Archive for: March, 2014

Reasons by Sathya Stone

Mar 23 2014 Published by under The WiFiles

“I’m sorry sir, he paints what?”

“Gravity,” said the old man. “A difficult choice.”

Mr. Chopra was not interested in lucidity. A habit reflected, I thought, in the kind of artists he sponsored. Worse, he was a minimalist. A product of his mother’s Jainism, perhaps.

“Please elaborate,” I said. “Sir.”

“I will show you. Come.”

He grabbed one of the steel bars and pulled himself along. After a moment, I followed. It was my first time in orbit, and I found everything to be new and exciting. Mr. Chopra, I could tell, wasn’t comfortable propelling himself forwards using his arms. Not a strong man, I had realized quickly. On Earth, he gave an impression of great power and vigor.

Up here, there was no room for lies. All was stark and sterile and definite.

His room was bigger than the one I was crammed into with Tim, and slightly more comfortable. Two paintings were fixed to one wall. “This,” said Mr. Chopra, gesturing towards the larger one.

A powerful sense of motion and depth hit me at first glance.

The picture showed a man in a grey suit in the act of falling down, painted against the colorful background of a graffitied wall. A closer examination showed that the violent sense of movement had been achieved by a clever and subtle distortion of the background. I thought I got it. The subject of the painting wasn’t the man, it was the act of gravity.

“What do you think?” said Mr. Chopra, abruptly.

“An artist with a very fine understanding of space and time,” I said. “Does he always paint people falling down?”

“People, things. Buildings collapsing. Met him when my old headquarters was demolished. Skinny white boy in the crowd. Never took a video of it, drew from memory. Clever.”

I nodded. Say what you liked about the Mr. Chopra (and people certainly did), but for all his ruthlessness in business matters, he had a sweet spot for young artists. Provided they were talented, of course. I hadn’t yet got to know Gabriel Lundgren; I had taken the first shuttle with Tim and Onyeka, and then had been busy sorting out the tax exemption forms. The artists had arrived two days ago. I knew Gabriel as a kind of specter, a tall colorless creature with long limp blond hair, floating about, staring dreamily at everything with vague surprise. He signed whatever I put in front of him without reading the contents.

“Talk to him,” Mr. Chopra ordered me. “Him. The Ikebana girl. The other one will be fine.”

#

“I create,” Brant corrected, when I implied that he ‘painted’. “I’m interested in the act of creation, which is not defined by the tools. I don’t think of what I do as simple painting. The parameters set by the tools do not interest me.”

Gabriel was looking rather bemused. “But don’t you paint?”

I thought Brant Siddiqui was an ass, but Gabriel was one of nature’s innocents.

“I capture the moods of the sky with what tools I am allowed, yes, and my paints are created from nature, by myself. I need to feel that I have control over the colors from the start, that they’re mine. The creation of the paints is the soul, the true heart, of my artistic process.” He shot me a look like I had farted or something. “I find it extremely crass, even vulgar, when natural scenes are painted using materials that hurt the Earth Goddess.”

That sounded rehearsed. But he didn’t have quite the flare with words that he did with a brush. Unfortunately for me, Brant was an amazing artist, particularly given the self-imposed limitations of his palette. Crushed leaves and flowers and berries didn’t yield colors even half as vivid as what you got in a basic paint box. Didn’t seem to matter. Brant Siddiqui could read the sky like I read a book, and put the sky down on paper like I (and possibly he) could never write a book.

And, fine, it wasn’t a bad example he was setting, being an important member of the Anti-Pollution art movement. He was a good person, essentially. If only he never spoke, I could like him.

“Well I’d-I’d,” Gabriel’s hands twisted. “I’d like to paint you.” He didn’t look anyone in the eye, and now he was cringing, feverish blotches of pink appearing on his cheeks.

Brant’s eyes went wide. “You what?”

“I want to – to, you’re, up here, you’ve,” he waved an arm desperately. “I can’t paint the absence of gravity.” He looked like he was about to cry. “I tried, but -”

I’d learned to read his body language over the past few days, and I thought he was angling himself towards me, begging help.

“You think having Brant as a subject will help you?” I prompted.

“He’s so full of gravity!”

I wanted to laugh. Brant’s didn’t seem to be sure whether he should be offended or not. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he asked, in a tone I knew would just send Gabriel even further into his shell.

To my surprise, Gabriel found some coherence from somewhere.

“You’re so – you’re anchored. All the time. The – the things you say about the,” he cringed again. “Earth Goddess. I think it helps you be – I think you’re sure of who you are, it creates a sort of – illusion of gravity.”

“That’s,” for once Brant was at a loss. “Uh, sure, fine. Whatever. You can paint me, if you like.”

Gabriel nodded, looking at his hands that just kept knotting together.

#

“Why does he do it?” I asked Captain Nantakarn, later. “What’s the point of all this?”

He angled his head slightly and smiled. A calm man, Nantakarn. Yeka had told me his story. The Captain’s (large) family was entirely dependent on the salary he got working for Mr Chopra. The man himself just wanted to be a Buddhist monk.

On Earth leave, Nantakarn lived in a monastery in the Himalayas and was, in fact, a monk. When Mr. Chopra sent for him, he would walk sedately down the mountain, take a few buses across Nepal, and someone would meet him at the India border with a SmartCar.

Apparently the Captain had received Ordination twice, but each time he left, he went back down to being a novice. A Buddhist Sisyphus.

Still, the peace and gentleness hung over him like a shining cloak. “A complex question Ranbir, I’m afraid. And I do not possess a great understanding of Art.”

“It’s not really about Art, is it?” I said, tentatively.

“Ah, no. Not entirely. He possesses great acumen for business, my old friend Rajesh Chopra. Yes. A forward thinking man.” He nodded gently for a few seconds. “The Chopras isolated a profitable niche in the space exploration industry. Space toilets, Ranbir. The fundamental reality of existence that comes in many forms. Lunar and Mars colonies will need toilets.”

“But there won’t be Lunar and Mars colonies for a long while, sir,” I said, growing uncertain. “I’ve read the feasibility studies, it’s – an interest of mine. Off-world colonization is too expensive and lacks any immediate benefit. The money’s better off being poured into population control and farming and carbon capture.”

He was giving me a strange, knowing smile. “Yes. Exactly. A depressed civilization. Pollution and disease, too many mouths to feed, there is not much room for dreams. Young people look to feasibility studies for inspiration, not the stars.”

“So Mr. Chopra thinks that – sponsoring Space Art will bring the romance back to off-world colonization?”

The Captain shrugged. “Perhaps.”

#

The view of the Earth amazed me the first day, and the next and the next. Yeka was in the observation deck when I had my break.

“How are your babies doing?” she said, as I strapped down into the comfy chair beside her.

“They’re not my babies,” I said, half-heartedly. “Gabriel is painting Brant. Well, he’s trying to. Brant keeps giving him advice.” Yeka grinned. “They were arguing about the role of perspective in Space Art when I left. I hate artists.”

“So does our boss,” she said. “That’s why he hired you to deal with them. You know, your predecessor quit when the last Anti-Poll guy we had up here couldn’t find any biodegradable materials, and used his own feces for a sculpture.”

