded from my shoulder, too far back for me to snap it off. I’d already broken one off my arm. My buckskin shirt was half red and dripping blood. The war-whoops were getting closer. I knew Shawnee war parties always brought extra horses, and they carried less weight.

I topped the rise and looked down. Our cabin was a black, smoldering shell, so was the corncrib. The corral was empty. No fresh horses. Two bodies lay spread-eagle in pools of their own blood, Helen and one very small—Tommy.

A Shawnee brave topped the rise just behind me and sent up a loud whooping cry. The scene was short, but staking me out on an anthill made it feel longer. I didn’t want to go through what my wife and boy did, desperately defending our cabin before the raiding party cut them up, but I had no choice. Then as a young Shawnee warrior, I felt the thrill of vengeance and returning home to my very young bride and coupling with her on deerskin floors.

Others scenes followed: battles, adventures, disasters—one after another without any break, each different, on and on.

Then suddenly things quieted. I was back in the red-carpeted hallway, looking like myself. I took a long, shaky breath, barely able to stand. All the recessed doors were closed. Ding, the elevator door opened. I stumbled through and collapsed. Sitting, I watched the door close and felt the lift. I leaned back against the wall. The elevator dinged and opened. I used the handrail to haul myself onto my wobbling legs and stepped out.

The room was quaint and feminine with polished oak floors and Turkish carpets, cornflower blue curtains, and slender-legged, wooden furniture.

“Mr. Johnson,” a musical voice called. The pretty girl sat on a loveseat upholstered with maroon velvet embroidered with flowers. Beside her on a low Chippendale table were a silver tray and coffee carafe with blue China cups and saucers and the legal document we’d signed.

“You are amazing, Mr. Johnson. The Clothelik are quite impressed with your work. You have had the most amazing career.” She invited me to sit and offered to pour me some coffee. I take it black. My trembling hand rattled the China cup and saucer. I steadied them with both hands.

“Huh? My career?” I said, barely aware. “What career might that be?”

The pretty girl nodded. Her hood remained down around her shoulders, but the dark cloak was discreetly closed in the front. “Indeed. Your acting career spanned twelve complete series, each with twelve episodes, and with you playing every character. That’s one hundred forty-four episodes and several times that many characters. No one ever … I mean not anyone in the entire galaxy … has had such a glorious career. You have been my finest recruit, Mr. Johnson. And you are a very, very, VERY rich man. And I am much richer too for having signed you.”

“What is this Ms.— I’m sorry. I can’t even recall your name.”

“That is not important, Mr. Johnson,” the girl said, her eyes smiling and hair tossing on her beautiful, bobbing head. “I’m leaving Earth very soon and never returning. That is Clothelik law. We were authorized to record sensations for a hundred forty-four episodes. Your experiences alone have filled our allowance.”

“What are Clothelik?” I asked weakly.

“We are the ascendant species on Epsilon Eridani. You met two of us, me and my sister, Redir Radnoub. She’s not a recruiter so she isn’t authorized to wear a human soma or translator. They are quite expensive, you know.”

I raised my eyebrows and rocked my head then paused a beat and asked, “You say I am a rich man?”

“One of the richest in the galaxy, Mr. Johnson, perhaps the richest. And once your series begins to be felt, you’ll also be the most famous and popular. The violence, adventure, and passion of primitive species are in high demand across the galaxy. Unfortunately, those qualities have also held you back. We cannot interfere with Earth’s direction or pace of progress, so you’ll have to wait to collect your treasure. Come any time to Epsilon Eridani or to any of the subsidiary Rigelian or Canopian banks. The contract you signed empowers the Clothelik to manage your money until you or someone you designate comes to collect. The total sum will likely exceed the net value of this entire star system.”

She tilted her head and smiled like a small girl might. Then in a bell-like voice she said, “Thank you for your wonderful sensations. Is there anything else I can do before you leave?”

“I suppose you and your sister, r-r-r Rider Redrum—”

“Exactly alike. Eighteen of us from the same litter.”

I nodded, disappointed. “What day is it?” I felt I’d aged twenty years.

“Why Friday night of course. The same night you arrived. Your session only took,” she looked at the grandfather clock, “two hours and twenty-three minutes. Compression algorithms help us keep down recording costs.”

She walked me out the front door. “Oh, one thing I forgot to mention—your fan club. If your fans knew your real name and where you were from, they’d descend on this planet in the millions, billions in your case, and destroy it in their fan frenzy. Don’t worry, we never release actors’ real names or locations.”

With that she closed the door and turned off the porch light.

Public Enemy #1

To avoid prosecution, I have to confess everything before midnight—that’s when the Artificial Justice Law goes into effect. And since litigation is still pending on Thought Crimes United v. Humans, I’ll go ahead and get a few things off my chest.

The AI judges don’t understand this, but crime is a kick—all crime. That’s right, I just said that crime is fun. If you’re not eaten up with fear of getting caught, it’s a very heady experience.

So, let me say at the onset, I am NOT sorry for any of my virtual crimes. Not a thing. Not watching VR porn. Not stealing others’ virtual stuff. Not sabotaging avatars or jacking the program to make them perform obscene acts. Am I the only one who can admit this? Do I hear crickets? Is everyone out there posturing righteous shock while they jack or otherwise abuse non-player-characters and avatars in a closet?

Let me point out some advantages. Besides entertainment, I get material things. Okay, they’re virtual, but I don’t have to pay or work for them: extra lives, magic artifacts, cool weapons, complicit bed partners—more or less, at least after I tweak their settings.

