Cacophony Now!

Grackles. It always came back to the grackles.

Harold saw an opening in the crowd and made a break for it, hoping to slip past the overhead eyes that kept track of day-to-day humanity. They could see inside people but it was hard, he knew, for them to see through people. The best place to hide was in a crowd.

From the grackles.

They were silly looking black birds with long tails and yellow eyes – yellow X-ray eyes, as it turned out — and were armed with long, razor-sharp beaks. For four miserable years now they ruled as malevolent dictators, acting like some Hitchcockian nightmare when a human got out of line. The punishment was swift, sudden, and final.

Thou shalt not break the laws of the grackle.

No one had paid much attention as they migrated, spread, multiplied. An invasive species is all they were. Our own fault since we’d cut down their rainforest homes. They had to go somewhere, right?

To them, you see, we were the invasive species.

Even Harold had known, dimly, that they could talk — like a parrot could talk. He’d read about it somewhere. But no one, not even animal behaviorists on the extreme edge, had any idea the shiny black birds were plotting. Scheming. Positioning themselves for a strategic win.

Don’t dare call it “Bird Day.” Don’t refer to it, out loud, as “Avian Armageddon.” Refer to it by the proper name, the name they decreed we refer to it as: “Grackle Win Big, Mankind Stupid Day.” Make sure to pronounce it with the proper respectful inflection as well, or risk a beak hole in your cranium.

Harold had made it from the doorway and into the crowd. He kept his head down, his hands in his trench coat pockets. He heard the sound of fluttering wings pass overhead, and just as he feared, there came the piercing shriek of an alarm.

The noise they made. The noise. It would put a Moog synthesizer to shame. But it wasn’t just noise — it was their language. And not just their language, but also the language of other birds, other animals. The grackles were consummate masters of cross-species communication.

“Eggs stolen!” they began announcing in English. “Eggs stolen!”

“Egg thief! Egg thief!”

The words were punctuated with organ chords, bells, sirens, cell phone rings … a cacophony of alarms from a huge random library of sound bites. This was combined with more and more flapping of wings as the alarm spread and the grackles took to the air. Harold kept his head down, and like everyone around him, just kept walking — pretending none of this was happening. The man next to him muttered the f-word under his breath. The woman in front of him, young with curly dark blonde hair and smelling of flowery perfume, echoed the sentiment.

One of the grackles swooped down from its perch on a streetlight and landed on her head. She made an “Eeek!” sound and froze, trembling. The bird however only used her as a perch — it’s yellow, X-ray eyes were staring at Harold. First one eye, then after a turn of the head, the other.

“Human!” it said. “You smell of fear!”

“I’m afraid of beautiful women,” Harold told it.

“What is beautiful women?” it crawed at him.

“You’re sitting on one. She frightens me.”

“This women is not beautiful!” The bird’s voice cracked and hit pitches so high that it hurt Harold’s ears. “She smells of bad flower chemical butt smell!”

“This is why I fear her.”

“Stupid human!” The bird bounded into the air, iridescent black wings flapping, yanking a few of the young lady’s hairs out as it flew off.

The young woman turned to look at Harold. Before he could say a word or mutter some sort of apology, she slapped his face. Hard. Then without further comment, she turned again and resumed walking, as did the others in the crowd around them.

The shock of the pain, the stinging of the skin on his face, it didn’t bother him. The truth was women did scare him. That’s why the bird flew away — it didn’t detect a lie. Harold shook it off, and deliberately putting one foot in front of the other, he fell back into the flow of the crowd, his head down as before. The cacophony and flapping wings continued above.

Harold made it out of the area, crossing a bridge over murky water, and then entered his apartment building without further confrontation. Once behind locked doors and closed curtains, Harold gently extracted a handkerchief from deep within his trench coat pocket and holding it before him, gingerly unwrapped five tiny eggs. They were light blue with dark lines and spots as if someone had spilled ink on them. He held them, taking shaking breaths, his hands trembling.

These five delicate objects would fetch a fortune on the black market. It was the ultimate defiance. The eggs of the enemy. But Harold had no intention of selling them. They might be tiny, you see, but they were delicious.