I shuddered. “You don’t think Brant -”

“Oh God no. He wouldn’t get his manicured hands dirty.” Yeka smiled. “He’s not that bad, you know. I helped him with the physical training. You should get to know him better. Can’t keep this job if you hate the artists.”

“I like Gabriel and Hanako!”

“You barely notice Hanako. Tim’s been giving her beta blockers. You didn’t know, did you? She’s not handling the trip very well.”

Nonplussed, I said: “why didn’t Tim tell me?”

“He’s not obliged to tell you. Your job is to ensure that the artists trust you and will confide in you. Right now, Ranbir, you’re doing a fantastic job of judging them.”

“I’m an art critic! Judging them is what I do!”

She gave me a long, cool look. “Not anymore.”

#

“It’s so unfair!” Hanako said, when I finally cornered her. At least I spoke Japanese, that had to help a bit. “The others can paint something! What am I supposed to do?”

“Well, that’s not really true, is it?” I said. “Gabriel has no gravity and Brant can’t make his paints. I think you’re just being overly sensitive.”

She clutched the steel bar and glared at me. “You don’t understand!”

“This is the opportunity of a lifetime! Chopra-san chose you because he thinks you’re creative and resourceful. Billions of people will see your work with his patronage!”

“Do you have any idea of the pressure? Do you? My teachers and my family will be – be ashamed of me, be so disappointed, if I don’t manage to do a damn flower arrangement without any damn flowers!”

I found myself glaring back at her. “Since when is ikebana about flowers?

#

It was truly hard to concentrate on tax forms when Gabriel and Brant kept bickering about the symbolic value of self-made paints versus the basic advantage of having a professional in charge of making your creative tools. They had been fighting for days.

I had been worried that Gabriel might slip off into depression before, but now he seemed angry enough to survive the trip.

The taxes were surprisingly interesting, in a way. There’s a sentence I never expected to say. But I had ended up reading the notes pages about measures to discourage space tourism by the rich, while simultaneously helping business owners’ who needed a large crew up here. Basically the more people per meter of spaceship, the lower your hydrogen tax. And that was in addition to the break you got by buying larger quantities. I knew that most people thought that the world could only be shaped through taxes and fines, but… gods. They really did take Neo-Tax Culture seriously over at International Space Revenue.

#

“I’ll use it to represent humanity,” she snapped, when I flattened myself against the wall. “It will be the heart of the arrangement.”

“All right, all right…”

“I think it’s an interesting idea,” said Tim, cheerfully snapping the scissors. “What are you going to make out of my hair?”

Hanako blinked, making the mental switch to English. “I will make stem. Only Gabriel’s hair for flower. Yeka’s hair is moss. Ranbir’s hair,” she waved a hand uncertainly. “Leaves. In ikebana not many flower.”

“Sounds great,” said Tim, and started chopping off his hair.

I wasn’t sure if it was the best idea I’d heard, but she was trying, and that was the important thing. Now if Brant found a sky of some sort in Space they’d all at least have projects to keep them busy.

When she was gone, Tim yawned and carded his fingers through the uneven spikes of hair he had left. “It’s amazing. I’ve done this trip six times and they always think of some damned thing. Old Mr. Crapper’s right, people get more creative the less they have to work with.”

Tim was… Tim, and it seemed like a good opportunity.

“Do you reckon Mr. Cra – Chopra’s doing this to inspire off-world colonization?”

Tim stared at me for a moment, and then he grinned. “Captain Holiness told you that, eh? Well, he’s not one for malicious speculation. You should have come to me for that.”

“I have now.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Tim, strapping himself back into his bed. “I think the old guy’s a titan among men. And doesn’t stint on my salary either, which leaves me very kindly-disposed towards his little ideas. How-ever,” Tim was the only person I knew who said ‘however’ in ordinary conversation, and he always rolled the word around in his mouth. “I’ll tell you this, my young disciple. You and I might be fine with sterilization now, but when Chopra was a kid, it was like a banner over your head saying ‘my own parents kicked me in the balls.’ He was the second son. You’re opening your mouth without thinking, that was before the international One Child Policy. Law said that only one kid would be allowed to reproduce, and his parents took the runt of the litter and sent him off to the operating table.”

Tim made me a little uncomfortable, but I always wanted to hear his nonsense. “What’s that got to do with it?”

“Well, elder brother went and squandered his inheritance and life over some Spanish dancer, and then lost custody of his kid. Young Rajesh was the one who took the little shop selling to private explorers, and made it NASA’s own supplier. I think it’s like, validation, you know. Guy misses the kid he never had, and made a toilet empire instead. The toilet empire is his child. Internalizing my wisdom, cadet?”

“With only mild confusion sarge.”

“Don’t give me cheek, cadet. It’s symbolism, or projection, or… other big words that’ll convince you that I know what I’m talking about. No, no, really. Take the pretty Hanako. Just your ordinary ikebana artist. But take away her – stuff, materials, her metaphorical little swimmers – and she gives birth to some Space Art bullshit that’ll shoot her like a speeding bullet into fame and fortune. Losing one thing, an important thing, can make you – you know, more inclined to create, be greater than you would have been with your balls functioning correctly, as it were. Metaphorically. This whole endeavor is Chopra trying to convince himself that he wouldn’t have been the aforementioned titan amongst us puny humans if he’d never been sterilized.”

I tried to imagine a world where sterilization was a stigmata and not a responsibility.  “Was it really such a big deal, back then?”

“Yeah, it was pretty bad. And abuse, strictly speaking, sterilizing a child without consent. But they were desperate by then. We’re still desperate, I suppose.”

He reached for his blanket. I stared at the ceiling. “Ah, well, an interesting theory,” I said, diplomatically. “My thanks, sensei.”

Tim sighed. “At least this trip made one person happy.”

“Who?”

“Brant. He’s having the time of his life, getting to move around without his prosthetic legs. Don’t blame him, I’ve seen those things.”

“And it’s funny, but Gabriel insists that Brant was the one who brought gravity up here with him.”

I heard Tim shift in his bunk, and then he turned off his lamp. “Well, Brant was probably the one who noticed gravity the most.”

#

“He said he chose me because I’m a beautiful African woman! And as such – I quote – the closest approximation available to the true form of the Earth Goddess’ first children! I think the bastard called me -”

Artist, Yeka, deep breath! He’s an artist and therefore we ignore his personality… quirks. Anyway, can I be offended that he doesn’t think my ginger pee isn’t as good as your African Eve pee?”

“You can’t be offended about anything, Tim,” I said. “Look at yourself and just assume anyone who says or implies anything bad about you in any way is telling the truth. What’s Brant going to do with your pee, Yeka?”

“Freeze it and shatter it and use the fragments to represent the stars. The sharpness of the fragments is supposed to convey the absence of sky, apparently. Or something. I think that’s what he said. I was too busy wanting to knock his stupid racist head off.”

Tim wandered over to the glass and stared down at the planet, the swollen blue green view that always made my heart contract.

“It’ll be utter rubbish, you know,” he said, quietly. “The art always is, but when we go back down to that funny little planet, the critics will rave about it all and people will flock to see it.”