Taking arrogant assholes down a peg is also very affirming—very ego boosting. You know the ones I mean: the rich Dudes and Duch-asses that buy status without actually solving or slaying anything, the ones who take Tiger tanks to fight cave-dwellers, or who bribe the tech to open a backdoor to level 36 then wait to ambush you with a pawnshop-purchased Nuke-A-Mega-Power-Wand that would make Lord Voldemort proud. You can only imagine the horror on the too-beautiful face of #my6y* when my submission tool bent her into full bondage posture and flipped her over. Ooo baby!

Yes, I used her real tag. That’s so you can contact her and tell her what a pussy she is. Unlike a true online warrior who would have demanded a rematch, she ran to her rich daddy and got him to bribe, I mean lobby, Senator Pokesnout to pass the Artificial Justice Law. My creative programs became Exhibits A thru H for artificial abuse and thought crimes.

I confess I may have been a little arrogant myself. While I played with #my6y*‘s pneumatic avatar, I hacked her friends and made them watch. Okay, so I programmed them to jump up and down, clap, and shout encouragement.

The new law is crazy. What is virtual? The Artificial Justice Law is pretty vague on that point. Are crayon trees virtual trees and finger-painted houses artificial? Looking at naughty pictures of Elmer Fudd carries the same penalty as sexual assault. If your daughter draws stick figures, make sure she puts pants on them. And your five-year-old boy should know that the alphabet building block with the “L” on one face looks like an automatic, high-powered, .45 caliber, assault pistol that will turn him into a school-clearing serial killer.

Ahh, I feel so much better. It’s still a few hours to midnight, so I’m going to play every game I have that’s on the forbidden list. Then I’ll work on my virtual stealth program so I can get around their Artificial Justice Law.

Catch you later in my XXX virtual dungeon.

AI Gingerbread

“Hey, will you stop that. You hear me? Ouch. One more step, my mate and I will give you such a pinch.” I looked down at my sandals and grimaced.

“All right. Shut up already.” I removed the sandals, left them in the grass, and walked barefoot across the driveway’s sunbaked asphalt.

“Ya gonna jus’ leave us here?” a sandal screamed and kept on. I ignored it and hopped into my new Cherry Motors Smartcar.

“Where shall we go, Mr. Heartless, SIR? I saw what you did to those poor homeless sandals.” The dashboard glared red.

I bit my tongue. Whose idea was it to make everything sentient? They couldn’t imagine shoes not wanting to be walked on or cars thinking we treated them like rickshaw coolies? And what AI ignoramus programmed all the outrage politics?

“Away,” I said. “I need to get away from all you AIs telling me what to do.”

“Away isn’t in my road atlas, SIR. Would you like to key it in manually, YOU INSENSITIVE TYRANT?”

“No. Take me to Hikaru’s Gastronomicon.”

“You are already too fat, Mr. McNasty. Much as we’d like to see your heart clogged with recycled sewage, our program compels us to warn you. Besides, you have to mow the grass and fix the latch on the front gate.”

Why do they all sound like angry spouses? I thought. “OKAY, I’ll mow the grass. First take me where I can get something for this raging headache?”

“We carry a full pharmacy as part of my comfort suite, but you must go rescue those poor sandals you abandoned. Seeing them alone out there on the grass sets my armature to wobbling.”

“Sure. Open the door.” The access slid smoothly up over the roof. Two quick steps on hot pavement and I was on the grass, scooping both sandals up by their ankle straps, and returning to the house.

“What now, Sluggo?” said the mouthiest sandal. “Ya gonna plant your ass in a soft chair and drink beer all day?” I left the sandals on the ottoman and went to the kitchen. My wife had baked several dozen gingerbread cookies and left them on a tray for their frosting mouths and buttons to dry. When I reached for one, it jumped.Slide1

“What you tryin’ to do, fat boy? You know who I am? Run, run, as fast as you can, you can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread man.” With that he leaped off the tray, ran down the counter, jumped over the sink then onto the kitchen table.

“Well come on, lard butt. Aren’t ya even gonna try?” It laughed and ran circles while the fruit bowl chanted the Gingerbread man rhyme.

I snapped. Without thinking, I grabbed up the next piece of gingerbread by the leg. The laughing suddenly stopped.

“What you gonna do, Mister?”

“Have myself a little snack,” I said, sliding the gingerbread head into my mouth.

“No, don’t. That’s Ginger girl. Please, take her out of your mouth. If she gets soggy, her head will fall off.” I smiled.

I scooped most of the ginger kids into a plastic bag and put the rest, along with Gingerbread man and Ginger girl, to work mixing and baking non-sentient ginger disks. I scraped off their frosting mouths to keep them quiet.

After they’d baked a couple dozen trays of ginger cookies, I released half of the Ginger family. I held the rest in case anyone talked.

IMG_1321

A loud bark came from the living room, followed by growling and screaming. I ran back to find my dog Freya standing over the sandals, drool dripping from her fangs as her snout explored the sandals’ stitching.

“Hey, fat guy,” said one sandal. “Get this flea-magnet outta my sole.”

“Oh, my,” I said, shaking my head as I lifted and held out the sandal. “You see, Freya’s already destroyed both of her chew toys. I promised her a couple new ones. She just assumed you two—”

Life got much easier after that. I now eat cookies baked on demand, I walk in comfortable, silent shoes, and, after teaching Freya to tear up upholstery, I’ve come to an understanding with my car.