A Devious Plot

In the building’s unfamiliar top floor, the gray hallways and countless offices were confusing, and twice he had to stop in an office doorway and ask for directions. Clocks at regular intervals pounded the lost minutes away from his desk. Finally, large doors loomed at a hallway’s end.

Harold checked in with the secretary wearing deep purple lipstick, and she escorted him through the inward set of doors. An enormous office ending at a wall of windows to a world of skyscrapers beyond.

Desked in front of the wall, the company president stood up and said, “Ah, Mr. Hardy. We finally meet. Please, have a seat.”

A firm handshake and sitting in the firm chair before the desk. Harold wondering if this was how it felt to be in a dank basement, roped to a chair, with a single, bare lightbulb showering harsh light down upon your eyes. At least the view was better in this office.

The president cleared his throat. “First, your manager talks to you, and then an increasing hierarchy of directors. Now you’re here. Tell me. Why do you continue wearing polka-dotted and striped socks despite these requests? Are you the mastermind of some devious, rebellious plot?”

Harold settled back in the chair. “Not exactly, sir.”


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Bartholomew Eskrew

Bartholomew Eskrew reached the end of his story and walked away from his writing desk and turned around to look upon the pile of papers next to the typewriter and said, “It’s got to be tighter.” And so, he set upon cutting the story down: removing unnecessary back stories of characters, tossing out implausible situations, slashing needless dialogue that really had nothing at all to do with the plot, crossing out descriptions of places that seem to go on and on and on. He worked like this, a man with a red pen instead of a machete that he would’ve used to bring low the tall grass out in the country to clear an area for a field next to a house he had built with his own two hands, a field in which to plant vegetables and fruit trees, a field with which to feed a family he hoped to someday have to bring life into the house and fill it with laughter, talk, crying, and more–all the noises of human emotions bursting out to remind ourselves we are really and truly alive. Bartholomew Eskrew worked far into the night editing his work this way. The nights strung together, each lit by a feeble light that some people noticed as it emanated out of the tallest window in the old house where many other tenants lived underneath the floor boards of Bartholomew Eksrew’s apartment. The light–seen by those people looking up as they walked the sidewalk, possibly gazing up at the stars and moon, or possibly simply stretching a tired or pained neck–burned each night, with each night’s light connecting to the next like a string of Christmas lights from years ago that’s dim but still works. Bartholomew Eskrew worked steadily, patiently, making slow, ponderous progress, for the more he read of his story, the more it seemed to him that most of it was him just trying to impress the reader, and he wished to pare this apple down to the very core where the seeds remained, waiting to be discovered. Night after night, the pages from the original pile lowered, and the edited pile grew higher. Finally, after two weeks of editing, Bartholomew Eskrew again stood up and walked across the room and turned around to look upon his writing desk and saw what remained and he smiled, finally satisfied with the story. There, on the top page of the pile, written in his careful handwriting in red ink: “He tried.”

Emergence

This story was published a year ago, on 365 Tomorrows, one of the highlights for me in the sludge year that was 2020.


Emergence
by Dave Williams

When the warnings blasted on radios and TVs and cellphone texts, Sasha called Tony and their frantic voices collided. “Is this real”—“Do what we planned”—“I’ll come get you”—“Get in the bunker”—“It’ll be faster if I get you”—“Stick to the plan.”

Then Tony’s voice vanished. Sasha tapped the phone’s screen, but the rings ended with his voicemail greeting. If she drove to his office, they’d be back home before he got here on the bus. If buses were running. Streets would’ve been packed with cars.

The plan had seemed ridiculous months ago, but they said “just in case” and figured searching for each other would’ve led to getting lost in chaos. Smarter to head home on their own. Her luck to be working from home today. Why couldn’t this happen on Saturday?

Sasha crammed food into bags—fruit, veggies, cookies, potato chips—and carried them into the bunker disguised as a shed in the backyard. A floor hatch opened to a ladder leading underground. A main room and tiny bathroom.

She had thought Tony was nutty for thinking the bunker was a great idea to buy the house. The bunker was a relic from the Cold War, when the homeowners feared Soviet and American missiles could fly in both directions. Tony had said, “It’d be cool to have something different. The kids could use the bunker as a fort.”

Two kids. Another plan. Since the bunker was well-maintained and not creepy, Sasha took the plunge. Tony became boy-like as he stocked the bunker with provisions. And he participated in decorating the nursery. Her doomsday-prepper jokes died off; let him have his fun. A joy to make the home their own.