“Maybe it’s good,” I said. “Maybe we’re philistines.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Maybe. Probably.”

“That’s why he does it, dimwit,” said Yeka, moving to Tim’s side. “Mr. Chopra feels helpless because he can’t produce an heir to take over his business -”

“-Empire of Crappers ruled from the Porcelain Thro -”

“Shut up! I mean, that’s got to be it, yeah? The business he spent years building up like his – his own child – passing to his idiot nephew, who just wants to be a ballroom dancer. The – imagine the feeling of helplessness! He’s torturing the artists by making them feel it too.”

“They don’t seem helpless,” I said, with a flash of sympathy towards Mr. Chopra.

But Yeka wasn’t done.

“Everyone’s helpless against the – the – I mean look, just look. That planet down there. It takes your breath away. Every – every time, doesn’t it?” I could see the blue-green reflected in her dark eyes… just for one fanciful second, anyway. “You could be the greatest artist in the world, but there aren’t enough words, or enough colors in a paint box.” She appealed to me, with an intense expression like a priestess in the midst of a ritual. “The artists come here thinking they can make sense of it, but no amount of talent is sufficient. That’s our planet. That’s the greatest truth there is, the deepest and most helpless of all feelings, and you can’t express it to someone who’s never been here. And when you’ve built your life around trying to make everyone feel what you feel… this place is heaven and hell for an artist.” She sighed. “Poor things, really.  And we’ve got Brant collecting pee. It just makes me feel so small…”

“It’s probably better than not being able to create anything,” I said, with a rush of irritation.

“And our Ranbir is a self-obsessed jackass,” said Tim. He patted my arm. “It’s good. Hang onto it. Don’t ever let the grandeur in.”

“I hate artists,” I muttered, turning away from the grandeur to go find my boss. “And ginger psychiatrists. And people with sterilization issues.”

#

I don’t know what possessed me to ask.

His fierce eyes had a hint of amusement in them. “Why do you think?”

Well, I should have anticipated that. Mr. Chopra always asked for people’s opinions. I didn’t know what he did with them.

I looked at him, really looked at him. A stern, old creature, often kind to me, and I thought it was a shame that his particular combination of genetics wouldn’t be passed on. He seemed lonely, against the darkness that arced over the shining hemisphere of the Earth.

“Tax exemption,” I said.

He grinned, suddenly, and I sagged in relief. He patted my shoulder. “You’re right, beta.”

I knew it, I knew it was some mundane, stupid reason….

Mr. Chopra sighed, gazing down at the heartbreaking splendor of the planet. “I love being up here,” he said, very quietly. “This place… it can be kind, in its cold way. But the hell-tax on hydrogen makes it more expensive for me to take a holiday by myself in orbit, and bring only the crew.”

“But you get a tax break if it’s a project by the Chopra Arts Foundation, because it’s a non-profit organization.”

He nodded. “I like them,” he added. “The kids’ art. Call it – what’s that phrase of Timothy’s now? – hm, yes, pseudo-philosophical bullshit. It is. But it’s the way of youth.” He shrugged. “They’re bright things to have around.”

“Yeah,” I said, as the sound of Gabriel and Brant having yet another argument floated down the corridor. Hanako hadn’t left her room in days, and Yeka said she was surrounded by human hair while deep in meditation. All of it, just for a moment, seemed very small and warm.

Bio

Sathya Stone studied in England and currently lives in China.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Joy Thief by Tim Jeffreys

Mar 16 2014 Published by under The WiFiles

It was something like a dwarf or a leprechaun–no one knew for sure, least of all the thing itself–and the most noteworthy thing about it, aside from its tiny stature, pale green skin, huge hook nose and beady black eyes full of anger, bewilderment, and hatred was that it had been born without joy.

It lived alone in the attic of a huge, luxurious, abandoned house which stood on the hilltop overlooking the town and which people said had once belonged to a movie star. Quite when the dwarf had moved into the house no one knew for sure. All they were certain of was that the dwarf had booby-trapped the place and now no one dared venture inside the grounds for fear of falling foul. So the dwarf was left to its own devices.

It was seen in the town from time to time, wearing a scowl that could startle babies from their sleep. It came to steal. It wanted only the best. Food from the delicatessen; bottles of vintage whiskey from behind the counter at the off-license; gold and silver sparkling things from the jewellers which once touched would have alarms ringing. The dwarf was sneaky and quick. It would flee with its bounty to its high attic on the hill where it would gorge itself on duck-liver pate, swill himself into a stupor, and parade up and down before the mirror resplendent in necklaces, earrings and twinkling tiaras.

And yet, despite all this, still it had no joy.

It knew what it was missing because it often spied on the townspeople and it had seen their smiles and it had heard their laughter. More than this though, the dwarf had a peculiar gift, for it could see people’s emotions, it could touch them, it could hold them in its hands. It knew the warm colours of joy: the yellows, oranges and reds. It knew too the cold colours of sadness and the boiling blacks of rage. Often after it had grown tired of the spoils of yet another raid, it would sit before the attic’s huge front window gazing down at the town and thinking about all the people down there enjoying themselves. Its hands would wrestle in its lap, its skin would grow greener, and anger would fill its mind like steam in a lidded pan on the boil. Other times it stood before the huge mirror propped against one wall and practised smiling. But the smiles looked more like snarls and the dwarf would feel nothing inside except emptiness and it would stare at its horrid little face in the mirror and sigh. It would see the black-brown aura surrounding itself and it would snatch at it and dance about in frustration trying–fruitlessly–to push it away.

Then one day the dwarf had an idea. If it could steal the townspeople’s food and drink and jewellery, could it not also steal their joy? Could it not steal their joy and bring it back to the attic to keep for itself?

It decided it could, and it decided it would.

Immediately upon having this thought, the dwarf began hunting about the house for a receptacle in which it could store all the joy it planned to steal. It eventually turned up a stopper-ed bottle, bigger even than itself, and big enough certainly for all the joy that would be reaped from the town. This it carried carefully, and with considerably effort, up the stairs to the attic and there it was given a label written in the dwarf’s shaky hand which read, simply: JOY!

How to begin? The following morning the dwarf descended the hill and crept into the town just as the day was getting underway. People were scurrying hither and thither about the streets, and cars and buses were bellowing along the roads. The dwarf kept to the alleyways and rooftops. It was so busy in the streets that all the colours of the people’s emotions mixed together into a brownish fog, and the dwarf couldn’t separate the joy in coveted from the misery and hate it had plenty enough of already. Eventually, when things quietened down, it came across a man stood on a ladder and painting a sign above a shop. The man was clearly enjoying his work as the dwarf could see an orange aura surrounding him. The sign read: HOLLYS CUPCAKES. When the man had painted in the final ‘S’ he climbed down from his ladder, stepped back and admired his work. Seeing the man’s orange aura glow brighter, the dwarf crept up behind him.

“What an absolute disaster!” the dwarf said.

The man glanced around, then down, and saw the dwarf. He looked startled, but said: “What do you mean a disaster?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” the dwarf said, jabbing a finger at the sign.

The man looked over his handiwork. “I don’t see a disaster. I think I did rather a good job.”