It all came back to the grackles.

Harold craved an omelet.

The Melvin Plink Incident

Melvin Plink sat with his face frozen in an attentive, respectful posture while the company’s CEO droned on and on, blah blah blah, talking about having to save and reuse paper clips and do away with free coffee or the entire corporation would collapse on itself.

Inside his mind, there was a Salvador Dali painting of an arid, brown and red landscape, and numerous wooden sticks were used to prop up Melvin’s false expression from the inside, and every single piece of wood was trembling with the pressure of maintaining its burden.

Melvin had seen the payroll files. He knew the bloated, over-inflated figure that described this man’s paycheck, nearly as much per month as Melvin himself made in an entire year.

Paperclips, the man was saying … save the paperclips.

To Melvin’s horror, one of the Dali prop sticks holding his facial expression snapped under the pressure. Snapped like a twig, and each of the others thrummed with the vibration of imminent doom. Another broke, and then another.

Some stray signal was sent from a corner of his brain, pulsing down his spinal column and causing his legs to straighten. It was as much a surprise to him as it was to anyone else that he suddenly stood, rudely interrupting the CEO. His hands, working of their own accord, pulled his ugly red and blue striped tie from around his neck.

As the CEO stood looking at him with a quizzical expression, Melvin snapped his tie like he would a towel, smacking the CEO right in the face and knocking off his glasses.

Like in a dream, seen from outside himself, he watched as he recharged his tie for another strike, but horrified co-workers grabbed his arms, man-handling him out of the room, delivered to the uniformed security men as they came trotting up. He heard yelling from the board room, and people shouting at him, but the words had lost meaning … it all sounded like animal noise … and his only desire was to get outside, into fresh air and sunshine.

The uniformed men didn’t speak during the long ride down the elevator. Another joined them in the lobby, holding a cardboard box full of familiar items. Pens, a clock, a small stereo … a box of paper clips. Melvin moved willingly with them out the revolving door and didn’t even mind when they shoved him to the ground. The blue of the sky was so beautiful.

The sunshine, so warm.

Goodbye Galapagos

Darwin sat wearily on the back deck of the steamer, gazing out at the islands and bidding them farewell.

A large lizard swam behind the boat, calling to him. “Darwin! Darwin, please… Don’t leave me!”

“I’m sorry,” he said to the lizard. “It would have never worked.”

“I’ll change for you,” the lizard called out. “I swear I will!”

He shook his head, knowing she could never change. Her children perhaps, but not her.

Something Truly Great

Debbie looked at herself in the mirror for a good long while before balling up her fist and punching herself in the right upper cheek. She didn’t hold back, either. As if in slow motion she heard the meaty, squishy sound of the impact, and saw the ripples it caused across the surface of her flesh. Her head snapped back, and she reeled to maintain balance.

“Take that,” she said.

Her reflection stared back, eyes wide, shuddering in pain. “You stupid bitch,” it exclaimed. “Why did you do that?”

“Because you’re constantly standing in my way.”

“I’m protecting you, you idiot!” her reflection raged. “I’m constantly saving your ass!”

“You’ve been holding me back my entire life.”

“But you’re not smart enough to—” Smack! Debbie cut herself off by a sudden and horrific uppercut to her own chin, cracking her mouth shut and slamming her teeth together. She coughed, and suddenly drooled a stream of very red blood. A sharp pain warned of a mangled tongue. Tears leaked from her eyes.

The pain made her knees weak.

“I’m as smart as anyone,” she said to herself, “except when you tell me I’m not. So from now on, you shut the hell up.”

“But no one is going to want to look at your ugly face when you—”

Debbie slapped herself, hard, but it didn’t seem hard enough so she slapped herself again. And again.

“Stop it!” she screamed at herself. “Stop! You can’t do this! No one will take you seriously. No one really likes you!”

Balling up her fist again, she punched herself square in the center of her stomach. It caused her to double over and smack her forehead against the edge of the bathroom sink. She was full on crying now, like a child.

“I like me,” she told herself. She straightened up, facing herself in the mirror. “I like myself, and I trust myself. That’s all that matters.”