Stick to the plan. Tony’s last words echoed in Sasha’s mind as she kept redialing his number.

The hand-cranked radio said, “Confirmation that missiles are targeting major metropolitan areas.”

Shock made way for tears lasting for weeks. Sasha gripped hope she’d hear a knock and Tony’s voice: “It’s me! Unlock the hatch!” Giving up on that, she gripped hope that Tony found a safe place. She cursed their choice to live in suburbs close to the city. Why not live in a small town? But those didn’t have as many jobs.

Madness threatened beyond her depression. She paced the room, ate junk food and raw produce, probed radio stations for news and music, hated herself for gratitude that she wasn’t pregnant. She yearned for children, but a newborn would’ve made this situation much more challenging.

She struggled into a routine. Did stretches throughout the days. Read used paperbacks. Acted as four opponents in Scrabble. Rearranged the old bed, table, chairs. Wrote her worries in a notebook. Frugally consumed the canned and dried food.

As months dragged, the food supply lowered. She grew disgusted with the bunker’s stale, unwashed odor.

The devil’s advocate won her inner debate, and Sasha opened the hatch. She ached for different environment, different air. In the shed, she listened to sounds of the outside world. Thankfully, birds were chirping. But no noises of cars. She was too scared to open the shed’s door.

Then she had to open it. The food was gone. She felt bad for nagging Tony about wasting money on canned goods. She never thought he’d be right.

Outside, she breathed deeply without caring if the air was radioactive. Either that or starvation. The sky and trees were gorgeous.

She went into her house for a shower, fresh clothes, large meal. Then she would decide where to search for other survivors.


copyright © 2020 Dave Williams

Let’s Say

Let’s say you wake up after an unnerving dream, and

Strike that. Starting a story with someone waking up feels “old hat.” It’s been done a trillion times. Strike the first sentence from your memory. You are forbidden to re-read that sentence.

Also, let’s strike the second-person “you.” That was intended to increase the intensity of the reading experience. However, in one of the story’s paragraphs, the character fires a gun in a gun range, which is a sensitive topic and may irritate or annoy or upset or enrage some readers. (Or all those emotions.) You are forbidden to skip ahead to find the gun paragraph. Simply continue reading to the next paragraph.

Let’s say Jason is traveling to work, and the morning feels humdrum, pretty much the same as many many many previous mornings. Jason craves excitement the way a ragged man crawling on a desert dune in a comic panel craves a water jug.

But not the kind of excitement of a wizard/time traveler popping into existence and saying he is very likely The Chosen One. Jason stopped believing in that years ago. He still enjoys watching movies/TV shows using that plot device. Years ago, Jason sometimes wished he was The Chosen One and assembled a group of allies and battled hordes of yucky creatures until he reached The Evil One, then Jason vanquished that brute. But Jason swayed from that wish to the wish that he wasn’t The Chosen One, as that position seemed to carry a great deal of responsibility and danger. Oh sure, Jason felt concerned while sitting on the sofa and watching the movies/TV shows, munching the salty or sweet snack of choice of the moment, but ultimately Jason was safe from swords and lasers. If he was The Chosen One in real life, the risk of injury or death would’ve been much elevated.

Also, Jason doesn’t crave the sort of excitement that brings a much elevated risk of injury or death. Absent from his wish list are super-volcanoes erupting, tsunamis crashing, and huge meteors falling. The sort of event where nature goes nuts.

Jason would rather experience an event with opponents who can be killed. March that horde of yucky creatures toward the city, and Jason will join the defenders. Just make sure he is trained in the bow, halberd, and sword first. Or have zombies careening around like human pinballs but with slow legs and horrible posture, yet their desire to visit chiropractors is nil. The resistance of humans can count on Jason to join.

Let’s say Jason makes time in his schedule, before or after work, and he joins a martial-arts school in a strip mall, attends for a while, gets promoted from white to yellow belt, then quits since he assumes most of the populace hasn’t had a single martial-arts lesson, so he has a leg up on them. (Which could be taken as an attempt at a martial-arts pun.)

Let’s say Jason takes a gun training course, then practices during several weekends at the gun range. He chooses not to purchase a gun. But if the chance of an evil mutant invasion increases, he will revisit this decision. For now, he is fine with the knowledge of a gun’s weight in his hand and improved aim during those practice sessions.