“Ha!” said the dwarf, stepping closer and pointing at the end of the word HOLLYS. “Haven’t you forgotten something? Shouldn’t there be an apostrophe before the ‘S’?”

The man stared at the sign and his face sank as he realised the dwarf was right. The orange aura began to drift away from him like smoke blown on the wind, but as it did the dwarf leapt into the air and bundled it up in his arms. Holding fast to the joy, he ran laughing from the town, sped back up the hill and through the grounds of his house–carefully avoiding the booby traps. He was still laughing maniacally over his victory as he ran up the stairs to the attic, dropped the joy he still held gathered in his arms into the bottle, then grabbed the stopper which was lying beside it on the floor and popped it in place. There! Finally–finally!–he had some joy of his own!

The dwarf danced about the attic room, but when he at last stopped and looked at his bottle he saw to his horror that it was empty.

“No!” he screamed. “Where’s my joy!”

He took out the stopper again, and pressed his face to the opening in the bottle as if the clear glass had been preventing him from seeing what he knew to be true. The joy he had stolen–all of it–was gone.
Determined not to be beaten, he stomped down the hill again the next day. In the town, he found a dressmaker’s and snuck inside. A young woman was trying on a blue dress in front of a mirror and the dwarf could see that she was pleased because she glowed orange just as the man painting the sign had the previous day. Sneaking up behind her, the dwarf yanked on her skirts. The woman looked down and let out a little exclamation.

“That dress makes you look fat!” the dwarf said.

“What?” the woman said, switching her eyes back to the mirror. “No, it doesn’t.”

“Yes, it does. It makes you look bulbous. And the colour’s not right. It makes you look ill.”

“Oh, what a horrid little creature you are!” the woman said, stamping her foot. “How dare you! How dare you!” She kicked out at the dwarf, but the dwarf was more interested in her orange aura, which he saw sliding away from her as something darker took its place. He leapt up in the air and gathered all the orange colour to him. Then the shop bell rang and turning on the spot, the woman realised that the dwarf was gone.

Back in his attic, he carefully pushed all the joy into his bottle and quickly stoppered it before any could escape. But then, as he stood and stared at the bottle, he saw the orange glow inside it simply evaporate until there was not a trace of it left.

“No!” the dwarf screamed so loudly that down in the town a dog woke up and started barking and a couple walking hand in hand in the street glanced up at the sky with bemused expressions.

Lying in his too big bed that night, turning and grumbling and kicking at his blankets, the dwarf resolved himself to one last attempt. The next day it would return to the town and gather all the joy it could. It would take the bottle with it and pop the joy straight inside.

So the next day, it went into the town library and began to shout. All the joy that left the people who had been sitting around in silence, engrossed in their books, it snatched from the air and pushed straight into the bottle which it rolled along at its side. Then, it found two women sat together talking on a park bench and went and stood before them.

“Yesterday,” he said, addressing one of the women whilst pointing a finger at the other, “she told me you talk too much!”

“What?” said the woman accused. “No, I didn’t!”

“And she told me your husband’s a bore!”

“I did not!”

“And your children are spoiled!”

“What? Who said that?”

“She did. About you. But you said her house is a mess.”

“I never said any such thing!”

“You did! Because she said yours is too perfect.”

“What?”

This went on and on until the calm orange glow that had been surrounding the two women began to leave them, and the dwarf grabbed at it and crammed it into his bottle before it could drift away.

The rest of the day the dwarf spend in the same way: making trouble between friends here (this it got a special kick out of, since it had no friends of its own), ruining people’s day there. All the joy went straight in the bottle and when it was full the dwarf rolled it back up the hill and carried it upstairs to the attic.

Only, when it finally got there, the dwarf again found that the bottle was empty. Despite everything it had done, it still did not have any joy.

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…Often Go Awry By Jeffrey Hunt

Mar 09 2014 Published by under The WiFiles

“And you with small pets at home!” Dr. Jenner exclaimed. He slid his keycard through a slot in the wall and the elevator doors sprang open. Dr. Jenner sprang inside. Dr. Timothy, who was more than a few steps behind, picked up his pace. “It’s true we draw almost exclusively from the neuroscience fields,” Dr. Jenner continued, “but in your case we made an exception.” He smiled without turning around. “You’ll soon understand why.”

Dr. Jenner was a short man with little hands and little feet and tiny recessed eyes. He wore thick glasses, a collared shirt and tie, and the top of his head was bald. Despite his age, however, Dr. Jenner talked nearly as fast as he walked and his personality was matched by the elevator doors, which abruptly shut just as Dr. Timothy, who had almost caught up, was leaping forward.

“Thanks,” came the out-of-breath-reply as Dr. Jenner re-opened the doors. Dr. Timothy scurried in. He was much taller than Dr. Jenner and much younger. He did not wear glasses and his black hair showed no signs of thinning yet. He was also wearing a blue denim shirt tucked into his jeans. No tie. “Those doors sure shut fas–”

“Anyway,” Dr. Jenner exclaimed, his face animated and his voice full of energy, “to get back to the study. So what we accomplished in the beginning was astonishing! Truly, truly astonishing! We aren’t talking about intelligence that multiplied at some linear rate, but intelligence that multiplied geometrically! We started with mice and had plans to move on to other, larger species, but such a massive increase in intelligence left us with several problems.”

The elevator jolted. “Problems?” Dr. Timothy asked as he looked about. Dr. Jenner shrugged, then brought a hand to his neck and began to loosen his tie.

“The increase in intelligence left us with in a dilemma–a dilemma both ethical and practical.” Dr. Jenner explained. And then, as he popped his collar’s top button, in an even swifter tempo: “So what do you do with a mouse that’s doubled in intelligence? You know, wha-da-ya-do with it when you’re done using it in tests? Now, I’d say you simply get rid of it. Kill it. Or, ‘sacrifice’ it, to use today’s PC mumbo jumbo! Who cares if it’s twice as smart as before–was it ever that smart to begin with?”

“No, not really,” Dr. Timothy replied, nodding his head.

“So, wha-da-bout a mouse that’s tripled in intelligence? Well, you can kill it too, ’cause it’s still just a mouse, right? But a mouse that’s quadrupled in intelligence? Quintupled? Sextupled? Septupled? Is it still a mouse at that point, or some new… thing?” Dr. Jenner shrugged. “You see, phase one–mice–was only supposed to be the beginning. As it turned out, however….” The elevator began to slow.

“So phase one was also the end?”

“Yes, yes it was.” Dr. Jenner shifted his weight from one leg to the other, then leaned in close and began tapping the elevator’s floor display. “Like I said, the mice’s intelligence increased at a geometric rate, and for some time. Truthfully, we’re not actually sure where they are now.”

“Really?” The elevator came to a stop.

“Yes, really, though they stopped learning–of that we’re sure!” Dr. Jenner scoffed. “Eventually progression terminated, and that’s when we got the upper hand!” At the word “progression” the elevator doors flew open and Dr. Jenner flew out into a long hallway. He surged forward.

“Upper hand?” Dr. Timothy called out, left behind again. “And why the hurry?”

“No hurry!” Dr. Jenner called back. “Anyway, the mice plateaued, and then they actually regressed a bit! And that’s when we showed those little things who was in charge!” To himself, though loudly: “Fast, clever, conniving little… things.”