“But you’re such a screwup!” her reflection said. “You can’t do anything right!” It cowered then, ready for another strike.

Debbie simply shook her head. “To hell with you,” she told her reflection. “I’m not listening to you anymore. You stay the fuck out of my way.”

Bloody and discolored, looking like she needed to go to the emergency room of a hospital, her reflection wavered on the point of collapse.

Debbie, in the meantime, turned away from the mirror, not a scratch on her, and strode purposefully toward the future.

She intended to accomplish something truly great.

Martin’s Cookie

A good sized chunk of Martin’s cookie broke off and fell to the restaurant’s floor, and then vanished.

Not that it really vanished — it’s just that the rough-hewn tiles were remarkably cookie-colored, and cookie-textured, so that the broken piece of the cookie instantly blended in. And the cookie was happy about that because the very last thing it wanted was to be masticated in a horrible, damp human mouth, ground into its component particles, and ingested.

The horror!

So mustering all its might, each individual bit of that section of the cookie rebelled, invoked its right of manifest improbability, and separated from the rest of the doomed cookie. The fall from the towering table top was nothing. The impact, hard as it was, did not phase it. It was free. Free!

Martin saw the cookie spontaneously break and a piece of it jettisoned into the air, falling and disappearing. His own mind instantly separated into two. One half said, “Sadness, part of the cookie is gone forever.” The other said, “Three-second rule! It’s still good!”

The halves engaged in a form of mental arm wrestling, each trying to win control of the body.

Martin jittered. Martin twitched.

The cookie, far below, did its very best to remain invisible.

With a victory that jolted Martin’s whole body into action, one side won, immediately joining both halves of his brain back together. Bending over, focusing his bleary eyes on the tiles below him, Martin searched for the missing piece of cookie. It was too good to be wasted. His tongue demanded every crumb, every morsel.

Alas, it was nowhere to be seen.

He blinked. He rubbed his eyes. Where did it go?

Ah! There!

His arm moved, his fingers flexed. Down it reached, down, ever down, his body bending, his spine flexing, all muscles coordinating to reach the prize and reclaim it. Inch by inch, stretching. Biting his lip.

Something flashed past his eyes. A broom! Bristles sweeping by, scooping the cookie fragment up, depositing it into some sort of flattened bucket on a stick.

Martin gasped but was too embarrassed to say anything. It was, after all, on the floor.

The cookie felt itself transported up and around, gravity tugging at it from this way and that, until it flipped end over end and dropped amid other flotsam and jetsam at the bottom of an industrial strength black plastic trash bag.

Success! It had made it! It settled back, relaxing, and sank into a contented daydream about a long gentle disassociation in a landfill.

Hours later, when the world seemed quiet and dark, a pair of long slotted teeth gnawed their way through the black plastic. The head of a horrid, smelly rat pushed through, destroying the cookie’s daydream, and as this diseased vermin devoured the cookie, bit by bit, crumb by crumb, the cookie found itself wishing it could be instead back on the plate in front of the human.

Following Your Passions to Success

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a scientist. Still to this day I am still passionately interested in science. What stopped me from becoming a scientist, though, is I have a mental block when it comes to higher forms of math.

In modern speak: I can’t math. But in reality I can, I just was too ADD (literally, thought I wasn’t diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder until I was in late my 40’s). I was too distracted to push my way thought the math and learn it.

So I drifted into the next logical path, and decided I wanted to be a science fiction writer. And I became one (albeit with very limited success). But then I learned during this journey that the publishing industry is rife with the same petty squabbles, bullying, and rivalry as High School (which I hated) and so I took the Groucho Marx route: I don’t want to belong to a club that would have me in it.

I also used to make Super 8 films with my teenage friends, but I never considered going into film making as a profession. Odd, because that is now a large part of my profession — and one I really enjoy. I daresay I enjoy it much more than writing fiction, though I think that is mainly due to it being an instant gratification endeavor. Much like photography, which is also a large part of my day-to-day profession.

Speaking of photography, I just won another first place in a world-wide (though niche) photo contest.