Let’s say he takes an advanced driving course to sharpen his defensive skills, and to get introduced to driving a range of vehicles. In a post-apocalyptic hellscape, Jason might not have a wide range of vehicles available to him and must ride a motorcycle or drive a school bus. Of course, the motorcycle would be faster, but the bus has built-in beds to use when Jason reaches a safe-ish place to park every night. And if he is in group of allies, the bus offers more room for the group to rest and watch the hellscape’s scenery as Jason carefully drives the broken highways.

Let’s say, through all this training, he purchases books to learn how to survive without the items he has grown accustomed to, such as grocery stores that haven’t been ransacked by other desperate survivors. Jason reads which plants in the wild are safe to eat. He reads how to create a shelter. He reads how to start fire without matches or a lighter. He reads how to strain water through a handkerchief. He purchases a multi-pack of handkerchiefs and always carries two of them (along with a lighter). One handkerchief would be used by Jason, and the second handkerchief to barter for a valuable item from another survivor.

Let’s say Jason thinks about taking these steps but decides they’re not worth the time, energy, and money to invest — since he finds the chance of an invasion of zombies or evil mutants to be tiny.

Traveling to work, he spots a dandelion growing in a crack in the sidewalk. Jason wonders if dandelions are poisonous. He taps his cell phone to search the Internet and discovers dandelions are safe to eat. He pinches the bright yellow flower from the stem and nearly eats the flower when a thought arrives. While the flower could have some nutritional value (vitamin C, let’s say), there’s a chance the lovely petals have absorbed pesticides and/or other toxic chemicals. If Jason is standing in a meadow in the country, that would be a different matter. Although that scenario raises the chance of raccoon urine on the dandelion. Jason tosses the dandelion flower and continues to his work’s building.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Bill’s Fence

A board in an antique shop with block letters reading BILL'S FENCE

This is Bill’s fence. You don’t want to go messin’ with it. Bill’s awful proud of his fence, and if there’s even a scratch in it, Bill will — well, I don’t ever want to think about what Bill will do. You see, Bill’s fence protects Bill’s stuff, and Bill’s awful protective of his stuff. Bill’s been collecting stuff for — well, I don’t know exactly how long, but let’s just say it’s been many, many years. And we just don’t wan to go messin’ with Bill’s stuff. If you thought he’d be mad with someone messin’ with his fence, well, that’s nothing compared to what Bill will do if someone goes stomping around his stuff without him knowing about it or giving permission for it. There ain’t no ill will like Bill’s ill will, and that’ll leave you with a hefty hospital bill.

Secret Box

Before becoming pregnant, Laura spoke all her secrets and dark desires into the box, locked it, and stored it on the top shelf of the bedroom closet. She had also confessed some secrets and desires to friends. But nobody had heard all of them. Until the box. She hid the key in her sock drawer.

Months later, tapping made Laura think a mouse was in the closet. She peeked. The box was twitching to the side, tapping against the wall.

Laura shrieked and stumbled in retreat, until the backs of her legs touched the bed. Her first thought: a monster was stuck in the box. Another part of her brain called that notion crazy and said a mouse must’ve gotten inside the box. But how? The box was metal, not cardboard that a mouse could chew through.

She ran to the kitchen pantry, retrieved the broom, poked the box with the rounded end of the broom’s handle. If a mouse was inside, wouldn’t the little thumps of the broom against the box scare it? Yet the box didn’t stop moving. It kept twitching, so it tapped the wall.

Another run to the kitchen, this time to underneath the sink to retrieve a garbage bag. She held the bag open below the closet shelf with one hand, and she swiped the box off the shelf with her other hand. Swiping the box quickly to touch it as little as possible. As if the box was hot and would’ve burned her. In the motion, Laura didn’t see or feel a hole in the box. It looked intact.

Once the box dropped into the garbage bag, Laura cinched the top of the bag and wrapped a twist-tie around the neck.

The garbage can in the side yard wouldn’t do. Laura was worried the box would’ve kept twitching, and Henry would’ve investigated. She was convinced no mouse was in there. And she was scared of what strangeness the box held. Had her confessions given birth to a ghost? That was far-fetched. But so was a box capable of moving on its own.

Laura placed the garbage bag on the passenger seat of her car, and drove out of her suburban neighborhood, to the stretch of businesses. At a fast food restaurant, she drove to the back of the parking lot. She stopped the car, tossed the bag in the dumpster.