Dr. Timothy jogged after Dr. Jenner. “So the mice, er, things… they don’t look like–huff–mice anymore? What–huff–do they look like–?”

“Oh no!” Dr. Jenner shouted over his shoulder. “They still look like mice! Always have! They eat like mice, and they drink from their little sucky things like mice, and they run around in tubes like mice! But their brains, oh!”

At the end of the hallway was a thick desk which an armed guard sat behind. Dr. Jenner fished out his ID as he slowed, and by the time Dr. Timothy caught he had already scanned a palm. Then, as he rushed past the guard, he jerked a finger back and yelled: “He’s with me! Botanist! First day! Slow.”

The guard chuckled and turned to Dr. Timothy. “Hello sir, and welcome to our special division of the National Institute of Mental Health. If you could just show me your badge and then sign here…” he motioned to a clipboard.

Dr. Timothy presented his ID and signed.

“Thank you,” the guard said after a moment. He pushed a button and the doors in the back of the room slid open. Dr. Jenner ran inside. Dr. Timothy ran after him. The guard watched Dr. Timothy disappear, chuckled again, and then cupped his hands around his mouth. “Good luck keeping up!”

#

“So you do-ya-know what we did with the things?” Dr. Jenner asked talking as the doors slid closed far behind them. “You know, in the end, do-ya-know what we did with the highly intelligent things we’d created? No? Well, in the end, we decided to just let it all play out naturally.”

Dr. Jenner took longer and longer strides, flying past meeting rooms and offices and storage closets. The steady increase in speed was accompanied by a steady reddening of the older man’s face, and before long Dr. Jenner’s entire head looked sun-burnt. The change exposed a white scar that ran the length of his neck, thin and relatively smooth until it met the collarbone, where it became thick and jagged.

“You see,” Dr. Jenner continued, “in just a few years the things will… well, I guess it’s easier to just refer to them as mice. After all, they still have four feet and a tail, and their brains aren’t quite like ours! Close, yes, but still more Mus musculus than Homo sapien!”

“I see.” A nod. “So they won’t be alive much longer.”

“That is correct,” Dr. Jenner affirmed as he began to rub his neck. Although his scar remained white, the skin around it went from sun-burn to ripe tomato. “The mice could become a problem, particularly if any animal right’s people hear about them, but for the time being everything is fine. We made ’em comfortable, they’re content, and very soon they’ll all die of natural causes. And that’ll be the end of that. No more mice. Or things. Or whatever.” He walked up to a door, opened it, and motioned for Dr. Timothy to walk through.

“Thank you.” Dr. Timothy entered a long, empty hallway.

Dr. Jenner closed the door behind them, though with great difficulty; his hand, twitching rapidly, was barely able to twist the knob. “So, fortunately for us, mice don’t have long lives. Also, fortunately, mice have small cerebrums. And since the whole procedure really hinges on total cerebrum mass… hey!” He spun around, continually to walk backwards but looking straight at Dr. Timothy with wide eyes. On his lips, a conspiratorial smile. In his mouth, a dark, flicking tongue. And about his temples, pulsing veins.

“Uhhh…” stammered Dr. Timothy, though he kept walking.

“Do you know how we found that out?”

Dr. Timothy moved his gaze about Dr. Jenner’s face, from Dr. Jenner’s eyes to mouth to temples. From Dr. Jenner’s hands to the floor. “How did you find that out?” he finally asked.

Dr. Jenner smile turned hideously wide and he turned back around. “So we might be running tests on, say, a thousand mice,” he continued as he rushed forward. “Out of those thousand we might notice two or three just don’t cut it–they can’t figure out how to get water out of their little sucky things or they get all tangled up in their little exercise wheels. These are the exceptionally dumb mice and using them in experiments would throw everything off, so when no one’s looking we just take off our shoes and BAM!” Dr. Jenner mimicked bringing an imaginary shoe down on an imaginary mouse and as he mimicked, giggles.

“Wow,” Dr. Timothy muttered. “That doesn’t seem very scientific. You use shoes?”

Dr. continued on as he turned a corner. “For this study we got as many of those mice as we could–we specifically asked supply labs for their dumbest of the dumb, for their Lennie Smalls, for their John Coffeys! And you know what we found? Treat those mice with the procedure, and treat regular mice with the procedure, and the only differences in end intelligence corresponded directly to individual cerebrum mass!”

“OK, but who is John Coffey? I know who Lennie Small is–?”

“So-da-ya get it now?” Dr. Jenner almost yelled. He was standing in front of a metal hatch set into a wall of dull, black rubber. A red hand glistening with sweat slid a keycard through a nearby slot and the hatch immediately swung open. The men passed into a white, octagonal chamber which quickly sealed as air moved and a compressor whined. “Our work–the procedure—could’ve great potential on people with developmental delays or mental disabilities.” Dr. Jenner reached the end of the chamber, another hatch surrounded by rubber. The moving air stilled, the compressor shut off, the chamber unsealed, and Dr. Jenner bounced into a dressing-room. He pointed Dr. Timothy toward a locker that read DR. TIMOTHY. “But since the whole thing’s linked to cerebrum mass, we don’t dare experiment on larger animals.” Dr. Jenner threw his tie into the locker, took a lab coat out, and then feverishly began attacking its buttons.

“Ah, because–”

“Mice we can control! Sure, at first we’d a number of difficulties, but in the end we got over ’em. But what would happen if we tried using rats, or dogs, or… chimpanzees?” Dr. Jenner wobbled over to the only other door in the room. “And they have thumbs! Oh no, no! We-don’t-want-another-incident!”

“So this incident–what happened?”

Dr. Jenner stopped, brought a hand back up to his scar, then dropped it. His face was as red as a fire hydrant and his gaping, bloodshot eyes were darting everywhere. His teeth hammered against one another and sweat poured from his face. We sat like that for several of seconds before moving in close.

“Wouldn’t you know,” he half-whispered, “but there was a small… downsizing in staff. Life with the mice at peak intelligence was rough. Very, very rough. We were just about to start taking off the shoes–” he made the smashing-the-shoe-into-the-mouse motion again “–but then the regression occurred and things got worked out.”

Dr. Timothy finished the last button on his own white coat. “Then that’s excellent,” he said.

“Yes, excellent.” Dr. Jenner replied. “Most excellent. Eventually we were able to communicate with the mice. They made some requests, we acquiesced, and now they’re all set to live out the rest of their natural lives in comfort. Dilemma averted. No more incidents.”

Dr. Jenner put a hand on the door. “So-ready-to-go-in?” he asked, jumping, twitching, throbbing, quivering, chattering, and sweating almost uncontrollably. “Read-to-see-this-for-yourself?”

Dr. Timothy gave Dr. Jenner the “thumbs up” gesture.

Dr. Jenner opened the door.

#

The lab was large and very cluttered. In the front, on top of a vast series of tables, were intricate doll houses complete with balconies, decks, lawns, flower beds, various types of hedges, and small backyard swimming pools. Connecting one house to the next were colorful plastic tubes that rose up and formed a high network of navigable pathways which the occasional mouse ran through. Sipper water bottles were strapped to the sides of the homes and wood shavings spilled out of lower-level doorways. Grow lamps were also stationed along the tables and in the back of the lab researchers walked around various pieces of equipment, adjusting dials and moving things and taking notes.