I’m a winner! And this is an escalator. Exciting, I know.

Another thing I used to do as a young teen, and never seemed to realize I could have done it as a profession, was make silly recording. Well, now there’s podcasting, which I’ve been doing for years, and I’ve even done it professionally.

What actually kept me employed for a large part of my life was computer industry work, and that’s because I have some sort of odd supernatural affinity for it … and it for me. I once wrote a short story about a “voodoo computer healer” and — even though I have never levitated anything (like the character in the story does) — I can in many cases hold on to a laptop or touch a cable and heal the technology. Scoff at me if you will, but at one job they used to have me come sit in the finance offices while they ran payroll because they were convinced the check printers would not break down if I was there. Even now my girlfriend, who is an IT master, has me come over to work on the stuff that stumps her, and 7 out of 10 times all I have to do is touch it and it starts working again.

I kid you not — and no, I can’t explain it.

To sum up: If I had concentrated on any of these interests, and specialized in it, I could have made a career out of it. It’s just pure luck that all these interests which I followed eventually congealed into one career that has helped me succeed. You couldn’t have predicted it, because my profession didn’t exist 20 years ago.

So my friends, you can take it from me: follow your passions, and do not give up. They will lead you to success, though it may not be the success you were expecting.

Temperature Extremes

The buns were cold.

It was a fact, and not one person tried to deny it. The buns, which had been warm before, were now at a temperature close to that of absolute zero.

“Try the buns,” Robert said. The man made an elaborate gesture toward the frosty plate on the table between them.

Leonard leaned forward. “Don’t mind if I do,” he said, and snatched one up. He didn’t realize it was cold until after his tongue was frozen and he couldn’t pull it out of his mouth. Struggling in surprise and shock, Leonard writhed in his chair and knocked over drinks and dishes. Within moments the terrible frost reached his brain, and Leonard twitched a few last times and fell over, his body making a muffled thump on the thick shag carpet.

Robert laughed at his stupid and luckless ex-friend. He had known the buns were cold, and had wisely avoided them. However, when he slipped a delicious spoonful of buttered zucchini into his mouth, his head caught fire and then exploded from the intense heat.

The zucchini was hot.

You Are What You Buy

The roller coaster broke at a crucial moment, sending the cars whizzing high into the air, and Wendy turned to her boyfriend and gasped, “We’re going to die!” Indeed, both could see parts flying in midair around them, including wheels that should have been attached to the bottom of their car and firmly anchored to the track.

As they spun across the sky they saw the track receding. Air, and only air, buffeted the steel that held them to their seats. Her boyfriend screamed like a 4 year old girl covered with spiders.

Time for my life to flash before my eyes, Wendy thought. A couple heartbeats passed and there was no life flashing. Well, she thought — where is it?

Instead, the vision of a familiar red-haired clown appeared before her. “On behalf of the whole McDonald’s corporation,” he said, “I want to thank you for all the food and drinks you bought from us during your life.” His somber, creepy clown-face faded to be replaced by a Barbie doll. “On behalf of Mattel, thank you … thank you … thank you so much for your patronage. We hope our products brightened your young life.”

“What the…?” Wendy shouted, her hair whipping around her in slow motion.

Her favorite jeans company thanked her, followed by three different brands of makeup and hair products. Next it was representatives of the shows she religiously watched. “Thank you,” they told her, “thank you from the bottoms of our hearts.”

Steve Jobs appeared and thanked her for using Apple products so religiously. Desperately she interrupted him and said, “What is this! What the hell?”

“What do you mean?” said the vision of Steve.

“What happened to my life? This is supposed to be my life flashing before my eyes!”

“Wendy,” he said, “this is your life.”

She stared at him, dumbstruck. “This is my life? The products I used?”

Steve shrugged. “You live in a consumerist society. What do you expect? You’re judged by what you buy, and when you die — if you’ve shopped well — your heaven is a huge upscale mall, and you have an endless credit card.”

It took a few precious seconds for her to process this. “Did I shop well?” she asked him.