Back home, Laura felt lighter. Relieved. She wished she could drink a glass of wine to help calm her nerves, but her swollen belly was a constant reminder of the doctor’s instruction to not drink any alcohol.

So she turned on soft music and sat on the couch and breathed deeply and told herself to try to forget about the box and stop guessing what was inside.

The Fishbowl’s Castle

At the top of Gracie’s wish list was pet fish, so she was excited when Mom carried the fishbowl from the master bedroom—where it had been hiding since the previous day—to the dining room and carefully placed it on the table.

Many kids circled the table, their eyes fixed on the colorful fish darting about. Neon tetras, guppies, zebra danio. Possibly too crowded in the bowl, similar to the house during Gracie’s sixth birthday party.

But not crowded to Gracie, who loved having her friends and most of her five cousins there.

The lone annoyance was Sammy, her brother of four years older, who made fun of the decorations from the Underwater Adventures Party Pak (he even made fun of the intentional misspelling), which were festooned around the house. Paper plates bright with tropical fish. Green streamers taped to the ceiling, mimicking seaweed and turning the room into an underwater den.

The fishbowl entertained the kids for several minutes, until Gracie and Sammy’s father opened the back door and announced the treasure hunt was ready. Kids burst from the house and spread over the back yard, hunting for seahorses and octopi and starfish. Little plastic treasures the kids would bring home.

Sammy was allowed to find three toys, then Dad told him to let the other kids have a chance, so Sammy jeered at the guests: “You’ll never find all of them! Not in a million zillion years!”

(Turned out, Sammy was correct. Dad found an octopus two months later, while mowing the grass. After washing dirt off the creature, Dad waited for that night to tuck it under Gracie’s pillow as she slept.)

After the party, the fishbowl rested on a side table in the living room. Each day, returning home from school, Gracie slid a chair from the dining room to the side table and ate a snack while watching the fish. She spoke to the fish, asking them how their day was, what games they played.

Her parents thought her fascination would end in a few days, but it didn’t.

“She’ll be the next Jacques Cousteau,” Mom said.

“In Oklahoma?” Dad said. “Don’t think so.”

“Don’t put limitations on her. She can do anything she puts her mind to.”

Dad was about to say the world held many limitations, most of which were out of people’s control. But he didn’t feel like being a downer and he worried Gracie could overhear them. He said, “I’m sure she can.”

Mom and Dad didn’t know Gracie wasn’t looking only at the fish, but the castle on the bowl’s floor, surrounded by blue gravel. The castle was chosen by the parents as a nod to Gracie’s years of enchantment with princesses.

“People live in the castle, you know,” Gracie said when she was called for dinner.

“You mean a king and queen?” Mom asked.

“Just regular people,” Gracie said as she sat at the dining room table. “I guess they already lived in the castle when you got it at the pet store.”

Joining the family for dinner, Sammy let out a laugh of contempt. “People can’t live underwater. If you said they were tiny mermaids, that would make some sense.”

“They’re not mermaids,” Gracie said. “They’re like us, except smaller.”

“Let her use her imagination,” Dad said to his son, remembering the times Gracie played with her dolls and making up stories involving them.

“It’s not in my imagination,” Gracie said. “They’re real. As real as anybody.”

Mom looked worried as she held a forkful of pot roast above her plate. “How many people live in there?”

“I’ve seen three, but there’s probably more,” Gracie said. “I think there’s a bunch of rooms I can’t see. Rooms without windows.”

“Are the people nice?” Mom envisioned tiny men and women climbing out of the fishbowl and wrecking her house. Maybe they had tiny hammers to smash the furniture. Maybe tiny knives to cut the sofa. And cut her family while they slept. Mom shivered.

“They’ve been nice to me and the fish,” Gracie said. “They wave to me, and I’m getting better about reading their lips. They say they like the fish food I put in.”

“As long as they’re happy and stay in the castle,” Mom said.

Once the kids were tucked in bed, Mom leaned close to the fishbowl and peered into the castle’s windows. The hollow castle was filled with water, and it seemed ridiculous that people lived in there.

A shadow might’ve passed within a window. It could’ve been the table lamp blinking. Or a moth had flitted on the lightbulb. Or it couldn’t have been tiny people.