“Ah, it’s good to be back,” Dr. Jenner said as he reached into a nearby cooler balanced atop two lab stools. The cooler was half-full of red, oval capsules, and as Dr. Timothy watched Dr. Jenner shoved handful after handful of capsules into his mouth. His hands pedaled between container and orifice with great fervor, fervor so intense that more than a little of the cooler’s contents fell down to the floor.

Dr. Timothy did a double take. Dr. Jenner kept shoving. After a second: “Dr. Jenner, what are you–?”

“Oh these!” Dr. Jenner said through a mouth oozing crimson saliva and capsule fragments. “Yeah, these things! Well the mice actually–smack–make them! I don’t like to go more than an hour without getting–smack–some into–smack–my system–smack! They taste–smack–so delicious!”

“You eat them every hour?” asked Dr. Timothy as he sniffed the air, wrinkling his nose and glancing about.

Dr. Jenner took a large swallow, then licked his lips and returned to stuffing his face. “Yeah, or every half-hour, or every fifteen minutes if I–smack–can help it! Really, I don’t even like–smack–to leave the lab since we can’t take these things out of here–going upstairs–smack–to get you–smack–sure was–smack–a drag! But those plants needed some help, and the mice need to be happy….”

After an especially large scoop the bottom of the cooler showed and Dr. Jenner paused. Followed by a shake of the head and a scoff. “Why am I stopping? They’ll make some more soon–they always do!” And he proceeded to continue gorging himself. And, as he gorged himself, and as Dr. Timothy watched, Dr. Jenner slowly stopped shaking. His faced cycled back to its regular color. The scar on his neck faded away. His perspiration slowed. His veins calmed. His lips stilled. His teeth stilled. His previously bloodshot eyes whitened and shrunk down to a normal size. A minute, to minutes, and then Dr. Jenner let out a big sigh of relief.

Finally, the older doctor was calm.

Dr. Timothy took his eyes off Dr. Jenner and looked down at the cooler. He stuck his arm out, picked up a single capsule, brought it to his nose, and sniffed. He shook his head. “What are they made of?”

“Oh, who knows,” Dr. Jenner said sedately. “The mice make them and, well, I’m sure the mice–oh those great, wonderful mice!–have our best interests in mind.” Dr. Jenner leaned against Dr. Timothy and began to breathe deeply. His head fell and his shoulders drooped. His eyes glazed over. Slowly, he began to drool; serenity at last.

“And there’s such a strange odor in here,” Dr. Timothy said as he steadied Dr. Jenner. “I know I should know what it is, but I just can’t place it. And if it isn’t these pills…?”

Dr. Jenner mumbled: “I don’t know what… you’re talking about. The buildings above us are… old and as airtight as… sieves. This laboratory, however, is… sealed behind over two meters of concrete.” Dr. Jenner shut his eyes. “You saw… the airlock. No strange… smells around h–”

“Hello, Dr. Jenner,” interrupted a man carrying a large metal bowl. The man was almost exactly the same height as Dr. Timothy and like Dr. Timothy he wore a lab coat. Unlike Dr. Timothy, however, the man wore a badge that read LAB ASSISTANT, talked in a drawl, and his eyes were slow to move and focus.

The man sauntered up to the cooler, tilted the bowl in his arms, and a column of red ovals cascaded out. He quit pouring when the cooler was full and set the bowl on a nearby bench. “Fresh batch,” he explained.

“How often do they make new batches?” Dr. Timothy asked.

“Oh, just whenever we… get low.” The man popped a handful of capsules into his mouth and his eyes became even more obscure. Chewing, swallowing, another scoop, and then it occurred to him that the man on which Dr. Jenner was leaning against was new.

“Oh, hello,” he said to Dr. Timothy. “I bet you’re the plant expert. My name… is Justin.”

“Hi Justin.” Dr. Timothy backed up, placed Dr. Jenner against the wall, and then walked over to one of the table-top houses. He peered inside and looked at the plants growing around the various lawns. “Do you know what these plants are?” he asked Dr. Jenner, turning back. As he asked his question a single mouse ran through a tube to the side and into the house, a white blur and nothing more.

“Ummmph,” Dr. Jenner replied.

“Oooh, too much at once,” Justin explained.

Dr. Timothy tried again. “Justin, can you identify these plants?” He poked about the bottom of one, a spindly collection of waxy leaves with a woody stem and small, red berries. He flicked another, an almost bare, light-colored stalk topped by an olive-colored sphere with a little pointed crown. Both plants were stripped in multiple places, leaves missing and woody branches cut. Both were also wilted, tops bowing towards the ground.

“Not really,” Justin mumbled as he walked over to the join Dr. Timothy. “But lately the plants… haven’t been doing too well, so I’m glad Dr. Jenner finally hired a botanist. The mice really… love their plants, and we don’t want them to get angry if… the plants die. Honestly, we should have hired you directly after the… incident provided an opening. Glad you’re here now though.”

“This,” Dr. Timothy said, pointing to the first plant, “is Erythroxylum coca, an Andean coca plant. And this,” he pointed to the second plant, “is Papaver somniferum, an opium poppy.” He paused for a second, sniffed both plants, and then turned back to Justin. “Do the mice harvest these?”

“Oh,” said Justin as he leaned against the table, “they’re always doing something with them. Pruning and shearing and… mixing them up and stuff. I don’t really understand why, but for whatever reason,” Justin repeated, “the mice really love… their plants.”

Dr. Timothy began walking towards the middle of the lab, past more doll houses and pools and plants. Justin followed. As they walked small doors and windows and shutters opened, moving small piles of wood shavings and sending creaks through the air. No mouse in any house, however, made an appearance.

“They seem a little… shy today,” Justin observed, looking at the houses and then at the empty tubes about his head. “I guess they aren’t used… to visitors. The mice must only… be used to us.”

Dr. Jenner and Justin reached two men pouring clear, fuming liquids from two vats into an ice bath. On a nearby table a group of mice supervised. When the mice saw Dr. Timothy and Justin they crouched down and backed under a nearby triple-beam scale until only their white heads showed. They looked across at Dr. Timothy with their pink, pupil-less eyes and stared. Their eyes never closed. Their noses never twitched. They hardly seemed to breathe. Several moments of silence.

Finally, Dr. Timothy took a single step forward. “Well I guess I should introduce myself–”

Justin perked up and put a hand across Dr. Timothy’s chest. “Better watch out Doctor–those liquids are sulfuric and nitric acid. Very dangerous.”

“Sulfuric and nitric acid?” Dr. Timothy asked.

“Hey Dr. O’Brien. Hey Dr. Keyes.” Justin waved. The two doctors turned around slowly. Once they saw Dr. Timothy and Justin they smiled and began to set their vats down. And the mice jumped to action. They ran out from under the scale, snapping their tails and squeaking furiously. Dr. O’Brien was closer to the table, and as Dr. Timothy and Justin watched a single mouse jumped onto Dr. O’Brien’s shoulder and bit into his earlobe hard enough to draw blood. The mouse then jumped over to Dr. Keyes and did the same thing.