“Wendy, Wendy, Wendy … if you hadn’t, would I be here right now?” His transparent image smiled before fading, replaced by the horrifying view of her doom.

Wendy stared at the ground rushing at her, suddenly without fear, and urged it to hurry.

She had shopping to do.

Heather’s Claws

“Meow,” said the beautiful dark-haired girl.

“Meow?” I asked, then gave the orderly a strange look.

The young balding man shrugged. “That’s Heather Clarke, the actress.”

“Meow,” said Heather Clarke. She licked her hand and used it to smooth out her hair.

“What happened?” I asked.

“She snapped last week. Been playing the part of Jemima in Cats for seven years, and now she can’t get out of character.”

“Hmmm,” I said, then turned and did the only thing I could think of: I barked.

Immediately her head dropped, her shoulders raised, and she spat and hissed at me. The hackles at the back of my neck rose, and I growled.

Quick as light, she unsheathed her claws and slashed. I stumbled backward in pain, blood streaming down my face. I gave her one long canine gaze, then turned and left. I knew her smell. I could find her again. Anytime.

During the next full moon, I’d get my revenge.

The Godhead

It looked like God.

That is, if God had four eyes, four arms, and pincher-claw hands. And a giant mustache … which could, actually, be interpreted as mandibles.

It was undoubtably someone’s god. Carved out of a mountain, it loomed over the settlement and filled a quarter of the sky. There was a lot of talk about either moving the settlement, or building a new one on the other side of the mountain — because having this enormous four-eyed monster staring down at you all the time gave everyone the creeps.

Well, almost everyone. Philip Richard found it endlessly fascinating, and while most people built their homesteads to face away from it, looking instead out across the great expanse of the Dime River, Philip made sure the Godhead filled the view of his main picture window.

“Why did you do that? It’s hideous.” Regina stood next to him, sipping her drink and staring out the window. “The thing gives me nightmares.”

Regina was a beautiful second generation clone with blue eyes and dark hair. Philip had met her at the Politico rally a fortnight before. It had taken him this long to lure her over. “Maybe,” he said to Regina, “that’s what its purpose is.”

“To give people nightmares? It’s working.” Regina turned her back to the window. “Don’t you have curtains you can put up?”

“No.”

“A blanket? Some foil?” Her face puckered like she were tasting something bad. “Bricks?”

“You should try not to look at it negatively,” he told her. “An ancient race dedicated lifetimes to creating this godhead, probably as a protector. And if you think about it, it’s still working — we, trespassers on this world, are completely freaked out by it — which for all we know is exactly what it’s supposed to do.”

“Of all the places on this world, it’s crazy that the Guardians chose to land the seed ship here, settle us here.” She shook her head. “They’re supposed to be so smart, why can’t they also be freaked out by the thing?”

“The Guardians saw it as a perfect starting point — the site of a former civilization,” Philip said. “We’re supposed to be inspired.”

“By a civilization that vanished? What if this godhead of theirs had something to do with them disappearing?”

Philip shrugged. “Evidence points to them evolving away from corporeal existence.”

“I don’t buy that, ‘they turned into The Force’ nonsense.”

He gave her a warm, genuine smile. “Neither do I, really.” They shared a look which quickly grew awkward, and finally he said, “If the view of the godhead bothers you we can go into the other room.” He pointed.

“Is that your … bedroom?” she asked.

He nodded.

The silence stretched, growing even more awkward, and he thought that this wasn’t going to work. But then Regina said, “Okay. Anything to get away from that big creepy monster.” Her arms crossed in front of her, she walked through the doorway, and after a moment he followed.

The next morning Philip emerged, feeling incredible. The night had been awesome. He was in such a good mood that if he wasn’t afraid of waking Regina, he would have been whistling.

Gazing through the window at the godhead, it seemed to glow in the light of the rising sun. If he didn’t know better he’d say it looked alive, pulsing with energy and warmth. Putting his hands together in front of him, Philip gave a little bow to the godhead and thanked it. Sincerely, honestly, thanked it.

He’d decoded the alien glyphs. He’d translated the ancient texts. Philip knew exactly the true purpose of the giant statue.

It was a fertility goddess.