Just in case, Mom kept a watchful eye on the castle from then on. While she didn’t notice any more shadows, a voice in her head said maybe the castle people were being extra careful to not be seen. And while calling herself nuts, she wondered if her daughter was right.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

To the Castle

“He’ll judge in my favor,” Erik said confidently as they walked the long road to the castle. “You can be sure of that.”

“Hardly!” Rodney spat. “The king has more sense than that. Just because my chickens keep going to your yard doesn’t mean they now belong to you.”

“Where they choose to live should be their home.”

“Hardly! I need to build a better fence. Good fences are necessary for the order of things.”

Erik lifted his head to point at their destination. “I’d say the king would agree with you there.”

Rodney grinned a victorious grin. “Those walls are better than any fence.”

“But within them sits a man much wiser than you. You shall see.”

After a wait inside the castle, the two men were escorted to plead their cases in front of the king, who patiently listened to them.

The king then spoke to Rodney, “Fix your fence, but give two chickens to your neighbor to keep goodwill. And to both of you: don’t forget to pay your taxes.”


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

Valuable Dating Advice

“She wasn’t impressed,” Burger King said, his voice pained. “Like, not at all. I don’t know what I did wrong. Or maybe it wasn’t anything I did. Maybe she was having a bad day for whatever reason.”

Colonel Sanders raised his hands in a dismissive gesture. “Beats me, dude. From what you said, you did everything right.”

“Hardly.” Earl Grey drank from his teacup and dabbed his lips and grand mustache with a cloth napkin. He said, “After you’ve been dating a woman for a while, she’ll probably be okay with a burger and fries on a date. Actually, some women might be okay with that on a first date. But I would not — absolutely not — put Lady Godiva in those categories. You should’ve come to me first and asked for restaurant recommendations for your date with her.”

“What should I do now?” Burger King said.

“Bring her chocolates,” the earl said. “Good-quality chocolates. Apologize to her. Say your judgement was thrown out of whack because you were so taken with her luxurious hair. Suggest another dinner. French this time.”

“French could be good,” the king said.

“It will be good. Wooing a proper lady is a delicate process. One that should not to be taken lightly, my good man.”


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams

There Be Giants

“What if there really are giants?” the girl asked from the backseat.

“Giants?” her father repeated from the driver’s seat. “Sure there are. Remember when we looked up that stuff? The most poisonous snake in the world, all that stuff? Remember the world’s tallest person? That guy was way up there. Forget how tall, though.”

“No, no, I don’t mean tall people. I mean giants. The ones that’re taller than houses.”

“Like in Gulliver’s Travels?”

“That wasn’t a giant,” she said from the passenger seat. “He was regular size. The people were really small. The Lilliputians.”

“I always thought he was a giant,” he said.

“Nope. But there was a giant in Jack and the Beanstalk.”

“Right. That was a giant. A giant with a castle in the clouds.”

“What if they’re real?” she asked from the backseat. “What if they’re not in the clouds, but they’re hiding down here? Like behind those mountains over there?”

“Could be,” he said. “I can’t see over those mountains, so they could be there.”

“Would they be mean giants?” she asked from the passenger seat.

A pause, then from the backseat: “Maybe some of them. But not all. Like people. Some are mean, but most are nice.”

“Do the nice ones keep the mean ones in line?” he asked from the driver’s seat.

“Yeah. Yeah, they do.”

“Good. ‘Cause if the mean ones got loose, wouldn’t they smash things? Being giants and all, couldn’t they smash buildings to bits?”

In the rearview mirror, he could see her roll her eyes.

“Why do you go right to the violence?” she asked from the passenger seat.

“Dunno. Just figured if giants are real, then people should be worried. Those giants could snap skyscrapers like they’re made of twigs.”

“What if they’re just shy?” she asked from the backseat. “They don’t destroy things, and they don’t walk around because they’re really, really shy.”

“Could be,” he said. “So… what do they do all day?”

“Hide. Maybe they don’t want people to steal their stuff, like Jack did.”

“Like when he stole the giant’s gold?” he asked.

“Exactly,” she said from the backseat.

“But what if they built castles in the clouds to get away from us?”

“Even that’s not safe. As proven by the story.”

“True, true. I suppose they’re smart to hide then.”

“Yep. ‘Cause they’re really good at it.”

The three of them looked far into the distance, at the clouds and mountains, and tried to see if they could spot any evidence of giants.


copyright © 2021 Dave Williams