Dr. O’Brien and Dr. Keyes quickly turned around and picked their vats back up, blood dripping down onto their shoulders. With heads hung low the pouring resumed. The mice returned to the scale, vacant eyes again fixed on Dr. Timothy. The rebellion had lasted all of fifteen seconds, the only evidence of it spreading red spots on the top of lab coats.

“Is the incident how Dr. Jenner got his scar?” Dr. Timothy asked quietly. He glanced back and across the lab but Dr. Jenner was too far away to see clearly.

“Yeah… sulfuric and nitric acid.” Justin answered as he touched a finger to his own scabbed ear and grimaced. “Later, they’ll add… sodium bicarbonate and… diatomaceous earth. The end result will be those.” He pointed across the room to very high, very wide stack of brown, hand-length cylinders with diameters the size of large coins.

“Those four things you named–you know they’re the four main components of dynamite, right?” As Dr. Timothy spoke a mouse ran through an overhead tube and into a nearby house. Dr. Timothy looked up and around the laboratory but the other tubes were empty. He resumed talking. “And if that is dynamite, there appears to be enough here to break through the laboratory’s concrete seal.”

“Ha, ha, ha!” Justin’s laugh was high and nasal. “Dynamite, oh no, the mice can’t make dynamite–they aren’t that smart. You heard, right? Their cerebellums are too small and they’ve regressed far past peak intelligence. Really, there isn’t any trouble here. We’re fine and fully safe and we’re all… cooperating… fully.

Dr. Timothy kept pointing at the stack of cylinders. “Then what are those for?” While he pointed a second mouse ran through and down a tube less than an arm’s length away.

“I don’t know, but the mice use the nitric acid as… a fertilizer for their lawns, the sodium bicarbonate to… balance the pH in their pools, and the diatomaceous earth keeps their pool water… nice and clean.” A glib smile. “And ‘to get through the seal!’ Really doctor, you’re sounding crazy! We just had these extra chemicals lying… around and the mice devised a safe way… to store of them.” And as Justin said the word “store” a third mouse passed by.

“What about the sulfuric–?” Dr. Timothy stopped as Justin took some capsules out of a pocket. “Justin, let me see those new ones.”

“Doctor, you know there’s a bunch in the front of the–”

Dr. Timothy snapped the capsules out of Justin’s hand before Justin could get them into his mouth. Dr. Jenner brought them to his nose. He sniffed again. “Nope, not these either.” He dropped the capsules to the floor and a fourth mouse went into a nearby house.

“What do you smell, Doctor?” Justin asked as his hand thrust up from a different pocket and up to his face.

“Burnt almonds.”

“Oh, that smell,” Justin said through chews, “I can tell you–smack–what that is. It’s–smack–hydrogen cyanide. Those guys over there–” he pointed to people at the very end the lab who were quickly shuffling away “–are helping the mice turn it into–”

And another mouse disappeared into a house.

“Hydrogen cyanide?” Dr. Timothy interrupted. Concern.

Disinterest. “Yeah–smack–hydrogen cyanide. Like I was saying, they’re going to combine it with….” He trailed off as Dr. Timothy suddenly bent over, arms reaching down and fingers beginning to undue the laces of his shoes.

And another mouse.

“Dr. Timothy, what are you doing?” Justin asked, cocking his head for a better view.

And another, and another, and another, and another.

“Getting ready,” Dr. Timothy replied in quiet but firm tone. “And I suggest you do the same.”

#

“Exceptionally dumb mice…” Dr. Timothy muttered as he slowly backed up against a wall. He held a shoe in each hand and he swung his head swung back and forth, scanning the laboratory for danger. Next to him, Justin swung his arms happily and smiled. The people in the back on the lab were gone. The overhead tubes were empty. Slowly, dollhouse doors around Dr. Timothy and Justin began to open. “Exceptionally dumb mice…”

“What?” Justin asked, oblivious.

“Justin,” Dr. Timothy said as his back hit the wall, “how would you feel if one day you realized you didn’t call the shots in your own life? If you found out other people got to choose when you ate, when you exercised, when you slept?” Noses emerged from the dollhouse doors. Whiskers, white ears, and pink, pupil-less eyes. “And at this time, you also came to the realization that people were taking advantage of the fact that you were stupid and ignorant by running tests on you and stuff?” The mice advanced, creeping to the edges of tables and across the floor, slowly forming a thick half-circle about the two men. “And not only were you being taken advantage of, but so were millions and millions of other individuals similar to yourself, and this had been happening over the course of decades? Except in the case of the individuals most like yourself, of course, because they weren’t even being taken advantage of–they were just being disposed of in an exceptionally cruel and painful way. Now, how would you feel if you found all of this out one day?”

“I bet I’d feel pretty mad,” Justin chuckled as he shoved another handful of pills into his mouth, “I’d be pretty p.o.’d.”

“Pretty p.o.’d,” Dr. Timothy repeated as he caught a bold mouse almost to his heels. He kicked at it and jumped back. “Pretty p.o.’d indeed.” Another mouse darted forward and again Dr. Timothy kicked. “So what we need to do now–”

But there no more time. The rest of the mice followed suit, running across and up and jumping over and flying through the air. The surged forward, a great white flood, and as they attacked Dr. Timothy began to spin his shoes about in mad, rapid arcs while stomping his bare feet furiously.

Teeth sunk into lab coats and shirts.

Justin screamed.

Teeth sunk into skin and muscle.

Clothing reddened.

Small bodies hit the floor: Thud! Thud! Thud-thud! Thud! And then much louder: THUD!

And against the wall, cylinders of sulfuric and nitric acid kept stable by sodium bicarbonate and diatomaceous earth rolled across the floor. Farther back in the lab, aerosol canisters tinged with the scent of burnt almonds were primed and readied for the explosive unsealing of the buildings above. Fuses lit.

The second, and much larger incident, had begun.

# # # # #

BIO: Jeffrey Hunt has a degree in English literature. He currently teaches in Seoul, Korea, likes to travel, and is deathly allergic to peanuts.

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Salt Water Taffy By Matt West

Mar 02 2014 Published by under The WiFiles

It was a beautiful summer day on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. Tommy and his little sister Hanna were running down the wood planks, hand in hand. They were two of the very few kids that actually lived near the Boardwalk, and after every summer all the new friends they made had to leave to go back to New York or Maryland. They always had each other though, and that was enough for them.

That particular day was nice, warm with an overcast. That meant they could run down the beaches barefoot without the hot sand burning their little feet. The Boardwalk was coated so that they wouldn’t get splinters as they ran along, looking at all the ice cream and candy vendors that dotted the storefronts all along the ocean.

They turned a corner, skipping and yelling out to some of the other children that were dripping ice cream on their tee shirts or spilling snow cones down their chin. Then they saw a small store tucked into an alleyway next to the Hershey ice cream store. It didn’t have any candy or decals in the window, only a large sign that read “Salt Water Taffy.”

“Hey, let’s check that place out, I’ve never been there before,” said Tommy, pulling his little sister along.

“Wait… I’m scared. Let’s get mommy first.”

“Come on, I’ll protect you sis, it’s just a store, what are you, a scaredy cat?

She finally relented and they walked slowly up to the wooden door of the small store. Tommy twisted the brass knob and the well greased door glided open on its hinges. There were huge hooks nailed to the walls and a counter that the children were too short to see over. The display case had lots of little wrapped candies in different colors, but all the same size. A tall dark man leaned forward from behind the counter and greeted them.

“So children, would you like to try some salt water taffy?” the man said, as he held out two little wrapped pieces for them to grab out of his long lanky hand.

Hanna hid behind her brother, a little startled by the man that she hadn’t seen before. Tommy grabbed the taffy and said “Thanks,” then they both walked toward the door to leave.

“Remember kids, if you chew it you can’t stop until it’s gone….”

The door shut behind them.

Tommy unwrapped one of the little white pieces of candy. It was covered in wax paper, and was a little hard to get out of its cocoon. He popped it in his mouth. It was just the right size to fit inside and suck the swirling creamy-sugar juice that seemed to spontaneously emit from it. The juice was getting a little too much so he started chewing, and just as the dark man said, he couldn’t stop. If you stopped chewing for even a second, it would stick to your teeth like cement, and you couldn’t get it off.

“You want this piece?” he asked his sister. She shook her head no, so he unwrapped it and popped that one in his mouth too. They ran along the Boardwalk for a while longer before their parents came to the arcade to take them home.

All night Tommy was having strange dreams. He found himself in a dark cellar—damp, with the smell of mold and warm mustard seeping into his flaring nostrils. There was a cauldron in the center, and logs with orange fires dancing about them. He walked up to the cauldron and saw a goopy white liquid in there, and right before he went to dunk his hand into it he saw the face of his little sister, bobbing up and down in the liquid.

At breakfast his mom made pancakes and eggs for the family. It was seven in the morning, and the family was sitting down at the table before another day on the Boardwalk. Both parents were elementary school teachers, and were able to let their children play all summer without having to send them to camp or summer school.

When Tommy’s mother poured the syrup on his pancakes, he had a weird feeling in his mouth, kind of like how he felt after eating the salt water taffy the previous day. His mouth felt sticky, wet, and sweet. He ate the pancakes but they didn’t fill him up or quench his sugary thirst.

That day at the Boardwalk his parents ate lunch at a fish and chips restaurant, while the two kids had tokens to play some of the carnival games scattered around the area. They popped balloons and threw rings on bottles, trying to win big furry animals to put into their rooms. The whole time Tommy’s mind was occupied by the old shop that sold salt water taffy in the alley. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t convince his sister to go back with him, so after their money ran out he told her to go back to mom and dad and that he would go by himself.

He walked down the alley, and approached the wooden door with the brass knob. He turned it quickly and stepped in. The dark man stood behind the counter, and smiled as Tommy made his way over.

“So, you liked the taffy that I gave you yesterday did you?”

“Yes….”

“Well, here are a couple more pieces for you to have if you like.…”

The man threw him two more pieces of taffy, this time colored red. He opened one and put it in his mouth, chewing violently so that the sweet creamy treat wouldn’t stick anywhere in his mouth.

The man lifted a huge glob of red sugary mass and put it on one of the huge hooks nailed to the wall of the shop. He let it droop down, and then gathered it up and placed it back on the hook. Every time Tommy thought the taffy would fall off the hook, the dark man would snatch it real quick and place it on the hook again. He did this over and over again for about five minutes while Tommy watched, fascinated by the whole process.

“I need someone to test this fresh batch, what flavor should it be I wonder….”

“Oooh! Strawberry, it’s my favorite,” said Tommy, as the man put the blob into the wrapping machine.

“Strawberry it is….”

He flicked a switch and the machine started to rumble and spin, and then little blobs came out, and tiny pieces of wax paper formed around the tasty bite size candies. The bucket at the end of the machine was filling up with taffy, and the dark man grabbed one and gave it to Tommy.

“Go ahead… try it.”

Tommy put it into his mouth and the taste was more than he could ever hope for. On his way back to his parents all he could think about was salt water taffy. He asked his parents if they had ever tried it, and they said yes of course, it’s just as important to Atlantic City as the casinos—it just wouldn’t be the same place without it. Tommy was thrilled at what his parents said, and loved the fact that he had found out how wonderful the candy was all on his own.

The next morning Tommy felt ill, and couldn’t eat his breakfast. It happened right after his mother told him that they were just going to relax at the house today, and not go to the Boardwalk. All he could think about during the day was the red taffy that he ate yesterday, and how he could get more. It filled his mind and pushed out all other thoughts, he couldn’t read, he couldn’t play video games, all he could do was sit in his room and think about salt water taffy.

Finally he decided to wait until the family went to bed. He peeked outside his room, and quietly tiptoed around the house, making sure to check everyone’s bedroom to be sure they were asleep. Once he felt confident enough, Tommy put on his fresh sneakers and hightailed it out of the house and toward the Boardwalk. They only lived a few blocks away from it, so he was at the shop in less than ten minutes. It was nine thirty at night, but something told him that the shop was still going to be open, even though it was usually only the most popular places that stayed open this late.

The door to the taffy shop was closed as usual, and when he turned the knob it opened noiselessly just like all the other times. The dark man was behind the counter, this time with a bag full of strawberry salt water taffy.

“I thought you might come back… do you want some taffy?” the man said with a devious grin.

“Yes….”

The man threw Tommy a few pieces of taffy, which he summarily unwrapped and scarfed down. It filled his little stomach with a pleasure that he had forgotten, like he had just scratched an itch after being in a straight jacket for ten years.

The man’s eyes pierced into Tommy’s soul, “So, do you want this bag of salt water taffy? I’m running out myself, and need more ingredients. I’ll make you a deal, if you bring that little girl with you tomorrow, I’ll give you all the taffy in this bag and then as much as you can stuff your face with before you leave, do we have a deal?”

Tommy nodded.

As he turned to leave for home, the dark man said, “By the way, what color was her hair again?”

“Blonde…”

“Blonde huh? So, do you like banana flavored taffy or crème flavored?” asked the man, smiling.

“Oh I like banana!” said Tommy, opening the door to leave.

Hanna was wearing the summer dress that her mother made for her as a foray into her passion, clothing design. She had made a few mistakes with this one, so it didn’t bother her to let Hanna run around the beach or the Boardwalk with it on—she would have another go of it next week. Tommy was with her, always her guardian, and sometimes an annoying older brother. This day, he was extremely annoying, trying to get her to go with him to the salt water taffy shop. She really didn’t want to go again, but after a few hours of this she finally relented and agreed to go, but only to get some free taffy and then leave.

They approached the shop, but this time the door was open. They both walked in, Tommy first, and then Hanna. Then a loud bang, and the door was shut. Tommy whirled around, and Hanna was gone. The dark man appeared behind the counter.

“Hello Tommy, thank you for bringing your sister, I was starting to get worried that I wouldn’t be able to make anymore salt water taffy.”

A calm came over the shop, and Tommy was introduced to his banana flavored sister again—in neatly wrapped wax paper packages.

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